Author: Mel WAGENAAR
Educational Psychologist, Teacher and Mother, South Africa
If I had a dollar for every time a newly minted young mother asked me: “Is this normal?” I would currently be listening to the ocean, lying on a perfumed beach towel! I do not allow much airtime to the word “normal” in my practice as a child psychologist. I prefer to work with the idea of what is TYPICAL, what can TYPICALLY be expected. That is how I re-frame the loaded terms: normal/abnormal. Removing them is the first step in putting a parent or a helper’s mind at ease. By the way there is nothing more frightening for a new parent to hear (usually from some well-meaning aunty/uncle/neighbor/aged-relative person) than: “I am sure that can’t be normal …”
This topic addresses crying, more specifically the crying of an infant, so for the purposes of this article let’s begin by unpacking what is meant by “a crying baby”. Envision a red-faced, juddering, almost breathless baby after a session of prolonged crying, not a baby who emits a few cries in a bid to summon a diaper-change, food or a change of room temperature. I am describing ear-piercing and distressing crying that gets the neighbors asking the “Is that NORMAL?” question.
You are not a failure as a parent or a helper if you struggle to settle a crying baby immediately.
What is the best thing to do? As a rule of thumb, DO NOT (in fact let me go so far as to say NEVER!) ignore a distressed baby. All it eventually teaches baby is to eventually give up – help is not forthcoming. You want to create a secure attachment, so pick up baby and COMFORT them. Actively force yourself to NOT tense up and to take calm breaths when you are handling a distressed baby. And never, never shake a baby from frustration. Put on some soothing soft music (this may help you more than the baby), keep the lights relatively low (babies typically settle better in dim surrounds) and speak in a calm, gentle, and confident manner to the baby. Use simple, direct language telling them what you are doing and what you intend doing. Speak confidently as you perform the actions.
These are the actions that can be performed:
- Check if the diaper needs changing
- Feed baby
- Wind/burp baby
- Rock baby gently
- Sing a lullaby
- Place baby in a different position or place to sleep. Some babies like to sleep in an area where there is activity, some will only settle in the quietest of places. Experiment. Persevere.
- Walk with baby in a baby carrier or sling. Some babies settle when they feel the body heat and/or hear the heartbeat of another.
- Some babies are soothed by a walk in a stroller in the fresh air (Bonus – the parent/helper gets exercise and secondary gains are always great!)
- Check baby’s temperature. There may be a medical reason for the distress. Remember that not all medical conditions include a spike in temperature, but this is usually a good starting point.
- Offer a pacifier if this is a decision that all adults are comfortable with
- Give baby a warm bath
This above list of suggestions is by no means exhaustive. You may have ideas of your own. Trust your instincts – you can do this! At this point I want to add that asking for help should not be a last resort. Whether you are a parent or a helper, never be embarrassed or shy or proud to find another willing adult who will relieve you when it feels as if the baby’s cries have drilled a hole in your brain. Step away for a break after you have found a neighbour/relative/friend adult to assist.
It is also useful to know WHY babies cry and some sure can cry and turn up the volume and increase the heart rate of the caregiver. Not all babies are created equal in that respect, not even mine and I experienced both sides of the crying coin with my two daughters. Some infants are those quick-to-calm babies, those who settle into routines and get through infanthood with little fuss. Others are screamers, and this can simply be attributable to temperament and personality quite frankly. Studies have shown that sometimes it really is the luck of the draw and nothing that one has done as a parent or a helper to cause it.
So, what are some of the reasons for a baby crying? A baby will cry to convey that they need help and that something is wrong. Babies cry when they are frightened, sick, cold, hungry, colicky, are over-tired, feel tension, cannot self-soothe and are in distress – they do not cry to irritate a parent. Ever.
A crying baby must never be subjected to any type of punishment or “consequence”. In fact, a punitive response will only serve to frighten the baby and make things worse. What I used to do with my one screamer was to repeat this mantra in my head as I walked and rocked her back in the day: “This too shall pass”. Thank you to the friend who shared this bit of wisdom with me. I used to say this over and over in my head and it became a reminder to me that this stage, the stage of infancy and having to guess at the source of crying was but a stage. A stage that would pass as all stages do. And it did. But, and here always the warning, if it doesn’t, and your gut is pinging and telling you that there is more going on than a baby exhibiting TYPICAL distress, seek medical advice.