Your baby is crying — again. You rush to her side. What does she want? Milk? A diaper? A hug? You wish you knew. Feeling helpless, you try it all: feeding, changing, hugging — until you’re on the verge of tears yourself.
By the time you think you’ve got it figured out, she stops crying.
Some parents insist they can tell just what their baby needs by the sound of her cry, but Dr. Ron Barr, professor of pediatrics at the University of British Columbia (UBC) Faculty of Medicine, has doubts. “You can’t tell the cause from crying itself. There is nothing special about the crying’s acoustic features as to why a baby is crying,” he says.
What we can determine is the severity of the infant’s discomfort. A baby who has gone six hours without a feeding will cry differently than one who’s mildly uncomfortable, he says. “It’s like a stereo speaker. When you turn the volume up high, you get distortion.”
“With Sarah, I noticed a difference in her crying when she was hurt,” says Lynnwood mom Christine Pasek. “Otherwise, it was all about timing. Had it been a long time since her nap? Was it too hot or cold in the room? I always asked myself, ‘What’s going on?’” Most parents assess their baby’s needs like Pasek does — in context, Barr says.
Edmonds mom Stephanie Carpenter says she knew when her daughter, Layla, was sleepy, but relied on several cues to come to that conclusion. “It was more than just her cry. It was her body language,” she says.
“There’s an assumption that there are specific cries for different things,” Barr says. “We think that if you’re a good mother, you could listen carefully and determine the cause and reduce crying, but you can’t.”
For the first three to five months of baby’s life, says Barr, 5 to 10 percent of crying is “inconsolable” crying — not related to feeding, wet diapers or boredom. “It’s this inconsolable crying that triggers abuse, such as shaking or hurting a baby,” he says. “Whatever you do, don’t shake or harm your infant.”
Barr and the National Center on Shaken Baby Syndrome have launched a parent education program, “The Period of PURPLE Crying,” to help parents deal with inconsolable, or PURPLE, crying. PURPLE is an acronym that stands for Peak (during the first two months of life); Unexpected (parents don’t know when it will start or stop); Resistant (inconsolable); Pain (it looks like baby’s in pain, but she isn’t); Longer (no explanation needed); and Evening (crying tends to increase in the late afternoon and evening).
The Period of PURPLE Crying program teaches parents that these crying bouts don’t last forever, are part of this early period of life, and all infants go through it.
What’s in a baby's cry?
Tracy Corey, R.N., a lactation consultant and owner of Nurturing Expressions in West Seattle, feels parents can “read deeper” into a baby’s cry. “If the baby is crying, she’s jamming her fist into her mouth and she just finished nursing, I ask if she had a lot of good swallows. If not, chances are she didn’t eat a whole meal.”
Carpenter found that her oldest son seemed to cry the most in the evening. “I think it was tied to what I was eating; I was nursing him at the time,” she says. Corey tells parents to consider acid reflux if their baby demonstrates constant inconsolable crying, and suggests soothing the baby with repetitive motions such as walking or rocking.
A baby’s cry says, “I need to say something and I can’t talk yet,” says Corey. Babies fuss when they’re hungry, sleepy, lonely or uncomfortable and while parents attempt to decode the cries, they sometimes miss. When we mistake the “I’m tired” cry for “I need attention,” we’re likely to overstimulate the baby with, say, a game of peek-a-boo, when all he really wants is to do is get some sleep.
What if your baby is just lonely? Should you pick her up? Barr says yes: Babies can’t connect a reward to a behavior until they’re about 9 months old — and you won’t “spoil” her by picking her up.
A baby who’s simply uncomfortable can be difficult to soothe; we’re often left guessing what’s wrong. “We become detectives,” says Corey. “We change her diaper, burp her, add another layer to her swaddle, talk and sing to her.” Sometimes, (desperately!) hoping she’ll sleep, we take her for a ride in the car. And sometimes, nothing seems to work.
But even that’s OK, because every once in a while, the baby is PURPLE crying, as Barr explains. And for babies, occasional inconsolable crying is just a normal state of being.
Maria Bellos Fisher is a freelance writer, blogger and mom. Read her blog, “Hereditary Insanity,” at mariabellosfisher.com/blog.