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Why babies cry

Why babies cry | Annabel Karmel
It’s hard being a baby. You have a lot of things that you can’t do for yourself, so the natural way to get help is to cry. Before earning your motherhood membership, you may have thought all crying babies sounded the same. Think again! With a few weeks of intensive coaching, your baby will soon teach you the subtleties of sobs.

One of the many new skills you will develop having been promoted to a parent is the ability to distinguish between different cries and what they might mean. You may never feel totally fluent in the language of lament but you’ll get pretty good at guessing which of the following options is the most likely cry to action;

Hunger – Babies need feeding frequently because their teeny tiny stomachs can’t hold much milk and tears could indicate it is time for a top up. Even if hunger is the reason for the howl, your baby may not stop crying the minute you offer them milk. Give them a few moments as an overly hungry baby can be too frustrated to feed efficiently straight away but could become soothed as their stomachs fill.

Soiled nappy – Some babies tolerate nasty nappies more than others but most will demand that you freshen them up frequently. Sobbing could indicate a need to be un-soiled as urine and faeces can irritate tender skin.

Discomfort – If your baby cries soon after a feed they could need burping to release painful trapped wind. Rubbing or patting your baby’s back is the best way to ease the discomfort as it brings forth a belch which expels the trapped wind.

Body temperature – Newborns are not very good at regulating their body temperature, primarily because the only wardrobe requirements they had until recently was a womb! Hands and feet often feel cool so check their stomach and the back of their neck to ensure they are not too cool or sweaty. Add or remove layers accordingly.

Ambient temperature – Changing and bathing babies can make them cry, not because they dislike being bathed or changed, but because they object to the cool air on their skin. As you progress from novice to knowledgeable you will become quicker at the baby care basics and baby will be given less time to complain.

Contact – Sometimes all it takes is a hug. The shock of life after birth was as abrupt for baby as it was for you and they may take comfort in the familiarity of being close to mum. Of course dads and other safe pairs of hands are soothing too, and it is hard to beat the feeling of contentedness that comes from cuddling baby calm.

Tiredness – Being over-tired seems a bit of a contradiction but over stimulated babies find it hard to shut down. Give them a helping hand by creating a calm, quiet, dark environment that is conducive to sleep.

Boredom – After about three months, tiny tears may be soothed with toys as they begin to yearn for a bit more stimulation than was previously required. You singing and interacting with baby or presenting them with crinkly toys or mobiles can help make a howler happy.

No reason at all – Blubbering can be bewildering and sometimes you can feed, change, cuddle and coo and not be rewarded for your efforts. At times like this it often suits everyone to get up and get out for a change of scene. Motion can make a world of difference, and seeing other parents pacing their way to peace proves it happens to everyone!

A baby’s cry is designed to be hard to ignore and usually you will be able to calm them by meeting the need that they are communicating to you. If you become distressed and frustrated by your baby’s bellowing then give yourself permission to leave them safely and take a few minutes for yourself. This could mean placing them in their cot and taking ten deep breaths in the kitchen so that you can return with a clearer head and better able to help.

Expert advice from our resident GP Dr Nicola Harrison

Most crying is not an indicator of serious illness but it is important to recognise if your baby is crying because they are unwell.

If they have other symptoms, such as a high temperature (over 38°C), whilst crying, they may have an illness. This could be something minor such as a cold, or something treatable such as reflux.

Warning signs to look out for when a baby is crying are; they seem floppy when you pick them up, they pass much less urine than usual, they pass blood in their stools, their fontanelles (the soft spot on a baby’s head) bulge, they have difficulty in breathing and suck in under their ribcage or start grunting, they develop a spotty purple/red rash anywhere on their body.

The important thing is to trust your instincts and if you have any concerns as a new mum, however small, contact your GP or health visitor for examination or advice.

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