Baby development

Understand your baby's cries

Your baby's tears break your heart, but they may also make you a better parent. And that inconsolable wail? It could be a sign that all is well. Read on for more weird and wonderful facts about crying

By Teresa Pitman
Understand your baby's cries

The six characteristics of crying

Yes, your baby is unique. But when it comes to crying, he’s probably not all that different from other babies. Ron Barr, a University of British Columbia professor of paediatrics who has studied infant crying extensively, describes six characteristics of crying that seem to be universal. He has coined the PURPLE acronym to help explain:

P Crying tends to peak during the second month, then declines and stabilizes when the baby is four or five months old.

U Many bouts are unpredictable, unexpected and unrelated to things like hunger or wet diapers. In other words, sometimes babies just cry (and, yes, you can drive yourself nuts trying to figure out why).

R The baby can be resistant to soothing and, sometimes, utterly inconsolable...

P …and she often appears to be in pain even when she is not.

L Crying bouts can last a long time, especially in the early weeks, going on for 35 to 40 minutes and sometimes for hours.

E Most of the crying happens in the evening or the late afternoon.

Intense crying is so universal that Barr has said a baby who doesn’t go through a period of it may be missing an important developmental milestone. That’s right — crying his heart out probably means your baby’s normal!

The language of crying

Ever wish your baby could actually tell you what she’s thinking rather than just cry? Well, Australian mother Priscilla Dunstan says she can. Dunstan believes babies have five different cries, each with a specific meaning:

neh “I’m hungry.”
owh “I’m sleepy.”
heh “I’m uncomfortable.”
eairh (eh-urr) “I have gas.”
eh “I need to burp.”

Does it work? Maybe. Most parents who have learned Dunstan’s program ( said they understood their babies better after using it for a few weeks. But parents who didn’t use the program also gained confidence in understanding their babies’ cries as the weeks went by. After all, when it comes to babies, practice makes perfect (well, pretty good, anyway). Some parents quoted in the research reports found it hard to identify the sounds, or felt the translations Dunstan provided didn’t match up with their babies’ behaviours. When you’re exhausted and it’s 2 a.m., figuring out the difference between neh and heh and eh (when all you hear is waaaaaaaah) may be more trouble than good old trial and error.

Dry cries

Watch a newborn cry. His face turns red, his eyes scrunch up — but no tears trickle down his cheeks. In fact, babies don’t produce tears at all until the middle of the first year. Before this, tears likely mean the baby’s eyes are irritated (for example, from being in a smoky room). “We don’t really know why this is, and the timing varies from baby to baby,” says Robert Issenman, a professor of paediatrics at McMaster Children’s Hospital in Hamilton.

Occasionally, tearless crying can be a sign of a problem. Some babies develop blocked tear ducts — you’ll see discharge in the eye, explains Issenman. Your doctor can show you how to massage the ducts to clear the blockage. A baby who is sick with vomiting and diarrhea can occasionally become so dehydrated that his tears stop flowing when he cries. If this happens, take him to the emergency room.

Why they cry: Safety

Crying protects babies from being eaten by tigers. OK, there aren’t many tigers wandering around these days, but back when predators were in the neighbourhood, a crying baby would be quickly picked up and kept secure. Being in your arms still helps babies feel safe.

It’s my colic and I’ll cry if I want to

Colic, says UBC paediatrics professor Ron Barr, is not a different kind of crying — it’s just the extreme end of normal. After studying babies from around the world, Barr says they all demonstrate the same patterns when they cry (see PURPLE list). That is to say, colicky babies cry exactly the same way all other babies cry — they just do it more. While some babies wail for about 30 minutes in the evening, a colicky baby will go on for two hours or more (not because they have bad parents or even because there’s something wrong — just because).

This is your brain when a baby is crying

Now that doctors can do brain imaging with MRIs, they’re discovering what goes on in our minds when that wah-wah-wah hits our eardrums.

James Swain, an assistant professor of child psychiatry at the University of Michigan (and a Canadian), explains that the brain activity in a mother whose baby is crying is similar to that in a person with obsessive-compulsive disorder. Not that she becomes obsessive-compulsive, but she may feel an intense urge to soothe her baby. At the same time, Swain says, the crying affects parts of the brain that help us stay calm in stressful situations.

It makes sense if you think about the baby’s needs: When he cries, he wants someone to be a little obsessed — calmly obsessed — with ensuring he’s OK.

Why they cry: Love

Crying helps babies win your heart. Each time a baby cries and gets a loving response from mom or dad, she is interacting and building a closer relationship with her parents.

Why they cry: More food, less competition

Studies of tribal cultures have shown that mothers often respond to crying by feeding the baby. So more crying means more nursing, and more nursing stimulates mom’s milk production while delaying ovulation. And that means no new babies, at least for now. “It’s a benefit to the baby if her mother doesn’t get pregnant again too soon,” explains UBC paediatrics professor Ron Barr.

Hush, little baby

Barr refutes the idea that there’s a magic cure for crying. “For small babies, it’s just not true,” he says. “There will be some bouts of inconsolable crying. Lots of things work sometimes, some things work most of the time, but nothing works all the time.”

Still, there are four primary ways to soothe a baby’s crying:

Contact A 2007 Swedish study found that C-section babies who were placed skin-to-skin with their fathers (while mom was stitched up and in recovery) cried less than C-section babies who were placed in a crib next to their daddies.

Carry Barr has extensive research showing that carrying babies in slings or wraps for several hours a day significantly reduces their crying.

Walk The rhythm of walking probably reminds your baby of when he was in the womb and you were going about your daily tasks. Movement in general — windup swings, bouncy seats, drives in the car — can be surprisingly soothing.

Talk Baby’s been listening to her mom’s and dad’s voices for the past nine months. It’s familiar and comforting. So talk, sing or chant to your baby as you walk — it all helps.

Who’s a crybaby?

Your baby starts to fret in the other room. Should you wait a couple of minutes to see if he settles or pick him up right away?

Attachment experts Silvia Bell and Mary Ainsworth from Johns Hopkins University found that when mothers responded quickly to crying in the first three or four months, their babies cried less often and for less time when they were one year old. This puts to rest the myth that promptly picking up a baby every time he cries will make him a crybaby. In fact, the opposite is true.

This article was originally published on Aug 04, 2009

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