Soothing a crying baby or toddler
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Alison Ross

Registered Midwife, DipHe, BSc (Hons) Was a midwife at Kingston Hospital and Specialist Midwife in Perinatal Mental Health.
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Baby crying

Why do babies cry?

You can’t spoil a new baby or hold them too much. We know the benefits to parent and baby are significant when a parent responds to a baby by holding them and having close contact. You may find that older relatives talk about spoiling babies or suggest we teach young babies to comfort themselves but this advice isn’t based on modern evidence-based thinking. Babies cry for many reasons, as all parents know. As times goes by, you'll quickly learn to distinguish the different cries - hunger, tiredness, grumpiness, over-stimulation, a dirty nappy, and so on.
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In Short

Midwives have a checklist they consult, so they can check off each possibility one by one.

Is the baby hungry?

Is his nappy dirty?

Is he too hot or cold?

And so on until they reach the end of the list.

Usually, by working through the list, you'll be able to pinpoint the reason your baby is crying and address the problem. If your baby cries for a long time for no apparent reason, he may be suffering from colic - see your health visitor or doctor for advice.

Why do babies cry?
There are several common reasons…

Try to think calmly like a midwife would, and go through the list.

Is my baby tired?

If your baby has just woken up, it’s unlikely to be tiredness that is making him cry – although he might have been woken a little more abruptly than he would have liked, so give him a few minutes and see if he calms down.

Dirty nappy?

If he has slept well, is full and has a clean nappy and is still crying, it may just be that he needs some close time with you and that a cuddle will relax him.

Needs a cuddle?

If he has slept well, is full and has a clean nappy and is still crying, it may just be that he needs some close time with you and that a cuddle will relax him.

Hungry?

As babies grow their eating patterns can vary so if your baby is dry and well slept, it might still be that he is feeling hungry, even if he has eaten recently. A good way to check if your baby is hungry is to use his rooting reflex as an indication. If you stroke your finger gently down his cheek, he will turn his head if hungry and suck your finger furiously. If this happens, offer him a feed.

However, babies don’t always feed on hunger and if breastfed may go to the breast for comfort and a little drink or snack which is an important part of responsive feeding.

Too hot/cold/uncomfortable?

If your baby is uncomfortable or hot try some bare bottom time. Some parents find that babies will relax if allowed time to kick freely with their little bums exposed to the air. A good time to try this is after a nappy change. When dressing him again, make sure that his clothes are appropriate for the temperature and that big scratchy labels have been cut out as these can be itchy and cause irritation.

Use your common sense on hot or cold days and make sure your baby is dressed in appropriate layers.

Bored or overstimulated?

If your baby has been in his pram all day, he’s probably bored silly and has resorted to crying to get some attention. He probably just needs some time out freely wriggling around – or a good cuddle!

On the other hand, babies can also get fretful and teary if they’ve been doing too much. Too much noise at a baby sensory class, followed by a trip to the park, followed by friends coming over with their babies – it all adds up. If he misses a nap as well, expect a meltdown sooner rather than later. Try to prevent this happening if you can – take your baby aside for some quiet time if you think he’s getting overwhelmed or too “wired”.

Babies pick up on your mood

It can be really stressful trying to understand why your baby is crying but remaining as calm and relaxed as possible will help to keep you all happier. Smiling does help – it sends positive feedback to your own body and your baby feels happier seeing your smiling face and hearing your calm, soothing voice.

Try not to feel you have to keep your baby quiet in public or in front of others. Everyone understands that babies cry. Many have had their own and everyone was one! Just because you baby’s crying it doesn’t mean you are a bad parent.

What is colic?

It was once said that if a baby regularly cried for more than three hours, more than three days a week that the baby had colic. Colic is still very poorly understood and seems to happen at a similar developmental stage in babies across cultures. These evening crying jags are upsetting – and exhausting – for everyone. If your baby’s crying is more piercing or intense than normal it may indicate a medical problem such as silent reflux so it is best to consult your doctor. You can record a video of your baby crying on your smartphone so that your doctor has an idea of the intensity of the crying which may help with making a diagnosis.

Colic is something that can be resolved with breastfeeding support e.g. it can be connected to latching or oversupply. Try to get some support from your local breastfeeding clinic for support. You can also find a baby massage class run at your local children’s centre to learn how to soothe your baby when they are suffering from colic.

When does crying indicate an underlying medical problem?

When a baby is seriously ill or in pain you can generally differentiate a ‘pain cry.’ The pain cry is high-pitched, insistent and very hard to ignore – it just sounds like an emergency. Look for any signs of injury such as a bee sting or something pinching your baby under his clothes. If he has a fever or other signs of illness, he may be unwell. If your baby has an unusual high-pitched cry, he may be seriously ill – this is a sometimes a symptom of meningitis, especially if accompanied by a high fever, mottled skin and lack of feeding.

Can I reduce or prevent crying?

Babies born into cultures where the mothers carry their infants around a lot, as often happens in developing countries, cry a lot less than babies in developed countries where they’re kept in car seats, prams and cots. You can prevent lots of crying by carrying your baby close in a safe, soft sling. Babies love to be close to their parents and it’s easier to spot (or sniff) common crying triggers such as a dirty nappy when your baby is in your arms.

Like all mammals, babies want to be near their parents almost all the time and lots of crying can be eliminated by carrying them, allowing them to smell your skin, feel your body warmth and heartbeat, hear your voice and relax knowing that they are close to you. This physical connection also means that you can read their cues and often respond to their needs before they are forced to cry to make you aware. For this reason, the use of slings or carriers can be very helpful in ensuring you have a relaxed and happy baby.

What can I do if I have tried everything and my baby is still crying?

If you have ruled out all of the standard reasons and your baby has worked themselves up so that your presence isn’t enough to soothe them, then classic techniques such as rocking them, singing to them or stroking them may work. Because babies respond well to sound and rhythmic movement, parents often find that a bouncing chair, a walk in the pushchair or a drive in a car can all help to soothe a crying baby – even things like the vibrations from a washing machine can work, reminding them of the safety of the womb. If you’re feeling very frustrated by your baby’s crying it’s important to step away and calm down. If you have family close by or your partner’s at home, ask them to take the baby while you have a shower or go for a walk. If you’re alone, put your baby down safely in her cot and take a break. Never shake or hurt your baby – she isn’t trying to frustrate you. Don’t think they’re crying because you are a bad parent; some babies go through periods of colicky crying and there is very little you can do beyond lots of soothing. It will pass, and you’re doing everything you can.

Portrait of crying baby girl.

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DISCLAIMER
This article is for information only and should not be used for the diagnosis or treatment of medical conditions. Essential Parent has used all reasonable care in compiling the information from leading experts and institutions but makes no warranty as to its accuracy. Consult a doctor or other health care professional for diagnosis and treatment of medical conditions. For details click here.