Baby development

Crying and comforting

Crying is your baby's distress signal. When you respond to her, you are setting the foundation for secure and healthy development

By Holly Bennett
Crying and comforting

Photo: iStockphoto

Crying is your baby’s distress signal — no wonder it can trigger a rush of emotions and an instinctive urge to comfort her. That instinct is a good thing. When you respond quickly, consistently and lovingly to your baby’s cries, you are setting the foundation for secure and healthy development.

Why is she crying?

As a new parent, you’ll spend a fair bit of time pondering this question! Most parents start with a quick check for physical causes: hunger, a burp that needs to come up, a dirty diaper irritating the skin. But babies also cry from emotional distress — boredom, fear, a need for cuddling, tension, overstimulation, fatigue — and these emotional needs are just as real as hunger.

Crying tends to peak at six weeks of age and then taper off, as baby adjusts to her world and learns to communicate in other ways.

How do you soothe a crying baby? Think in terms of “recreating the womb” — providing the rhythmic sounds, movement and closeness that she experienced before birth.
Soothing strategies

Nursing/feeding. Young babies nurse more often than many parents expect, so don’t hesitate to offer the breast. Some babies also need extra sucking, and will nurse for comfort even if they aren’t very hungry — you can offer the least full breast, help him find his thumb or (once breastfeeding is well established) try a pacifier.

Rhythmic movement. Try rocking, walking, baby swings or car rides. Experiment with different intensities: a mellow baby may drift off to sleep while having his back patted, while a more high-need baby might need your special walk with a jiggle every other step.

Touch/holding. In the womb, your baby’s body was held snugly. Some newborns calm more easily in the close “hug” of a baby carrier, or swaddled in a large receiving blanket. Gentle massage or simply lying on dad’s bare chest can also be comforting.

Sound. Sing softly to your baby — he heard your voice before his birth. He also heard lots of rhythmic background noise, which may be why the sound of the washing machine, a tape of white noise or a steady “shush” sound calms some babies.


Stimulation. Is he bored? Try something new to look at or listen to, a walk outside or a warm bath.

Peace and quiet. A tired baby might also be overstimulated, making it hard for him to wind down. Try taking him to a darkened, quiet room. It may help to rock, nurse or hold him gently — or he may fall asleep quickest if you just put him to bed. (Please don’t let your baby cry alone for more than 15 minutes.)

If nothing works

Sometimes, all your best efforts will fail. Nothing is more upsetting than an inconsolable baby! It’s normal to feel frustrated, resentful, helpless or guilty — you may end up crying yourself. If you can take a break and have someone else take a shift with the baby, you may come back with renewed energy. Try to remember that even if you can’t “make it all better,” you can help your baby feel safe and loved.

Here’s the good news: By three or four months, your baby will be more settled and content, and you’ll be better at reading her signals. She will still cry, but most of the time you’ll know why. And when you come to her rescue, the way she snuggles and relaxes against you will tell you you’ve got it right.

This article was originally published on Oct 23, 2011

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