Everyone knows that all babies cry, indeed that babies have to cry. “Exercising the lungs” is necessary, mothers are told. In reality, however, it is not easy to hear one’s baby cry, especially if he or she is not quick to be soothed. Some mothers become distressed along with their baby if they cannot figure out and “fix” whatever problem is causing the crying.
What does my baby's crying mean? Does my baby cry excessively? Is it all right to let my baby cry, and if so, for how long? Is it true that if I pick up my baby each time she cries, I am spoiling her? If my baby is not wet, tired, or hungry, why is he crying? These are questions first time mothers frequently ask themselves.
There are many causes and types of infant crying, most of them perfectly normal and expectable. The crying is the signal that the baby needs attention. It feels good to be able to accurately determine why your baby is unhappy and to offer the solution—food, a dry diaper, a warm embrace, rocking, singing, burping. Your baby rewards your attunement by calming down, smiling at you, playing, or contentedly falling asleep. But what of the many not so easily explained examples of crying—the kind that require a lot of guesswork and trying many different strategies which are inconsistently successful? What about the times crying goes on for hours and nothing you try works? Hearing a baby cry endlessly and feeling helpless to do anything to stop it is very stressful and can make a parent miserable. Guilt and shame at not being able to do what a mother is “supposed” to be able to do or anger at the baby for being so hard to soothe, are not only common, but typical and normal feelings.
In our parent-infant groups, babies' crying and mothers' reactions to their babies' crying are common and popular topics of discussion. We help mothers learn to interpret their child's different cries, to read their baby's cues more accurately, and to respond in such a way that the child is soothed and better regulated. In cases in which a baby’s nervous system is taking longer to mature, we can help by offering developmental explanations that make getting through the difficult phase a little easier. Some babies take more time to become physiologically regulated and, for them, once they have started crying, it is much harder to stop. Crying can also be an expression of difficulty in adjusting to shifts in the environment. Some very sensitive babies have a hard time being held by more than one person. Others may react strongly to bright lighting, loud noise, or too much going on around them. A combination of many factors—understanding that the crying constitutes a phase that will pass, realizing that it is not the parent’s fault that the baby is crying, and adjusting the environment to meet the baby’s specific needs—can make it easier for the parent to tolerate the crying and can actually reduce its duration and intensity.