When I let out a blood-curdling cry last weekend while doing yardwork, my husband didn’t even have to look up to know what it meant. He knew that it wasn’t the cry caused by a foot pierced by the pointed end of a shovel or a finger chopped off by the pruners.

No, he could tell it was the cry of his wife who just saw a mouse. A similar sound erupts at my unexpected sighting of a bat, spider or pinching bug.

Like so many parents, Rick acquired the aptitude to decode the meaning of a cry when our daughters were babies. Crying is a natural response for babies; it’s their most efficacious form of communication. Oftentimes, parents can realize why their baby is crying when it’s accompanied with other behaviors, such as rubbing eyes, kicking up knees or producing grunts that sound like wild boars storming through the Australian outback.

Marc Weissbluth, MD, a distinguished Chicago pediatrician and author of “Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Child,” stated "In the first several weeks of life, you can't spoil your child or give him too much attention.” At the same time, Ron Barr, Ph.D., a crying expert and professor in the department of pediatrics at the University of British Columbia contends that "Some crying is unsoothable and that's okay.” What he means is that sometimes babies don’t cry because they’re hungry, tired, pained or bored. Sometimes they cry simply because they can.

In our early days of parenting, Rick and I made a concerted effort to make sense of our daughter’s secret world of cries. Since she was burdened with countless ear infections, we quickly learned how to distinguish that cry for medical attention from all others. I’m happy to share what we learned – by no means scientific – but nonetheless helpful to us:

The “hungry” cry was rather predictable. It came in the middle of the night and could be satisfied with a bottle. I loved this time of night – just my new baby and me all alone.

The “restless” cry happened just because our baby didn’t know what to do with herself. She would be crying with eyes closed, or rubbing her eyes until her face turned red. She didn’t want to be held; she didn’t want to lie down. She just needed to cry it out. It was hard for us to hold back from soothing her – but she didn’t want to be touched at that moment.

The “annoyed” cry happened when she had to wear a snowsuit or dropped her pacifier out of reach. This is also the cry for “The sun is in my eyes” or “I’m cold,” both of which can easily be remedied. As for the “I don’t want to take a bath now” annoyed cry, even babies have to learn that sometimes they have to do things that they don’t want to do.

The “gassy” cry happened sometimes after drinking a bottle. Our little baby would arch her back or draw her knees to her chest. A soothing technique for this – after the burp - is to cradle the baby on your forearm, with her tummy against your hand. Wrap your other arm over the back to keep her secure in your hold. This hold applies a subtle amount of pressure to help release the gas.

The “overstimulated” cry is the result of too much interaction. Maybe it’s the excitement of a family gathering or the conversation combined with the radio during the car ride that quickly moves from fun to too much. This is how I feel after I’ve spoken my 20,000 words for the day. The best thing to do is to place your baby in her swing or crib so she can be alone with herself.

The “teething” cry is inevitable. Babies typically start teething somewhere around 6 months, but it can begin earlier or start later. You may notice her drooling more, putting her fist in her mouth or chewing on anything on which she can get her hands. A chilled teething ring helps to soothe the gums. Check with your pediatrician before giving her oral medicine or teething gel.

The “look at me” cry is a call for attention. Parents are the center of their baby’s world, and sometimes your little one just wants to hear your voice and feel your touch. Hold her and sing a song, whisper a story or read a book. Maybe it’s the perfect time to sit in quiet together, just enjoying being together.

The “dirty diaper” cry is easy to detect. In most cases, a clean diaper is all that is needed. If your baby has a diaper rash and is in pain, those tears may linger a little longer.

It’s not uncommon for parents to find that a healthy, well-fed, dry, comfortable baby is still crying. Try any of these to soothe your baby:

• Swaddle your baby by wrapping her tightly in a light blanket. Ask your physician to show you proper way to swaddle.

• Sing a sweet baby tune. Babies like the familiarity of the same song.

• Whisper a story in the evening. During the day when your baby is wide awake, bring motions and different voices to your story.

• Massage your baby’s cheeks or rub her back.

• Walk around the house with her in your arms or gently sway back and forth with her in your arms. Gently tap her bottom in a consistent motion (incidentally, I use this same technique on our cats Jimmy and Juliet when they are fighting sleep.)

• Make the sound you hear when you put your ear to a seashell. It’s “Shhhh” “Shhhh.”

• Play white noise, such as that from a vacuum cleaner, whirring fan or hair dryer.

• When you lay her down in bed, be sure to lay her alone in the crib on her back (and, without toys, a bumper, pillow or stuffed animals.)

You may also want to try what my parents did during my two year stint with colic. They would drive me around in a car to lull me to sleep. Perhaps that it was why I still fall asleep when I’m the passenger in a car.

Pamela Henderson is the director of development and communications at Dunebrook. To learn more about parenting and support programs at Dunebrook, call (800) 897-0007. Email Pam with parenting questions and comments at pam@dunebrook.org.

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