Kelly, a two-month old infant, had her parents exhausted. “Our baby cries for what seems like hours, takes her bottle, grabs a quick nap, then cries some more. I don’t know how much more I can take,” said her overtired mom. “Being a new mom isn’t at all what I expected!”
When parents come to our child care center and hear several babies crying, they wonder about the ability of our staff,” says a director. “Negative comments from parents have a direct bearing on our enrollment.”
We’ve all had contact with babies who cry. Very young babies may cry two to three hours a day. Nothing seems to satisfy their needs. Statistics show that 40 percent of children under age five keep their parents up at night, and one out of three babies has colic (American Academy of Pediatrics). It’s normal to feel exhausted, overwhelmed, and stressed.
Are there personality differences at birth that determine how some babies can be soothed by one method, yet other youngsters do not respond? Or, why do some babies cry excessively and others are easy to soothe? If you’re a parent who hasn’t had a good night’s sleep in weeks or an early childhood caregiver who has trouble soothing, this article is for you.
Understanding Infant’s Cries
An experienced mother or caregiver can tell from an infant’s cry what is troubling him. There is the demanding wail of hunger, the sharp scream of fear or pain, the howl of anger, and the drowsy fussing of the baby who is almost, but not quite asleep. Some babies cry more vigorously and consistently than others, but all babies cry when they are hungry, cold, startled, or in pain. The pain may be internal, due to anything from a “bubble” to lying in the same position for too long; or it may be external, caused by a soiled diaper or a room that is too warm. Some babies cry when bathed; others when they are naked or wet.
Picking an infant up and holding him close to the caregiver, with his head resting near the caregiver’s heart can sooth a crying baby. Research by Dr. Lee Salk suggests that babies in utero grow use to the pulsating sound of the mother's heartbeat, and find it soothing even after birth.
Often babies will stop when they are picked up, gently talked to, or distracted by a bright object moved slowly past their eyes. Toward the end of the first month fussy or “fake” crying may appear, characterized by low moans interspersed with an occasional cry. To most parents or caregivers this means the baby wants attention. Listen carefully and you may hear an occasional gurgle or squeal. The baby is experimenting with his first non-crying vocalizations. In succeeding weeks you will hear new sounds such as “pff” or “baaa.” It is out of vocal experiments such as these that language eventually develops.
Today, researchers suggest that when a baby cries, pick her up, even when you feel she is crying “just for attention.” Attention is as important as food at this age, and no mother would deny a baby who is crying “just for food”! Pick up the infant, hold her close – don’t worry about spoiling her yet. Soon enough she will learn that there are times when she must accept frustration and delay. But first, she needs your loving to teach her how to love, and to make her feel that the world is a safe and reliable place. Erik Erikson calls this “basic trust.” It is this trust that provides the emotional soil in which the baby’s intelligence can grow and flourish (Pulaski, 1978).
Burton White, the noted child psychologist, says the four- to eight-month-old child ordinarily is not yet a mobile creature, yet she is capable of seeing and hearing quite well. This period is the beginning of the concentration on nuclear family members and the assimilation of their responses to the child’s behavior. This also is the time when a child can begin to show the first signs of spoiling. By this time, the primary behavior a baby displays when uncomfortable from the very beginning of life – crying – has produced many experiences of reduced stress upon the arrival of the adult. Through a basic conditioning process, the baby has learned that the cry is followed by events that lead to feeling better. By five or six months of age, children begin to use the cry intentionally in order to be picked up or held. This behavior can increase for the balance of the first year to the point where it becomes burdensome on parents and caregivers. Although some may see this as the first signs of spoiling, it also shows the child has received a great deal of attention during the first six months of life (White, 1988).
What to Do?
Responding to a baby’s cries help him learn to feel safe and secure. However, not all babies respond to the same methods of soothing. Try these approaches as suggested by child care staff, pediatricians, and parents the next time your baby cries:
- Rhythmic motion: rocking, walking, dancing, or riding in a car.
- Soothing sounds: music, singing, gentle words, ticking clock, or vacuum cleaner.
- Visual Distractions: a change of scenery, such as walking the baby into another area of the house or going outside. Looking in the mirror or watching a pet also helps to distract a baby.
- Physical contact: hold the infant close to your body, especially near your heart.
- Swaddling: wrapping a light-weight blanket around the infant’s body, securing the arms and legs usually produces a state of rest or sleep.
- Using an infant seat or a jumpseat, move the baby to different locations in the home or center.
- Providing small toys that are child-safe. Place within easy reach of the baby or toddler.
- Using a well-designed walker. This provides freedom and babies love them. A five-or six-month-old in a walker, however, is much more likely to suffer an accident than one who simply remains in a crib or playpen or on a blanket on the floor. (Provide constant supervision whenever a baby is placed in a walker.)
- Recognize personality differences in child care providers. Some individuals may work well with some babies, others may not.
Perhaps the best advice on soothing babies’ cries comes from Dr. T. Berry Brazelton, a pediatrician, author, and leading national authority on children, says parents should follow their hearts, not the advice of well-meaning family, friends, and physicians. “You try it out first and see what works for you,” Brazelton says. “Learning to parent is learning from mistakes, not from successes.” And, the same advice can be used by child care providers.
Carolyn R. Tomlin is a former assistant professor of early childhood education at Union University. She is the author of What I Wish It Hadn’t Taken Me So Long to Learn, available at www.1stbook.com.
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