The language of crying

Learning to understand what your baby is trying to tell you


Judith A. Weinstein

When Christa Garcia gave birth to her first child two years ago, she and her husband were overwhelmed when the baby would cry. "We’d drop everything and run over immediately," says Garcia.

Her biggest frustration: She couldn’t figure out why infant Mia was crying. She remembers a friend asking her why her baby was crying and having to respond, "I don’t know."

Crying is a baby’s first form of communication. It is the response to an unpleasant or painful stimulus, and is designed to be alarming to others so someone will come to the baby’s aid. But trying to figure out why a baby is crying can be a huge source of frustration to first-time parents.

"When you’re an adult, there are a number of ways you can communicate to show people your internal states. Babies can’t. They use cry to indicate their internal state," says Dr. Larry Gray, associate professor of pediatrics at the University of Chicago.

We want babies to cry from their first moments, yet one of our jobs as new parents is to get them to stop crying by finding the cause of their discomfort. Cry and response between newborn and parent marks the beginning of the parent-child relationship and the very start of bonding.

Why babies cry

In his book, Why is My Baby Crying? (HarperCollins, 2005), Barry Lester, a cry expert and founder of the Colic Clinic at Women & Infants Hospital in Providence, R.I., describes two types of cries in newborns: the basic cry and the pain cry.

A basic cry is clear, not terribly loud and doesn’t last too long. Babies have an easier time of winding down or even stopping their own crying when it is a basic cry.

The pain cry, however, is the impressive, show-stopping cry of an infant getting a vaccination. It is loud, usually high-pitched, of sudden onset and includes long periods of breath-holding. The silent breath-holding periods are so remarkable that the subsequent screams are almost a relief.

Academic research on crying dates back to the 1960s when most studies examined cries of infants already diagnosed with medical conditions. Researchers assessed the cries of sick babies to determine if and how they differed from healthy babies’ cries, in pitch, decibel level, duration, phonation and utterances.

"When babies have neurobehavioral issues," Gray says, "they have different wavelengths in their cry." Acoustical analysis can indicate specific disorders, such as high bilirubin levels.

One of the most notable uses of cry research is the search for an early marker for sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS), for which there are no other clinical signs. In a study of more than 21,000 infants at high risk for SIDS—babies who had been diagnosed with apnea, short periods in which they stopped breathing or who were the siblings of babies who died of SIDS—researchers identified a cry characteristic that increased the risk for SIDS 32 times. The infants who died of SIDS showed these cry characteristics.

Unfortunately, researchers still are far from any useful clinical application of these findings. Many babies who did not die of SIDS also had the cry characteristic.

Another reason to study crying, according to Linda LaGasse, assistant professor of pediatrics at Brown Medical School and one of a number of psychologists, psychiatrists, pediatricians, even primatologists who study babies’ cries, is to help parents understand what their crying baby is trying to tell them.

It took several months for Skokie mom Christa Garcia to figure out the cries of her daughter, but she finally was able to reduce the causes to the usual laundry list: wet diaper? hungry? cold? tired? Knowing why Mia was crying made it easier for Garcia to soothe her.

By the time Mia was 7 or 8 months old, Garcia noticed her cries had become more of a whine. "They’re more in their world and are crying because they want something or they see something they can’t reach," notes Garcia.

Now with her second child, son Jesús, she and her husband are more relaxed parents. "We’ve learned that there’s very little chance that there’s something very serious, so with Jesús, we’re a lot calmer," Garcia says.


of fit

Researchers would say that Garcia’s temperament is perfectly matched to her children’s temperament. This "goodness of fit" refers to how well the caregiver can interpret or perceive a baby’s cries.

A good (accurate) response to a baby’s cries enhances infant development, says LaGasse. A bad response, to an extreme, can endanger the infant. Shaken baby syndrome, for example, is a tragic response to a baby’s uncontrollable crying.

One study found the better a parent responds to a child’s cries, the better the child’s cognitive and language development at 18 months.

But figuring out the cause of an infant’s cry can be baffling, especially when the baby is colicky. True colic affects one in five babies and is defined by the "rule of threes"—three hours of unexplained crying a day, for at least three days or nights per week, for more than three weeks. It usually disappears by the third or fourth month after birth.

The colicky baby’s cries are high-pitched, sustained and begin suddenly, much like the pain cry, which is why it is so difficult for parents who can’t calm the child.

And no matter how much academics learn about why babies cry, the research always will have limitations for an individual family.

Gray says, "I can’t as a researcher analyze an individual baby’s cry and say a baby’s going to do X or Y over time. It’s more like a language. The baby and the mother have to be part of a process of mutual discovery, using the baby’s behavior of crying as language. It is in hearing the cry that the mom knows: Her baby’s telling her, ‘I’m actually OK.’ "

Social worker Sarah Power, a member of the protective services team at Children’s Memorial Hospital in Chicago, suggests these tips for coping with your baby’s crying:

Call your pediatrician or nurse to rule out any medical problem.

Rock and hold your baby, listen to music, massage or stroke your baby, go for a stroller or car ride (if you are not sleep-deprived).

If nothing is working, lay your baby down in her crib or other safe place for 10 minutes, close the door and give yourself a needed break.

Call a friend or relative to come over.

Be honest with relatives and other caregivers about your baby’s crying and your perceptions of the crying.

Develop a backup plan.


Judith A. Weinstein, who lives in Chicago, is a public health educator, writer and mother of three.


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