Thoughts on Crying in Infancy

When Babies Cry- What are they Saying, What can You Do?

Everyone alive has felt the power of a young baby crying.   Their cry for help pierces our minds, demands a response, and leaves us suffering if no response happens, quickly.

All parents have felt the tie their baby's cry creates.  All airline passengers have felt the power of a baby's cry.

But what is the baby's experience of the cry, and what sort of response is the baby looking for?

At one level, nothing could be more obvious about an infant's crying- it is simply a cry for help.  To be held, to be fed, to be cleaned, to be helped.

But it may be helpful to think for a moment about the situation we all find ourselves in when we were infants, needing some way to communicate with the world.   As full grown adults we have a tremendous range of ways to communicate with the world.  We can talk, email, text, video call, even write letters.  Our communications can be crafted to the most subtle level of nuance.  We can describe with great accuracy exactly what we are wanting, and we can do so directly, indirectly and with a broad pallette of emotional flavoring.

An infant's communication situation could not be more different.  The infant has no words, none. This leaves all communication forced into a very narrow range of choices.  For the newborn who also has not yet learned to use their hands or face, and so cannot even gesture or smile, there are very, very choices to get a message of any sort out to the world.  For the first days after birth, babies cannot even fix their eyes in a gaze.

In fact, the only communication channel open to a very new newborn is crying and some very rudimentary grunts and breathing noises.   Crying is the main vehicle for newborns to communicate.

Equally interesting is how very wired all adults are to the communication of infant crying!   That is the power of the baby's cry.  After all, if we did feel the urge to respond, the cry would never work.  But we do feel it, our minds create a very, very powerful urge to do something.  As parents, we are compelled to find out what our baby wants and make sure it happens, as an observer we are compelled to pray that the parent is around and can do something to quell the cry.

What do Babies Want?
If the cry of a newborn is their total communication channel and medium, what are they communicating? 
The list is very familiar to all, here is the list and what to do:
  • "I am hungry"   Feed your baby
  • "I want to be held, cuddled, rocked"  Hold the baby and provide the requested comfort]
  • "I want to go to sleep"  Initiate the sleep routine that helps your baby get to sleep
  • "I want my diaper changed"  Change the diaper
  • "I am in pain"  Find out what is causing the pain (e.g., a bad position, a reaction to a food, a stomach ache, etc.)
Bottom Line
Crying is often experienced as a crisis.  The baby is crying, now what do we do??
But if we see crying as the newborn's way of talking writing, and emailing us, we can respond to it as we would any communication:  figure out what the person is asking for, and respond accordingly.
This approach sets up a nice dance of parents and their young babies communicating and connecting and caring for each other.  Crying moves from hazard to connection.

Dr. Lavin

*Disclaimer* The comments contained in this electronic source of information do not constitute and are not designed to imply that they constitute any form of individual medical advice. The information provided is purely for informational purposes only and not relevant to any person's particular medical condition or situation. If you have any medical concerns about yourself or your family please contact your physician immediately. In order to provide our patients the best uninfluenced information that science has to offer,we do not accept samples of drugs, advertising tchotchkes, money, food, or any item from outside vendors.

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