So, the short answer to what all the crying is about then is simply that the baby cannot make sense of something and is sending out a signal that something feels “wrong”. The volume of this siren is usually directly proportionate to the intensity of the perceived discomfort, and most of the discomfort is such a foreign experience when compared to the experience in the womb. Some babies, of course, will call out fairly quickly and much louder for help while others are better able to tolerate a certain amount of discomfort before needing assistance. The long answer though is that there are many reasons why babies cry, and this blog will explore most of them.
Babies have no words to tell us how they feel or what they need. And we must understand that newborn babies are just a bundle of needs. There are no “wants” as every signal they make for assistance is to fulfill a specific need. It is therefore imperative that we as parents respond appropriately and in a timely manner to those needs. This does not mean that we jump up at every little noise they make, although this is a natural response of new parents. As time goes along parents will learn the more subtle cues and become familiar with the pattern of needs within a day so that the baby has less need for crying. And with time, of course, some wants and preferences start creeping in and tempers may rise because there is a disparity between what the parent and the baby thinks is the appropriate solution at a given time. Our job as parents is to provide for all our children’s needs but we are NOT here to provide for all the wants! But that is a subject for another blog. For now, sufficed to say that when a baby is signaling for help, we as the parents need to attend to the need in an appropriate manner.
It may be helpful to look at the subject of crying from the perspective of a newborn baby and how things change over time. Here are some common reasons why babies cry. In writing this list I have tried to give an understanding of why the crying can seem relentless and that there is the hope that what feels like incessant crying will subside.
As a newborn, this is VERY often! It is normal for a breastfed baby to feed up to 8 to 12 feeds in a 24-hour period as their little tummies are small and need refilling often – day and night. A formula-fed baby may not need to feed that often but will still need those feeds day and night. As a newborn, it is pretty much “I’m awake FEED ME NOW!!” Seriously, they go from 0 to 100 in 2 seconds! I have always maintained that hunger must feel absolutely awful for a small baby to make them cry so loudly about it. There is an enormous urgency for food at this age as there is no understanding that there is enough milk on tap to supply their needs for a very long time. As a baby gets closer to the 4 month mark they will usually wake up babbling and smiling and have a “chat” for a few minutes and then go “Hey, I think I’m hungry” and start signaling appropriately with some whinging and other signs that mum would have picked up on by now. This comes from experience as they have become confident that this need has been met appropriately and in a timely manner in the past so “maybe it is okay to just chill as mum’s got this one”.
This can have numerous causes. A wet/dirty nappy, a wind that has got stuck or needing to pass a stool. It can be very difficult when you first bring your baby home to figure out what is causing the discomfort. Put the crying into context of what has happened previously as this can help you distinguish what the immediate need is. For example, if you have finished feeding your baby, then change the nappy and hold your baby upright on your chest to allow any burps to come up. This can help to at least eliminate some of the possible causes. With time babies do become more able to cope with discomfort as their bodies mature and are able to release natural hormones such as endorphins. See point 5 below.
So much has been written on infant sleep and tired signs. I will be addressing my thoughts on infant sleep more specifically in future blogs. For now, suffice to say that feeling tired is something to cry VERY LOUDLY about when you are little. There is no understanding yet that if you just close your eyes and go to sleep you will feel a whole lot better when you wake up. Little babies need just the right conditions to allow sleep to happen and lying in warm loving arms can be the perfect place to be. It is important to note that newborns are born NOCTUNAL. Yes, the total opposite from our day-night sleep/wake pattern, so expect your new baby to sleep beautifully in the day and want to party all night!! It can take up to 6 to 8 weeks to see this pattern change, provided that the correct conditions have been put in place to allow this change to happen. More in a later blog.
Human babies are not like animal young who have to get up within minutes after birth to be able to run away from danger with the herd. Our human brains take a very long time to reach maturity (trust me I know this because I have teenagers!) and we are pretty helpless as babies. This is why we are born into a family who has the capability to attend to our needs. Instinctually when a baby is put down there is this sense that he/she may get left behind. And if coupled with that, there is no movement this feels very strange to a newborn baby. Of course, with time this too can be better managed as the understanding develops that “my people are pretty reliable – they seem to come back to fetch me when I need them to”. This leads on to my next point.
Little babies cannot comfort themselves – this is a learned skill that, for some people may take many years to develop. We as humans are created for connection and we have been given an innate desire to be touched and to touch others. When our skin receives signals of positive touch, e.g. stroking and being hugged, our bodies are created to release a cascade of calming hormones such as oxytocin and other endorphins in response to the stimulus. These hormones have an immediate calming effect on our brains and therefore the distress subsides very quickly. Again, with time, the sense of urgency reduces as the baby’s body gets better at releasing these calming hormones in response to the daily demands of being out of the womb. So NEVER think that you are spoiling your baby when you give cuddles and loving touches.