“Why is my kid crying?” It’s something all parents of infants ask themselves night after night. There’s no Rosetta Stone for baby noises and a lot of the time, even baby isn’t sure what she wants. But there are two rules that can help parents make more sense of the cacophony of sounds emanating from their children: Listening attentively and methodically so you get to know what your baby’s different cries mean and not freaking out.
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“Parents tend to view crying as sign of distress, but we have to realize it’s the only way they can communicate,” says Dr. Sharon Somekh, a pediatrician in Long Island, New York. “The challenge is to figure out why your baby is crying and then troubleshoot the best way to help them.”
Here’s how to make a baby stop crying.
Checking the Baby For Signs of Discomfort, Hunger, and Gas
Different cries mean different things. Check to see if a stray hair has made a tourniquet on a toe or finger and is causing discomfort or whether your baby might be too hot or too cold. Hunger is another popular source of screaming, or they could have gas or just be tired, which tends to be the least understood cry. There are times, however, that your baby will seem to be crying for no good reason.
The 10- to 12-week period, for example, can be a fussy stage for babies and they’re not yet able to self-soothe at that point, says Janet Kennedy, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist, founder of NYC Sleep Doctor, a sleep-consultation service and author of The Good Sleeper: the Essential Guide to Sleep for Your Baby (and You).
“It requires a lot of hands-on work to keep them calm in this period, particularly during a couple hours a day when they’re kind of out of control,” she says. “It’s very stressful for parents, especially if you’re misinterpreting that fussiness as something else and you end up overfeeding or just struggling because you don’t know what’s going on.”
Patient dads actually can be better at soothing fussy babies if the mother is breastfeeding, she says. With mom, the baby might seem to want to feed — making lip-smacking motions, for instance — even if they aren’t hungry. “It’s a very physical response,” Kennedy says. “So dads can be helpful in calming a baby when he’s agitated because there isn’t that feeding trigger. That’ll help babies settle down in other ways.”
Comforting Baby With Sound Machines, Swaddling, and Other Stimuli
The 5 S’s, an approach developed by pediatrician Harvey Karp, MD, author of The Happiest Baby on the Block also can be extremely helpful in the first few months, Kennedy says. The first S stands for “swaddle”; the second stands for “side,” which Karp says is the best way to hold a baby when you want to soothe him or her; then you “shush” loudly in the baby’s ear, which mimics the noise of the womb; the fourth is “swing,” which are fast little motions of no more than 1 inch back and forth; the last S is for “suck,” because pacifiers can be great for soothing many babies.
By around 4 months old, babies are better able to soothe themselves than many parents might think, Somekh says, meaning you can do away with the swaddle (if they can roll over), sound machines, and any other external stimuli that aided you with calming your infant. “I think one of the biggest mistakes we make as parents is underestimating our children,” says Somekh.
Minimizing Stress to Get the Baby to Stop Crying
The 5 S’s might help a lot of babies, but try not to stress out too much trying to follow precise parenting prescriptions or getting too rigid when something works for a while but then doesn’t. “Just like there are different stages of development for babies, there are also stages of our parenting skills,” says Roseanne Lesack, Ph.D., a psychologist, board certified behavior analyst and director Unicorn Children’s Foundation Clinic Nova Southeastern University Fort Lauderdale. “Sometimes it’s hard for parents to progress as kids progress.”
Parents can get stuck in the infancy parenting stage and think that when a child cries, you have to attend to him or her immediately.
“Getting parents to develop in their parenting responses is going to be really important,” Lesack says. “Just like you don’t respond every time your phone rings, sometimes when your child is crying, you have to figure out what it’s about and whether it’s appropriate for your child to figure it out on his or her own.”
Managing your own stress, although difficult with a crying baby, is not only good for your health, but it makes soothing babies easier. They’ll pick up on your anxiety and it’ll be harder to calm them if they do, Lesack says. It also helps to put babies to bed during the window in which they’re actually tired, which minimizes crying, Somekh adds. She also recommends turning on a timer when babies start to cry, because “Typically, crying lasts less time than you think it does,” Somekh says. “When a baby’s crying, a minute can feel like an hour.”