When my typically happy little guy was about two months old, he cried inconsolably for nearly 17 hours - for no apparent reason. I checked his diapers. I fed him. I burped him. I made him toot. I rocked, and walked, and bounced, and held, and talked, and read, and soothed, and sang. And, finally, nearly 14 hours in and still holding him, I cried. He stopped instantly, intent upon the water streaming from my eyes. I could see his curious mind taking it all in, analyzing it like a scientist. I was so surprised by that that I stopped crying. When I did, he immediately started again without missing a beat.
When we dream about our future babies, I can almost guarantee we do not dream of moments like those. Before I was pregnant and taking parenting classes, it never occurred to me that a baby would cry for no apparent reason for an extended period of time. I had always thought a baby cried to alert us to a need. Usually, that’s true.
With certain exceptions, babies cry to communicate. Parents know, and child development experts agree, that the tenor and tone of babies’ cries differ depending on their needs. As you get to know your little one, you will become an expert in understanding his or her cries. While I cannot necessarily articulate the differences in my son’s cries, I can certainly tell the difference now between cries of hunger, discomfort, distress, pain, fear or anger. Every momma I know says she can as well. Dads, too.
In addition to cry recognition, situational or visual clues can also help you interpret the cries. For example, if three or four hours have passed since baby last ate, or if baby just woke up or has a full diaper, chances are your baby is crying from hunger. If baby has rubbed eyes, yawned, and shown all the classic “I’m tired” cues but is still up, perhaps the cause is being tired. If baby is squirmy and crying, it may be due to discomfort. Is the diaper soiled? Is the surface too hard or too cold? Pain cries are shrill and sudden. You might also notice that your little one makes a long cry, followed by a pause where he or she seems to stop breathing or appears to be catching his or her breath. Pain cries can have an obvious source, but they might also be due to things not immediately visible, such as fever. If your baby cries for long periods of time at certain times of the day or at certain intervals related to feedings, it may be due to digestive issues such as colic, gas, or acid reflux. Situational clues can also alert parents to cries of frustration (I heard those frequently during tummy time), worry (some babies cry when someone new holds them for the first time), or loneliness (those first moments after laying baby down for sleep).
But there are also the times, like the time I described with my son, where you may not be able to figure out why your child is crying and you cannot console him or her. Do not worry. That is normal, too. There is a certain time when crying is simply part of an infant’s development. Some doctors and experts refer to this time as the “Period of PURPLE Crying.” It does not mean a baby will turn purple while crying. Rather, PURPLE, in this context, is an acronym:
Note it is called “The Period of….” That is because this period is finite. It will end. The PURPLE crying period begins at about two weeks of age and continues until the child is somewhere between three and five months. If you were to chart the frequency, duration, and strength of the crying during these three and a half months, the chart would look like an upside-down, narrow U or a V. The frequency, duration, and strength of baby’s crying build then ebb, peaking around two months. Thus, it not only ends, but it also gets easier and then ends. But during the thick of it, babies can cry for hours inconsolably. The good news is they do it but are still healthy and normal. Hmm. Does this remind you of a little guy who cried at two months old for almost seventeen hours?
Whatever the reason for it, crying takes a toll on everyone in the family. Exhaustion, frustration, worry – the typical human response to a baby crying for a prolonged period – can cause significant stress in families and give rise to depression, marital discord, and potentially dangerous situations. So what can you do?
First, take a deep breath and do what you need to do to be calm. Heightened and stressful emotions can add to the stress and discomfort a baby is feeling, amplifying and prolonging an already hard situation. After that? At the risk of sounding glib, whatever works for you guys!
Various cultures, parents, and experts have found babies can be soothed by creating conditions (coincidentally or intentionally) that imitate the womb. This basic premise gives rise to suggestions like babywearing, some of the actions identified in “The Five S-es,” and even those midnight car rides people inevitably recommend.
One way to mimic the conditions of the womb is to make baby feel enveloped and snug. You can do that with swaddles or, as baby gets older, sleepsacks or wearable blankets. Not to plug Bumbershoots by Nana, but we are often told by parents that they think the weight of our Bumbers soothes their children, allowing them to sleep better and longer. That weight, they say, helps baby feel cocooned. Swaddles and sleepsacks are great for bedtime, but should not be used all day. To help your baby feel enveloped when not in a swaddle or sleepsack, try babywearing or snug holding. When it comes to babywearing, there are many products on the market, from slings, like the Moby Baby Wrap or Junior Foxes Ring Slings, to front pack holders, like the Ergobaby or Baby Bjorn. You may have to experiment until you find a product that works best for your little one.
Another way to mimic the womb is to imitate its sounds. Remember the sounds you heard on the Doppler stethoscope? In addition to the baby’s heartbeat, you likely also heard a swishing sound – the sound of your blood pumping. You can help recreate those sounds by allowing your child’s head to rest on your chest by the heart. You can mimic them with gentle shushing or white noise (noise that is continuous and uniform, like rain). Sound machines or the sounds of your car’s engine during calming rides can also provide comforting white noise. Soft, peaceful music may also help.
Motion can also mimic the movement you made during your waking hours, which is typically when your baby slept while in the womb. That sensation can come from walking, bouncing, dancing, swaying, gentle swinging, or even tiny jiggling. Some say that gentle motion keeps a baby calm, but you need fast tiny motions to calm a crying baby. As one doctor says, to correctly and effectively “Jiggle” your baby, always support baby’s head and neck, keep your motions small, and never move your baby more than one inch back and forth. And, of course, never shake your baby or move your baby violently. You can seriously injure or even kill your child by doing so.
Other tricks? Positioning. While the back is the only safe position for sleeping, some experts contend it is the worst position for calming. Try holding your baby on his or her side or tummy (think “side-stomach position” of the Five S-es), chest to chest, or over your shoulder. That often works wonders.
Another trick is providing baby with something to suck, another one of the Five S-es. If your baby is not hungry, try using a pacifier or a teething toy. There are some great beaded necklaces and bracelets out there that are designed just for this. I also found using a clean finger (my own) can do the trick in a pinch.
Touch can also calm a baby. Gently patting or rubbing a baby’s back, baby massage, petting a child’s head – all can work magic. One time, before we had our son, we babysat our friend’s three-month-old daughter. Although we had her an extended period of time, we could not get her to sleep. We tried everything. Seriously. Everything. Finally, after several hours of her crying with exhaustion, my husband used his index finger to rub her cheek in a soft, rhythmic motion. All of a sudden, we realized she wasn’t crying and looked down in shock to find her sleeping. We were so scared to she would wake up when he stopped that he did it for over an hour before we laid her down.
And lastly, sometimes distraction can help. Going back to the story about my son, he clearly was distracted by my tears. But you don’t have to cry to distract. A walk or introducing a toy or a story can help.
Best of luck to you!