By Meri Levy, MFT
People have a physiological reaction to the sound of a baby crying. Our hearts pound, our blood pressure rises, and we start to sweat. This reaction causes most of us to try to stop the crying, regardless of how tired, irritable, or hungry we might be ourselves. And that’s a good thing. It’s how our babies learn to trust that their needs will be met and that the world is a safe place.
But sometimes (often!) new parents wonder what the baby is trying to say? What does the baby need? We run around randomly, trying different remedies: jiggling the baby, rocking the baby, changing her diaper, offering a breast or the bottle, or a pacifier. And sometimes the baby still cries. We desperately want to eliminate the cause of the crying, and we become frustrated, angry or guilty when we fail.
I faced this situation with my first child, Benjamin. I never knew what he wanted. He seemed to be constantly fussing, and I was never very good at calming him (and I did not feel calm myself). My second child, Elijah, always wanted to eat, so it was easier to consistently meet his needs. But I had not really improved my ability to read a baby’s signals.
With my third child, Emma, I hoped and prayed she would never (or rarely) cry, so I wouldn’t feel quite so inadequate again. But in the meantime, I picked up a copy of Secrets of the Baby Whisperer by Tracy Hogg. I had heard her on a talk show, and she claimed she get babies to sleep through the night, on their own, without letting them cry. This was a secret I wanted in on.
What I got from the book was very different from what I expected. The book is not for everyone. The author is not an advocate of “attachment parenting,” for example. But regardless of your parenting philosophy, The Baby Whisperer has a lot of good information about caring for your baby in a respectful way. She focuses on honoring your baby’s individuality, understanding how babies communicate, and learning how to meet their individual needs.
The book prompted me to stop when Emma began to cry, and to really listen and observe her, rather than jumping in and trying to “rescue” her without knowing what she was asking for. When I figured out what she was saying to me, I was in a much better position to meet her needs.
Here are some of the body language cues discussed in the book that I have found helpful:
- Moving head from side to side;
- Flailing, uncoordinated arms, clawing at face;
- Strong, uncoordinated kicking;
- Bloodshot eyes.
Overstimulation/overtiredness, same as above, plus:
- Turns away from objects and faces;
- “Seven-mile stare.”
- Turning head to one side and craning neck back with an open mouth;
- Bringing hands to mouth, trying to suck them;
- Pursing lips;
- Curling tongue at sides.
- Quivering bottom lip;
- Extremities turning bluish;
- Mottled skin;
- Goose pimples;
- Silent screaming, then gasp and audible wail
- Grimacing, often scrunched up face
- Arms shaking, slight tremor
- Rigid torso
- Legs pulled up to chest
What I discovered, from observing Emma more closely and choosing how to respond to her body language and cries, is that frequently what I used to interpret as hunger or gas was in fact tiredness or overstimulation. What happens if you feed a tired baby who isn’t hungry is that frequently she may get gas and be overtired and more difficult to put to sleep.
The goal is not to stop all crying. Babies cry to express themselves, and even a “perfect” parent, if such a thing existed, couldn’t prevent all crying. Nor should you, necessarily; your baby may benefit from having a chance occasionally to self-soothe, which is an important skill as your baby grows older. For subsequent children, this skill is learned by necessity because parents can’t always respond immediately. But by learning to read your baby’s cues, you can avoid some frustration for yourself and have the confidence to know you are doing the best you can for your baby.