One of the seven developmental stages that infants and young children must go through that is especially stressful for parents is crying – especially unexplained crying. All babies cry. They cry because that is the only method they have of communicating with us. They are usually trying to tell us that they are hungry, cold, wet, tired, bored or uncomfortable. Most studies show that babies will begin to cry more often around two weeks of age, will peak around six to eight weeks of age and then decline noticeably around the fourth to sixth month. But all babies are unique, and while some are easy going and easily soothed, others may have "difficult temperaments" where they cry more often and are difficult to soothe.
Some babies experience colic, which is one of the most common complaints parents present to their pediatricians. Colic is crying that is excessive, irregular, with no explanation, and is difficult to console and soothe. A common definition of colic is crying that occurs for more than three hours a day, three days a week, for three weeks in otherwise healthy infants. Colicky babies have a loud, piercing cry, will often arch their backs while crying and may tighten their bodies with their knees pulled into their stomachs or held out stiff and straight. It is very important for parents of a colicky baby to seek medical help, just to rule out any medical causes. But once medical concerns are ruled out and colic is diagnosed it is important for parents to understand that their child's cries are not due to pain – and that their response to the baby's cries are what's important.
Colic is the most common precipitant of serious physical abuse to infants. Many of us have read news accounts of infants that have been seriously hurt because they wouldn't stop crying and their caregiver lost control. Parents need to develop a plan for helping their infant as well as managing their own responses to the crying. Parents need to be aware that colic is common, it is not their fault, they should not take it personally and stay calm. Other coping techniques for parents include:
- Take deep breaths and relax
- Take turns caring for the baby – ask someone from your support network to help and give you a break
- Take 15 minutes to calm your baby – and as long as your baby is safe and secure, then take a break from your baby
- Talk with other parents for support and reassurance
- Ask for help from friends and relatives
- If possible, hire someone to help out
Rather than spending so much energy on figuring out why their baby is crying, parents' energy is better spent on responding to the cries. Research has shown that infants whose mothers promptly responded to their cries in the first few months actually cried less later in their first year than do babies whose mothers did not respond promptly. There are a variety of techniques that can be used in making your baby as comfortable as possible and reduce crying:
- Feed your baby just the right amount. Many parents try to feed their baby every time they cry which results in overfeeding.
- Engage in more active play earlier in the day
- Change the baby's position
- Handle the baby gently
- Offer a pacifier
- While holding the baby in your arms, walk or rock baby gently – talk or sing to them
- Lay baby on top of you and massage or pat their back gently
- Give them a warm bath
- Wear baby in a sling-type carrier
- Turn on a constant noise, like radio, vacuum cleaner, water faucet, the dryer.
- Take baby for a ride in the stroller or car
- Place baby in a wind up swing
Parents need to focus on and enjoy the times their child is not crying and keep in mind that the crying is part of a stage that will pass. For more information on crying and other infant behavior, check out the University of Illinois Extension website "Parenting 24/7" at www.parenting247.org