Did you know that the average newborn baby cries from one to four hours a day?
Crying is perhaps the single most common ‘problem’ of infancy, and although a normal part of the parenting experience, it can leave us feeling angry, depressed, overwhelmed and desperate.
It might also interest you to know that when measured, the volume of a baby’s cry lies somewhere between factory machinery and a chainsaw, and all three are above the level at which ear protection should be worn.
These facts alone should illustrate why caring for a newborn baby is such hard work, but add to that the chronic sleep deprivation, physical recovery from birth and the social isolation which is often part of new parenting, and it is easy to understand why life with an infant can be such a struggle.
I remember long evenings pacing the floor with my first baby with her crying endlessly on my shoulder. Five more babies later and I have learnt much along the way which I want to share with you.
The first thing to say is that babies are born with a crying reflex, but not a laughing reflex.
This is important to remember because while giggling and laughing are cute and useful for social interaction, crying is essential for survival.
The aim is to bring someone running as if it is an emergency and to get them to respond.
Indeed, how we respond to that perceived emergency has implications for both the short and long-term well being of the baby.
It is well-known that babies who are responded to quickly in the early weeks and months learn that their world is a safe place, that their carers can be trusted and that they are loved.
As an added bonus, research suggests that this results in less crying as the baby gets older.
It seems that human babies are born with the expectation of having stress managed for them.
They tend to have low cortisol levels (stress hormones) for the first few months, as long as caring adults maintain their emotional equilibrium through touch, stroking, feeding and rocking.
But their immature systems are also very unstable and reactive, so that they can be plunged into very high cortisol levels if there is no one responding to them.
There is much evidence to suggest that high levels of cortisol can become toxic to the growing brain over time, which has a negative impact on many aspects of emotional development and wellbeing.
Many would say that everything you do with your baby in the early months is helping to set his levels of feeling good about himself and shaping his reactions to the world.
The problem is that there seems to be so many reasons why babies cry, it is no wonder that we end up feeling helpless and confused, and often we are not sure what to do.
Our minds are often full of information from books we have read, friends we have spoken to and relatives who also want to add their opinion into the mix.
Someone has described the thoughts going through a new parent’s mind, on hearing their baby cry, like this, ‘He needs his diaper changing; he must be thirsty; he’s ill. There’s nothing wrong with him; there’s something wrong with me and what I’m doing; he’s doing it deliberately; he’s got me round his little finger; I can’t cope; he’s too hot; he’s tired; he wants me all the time; he’s hungry again; he wants to be left alone; I need a break; he’s so naughty; my milk is not good enough; I’m not good enough; I’ll never be good enough; why does everyone else seem to cope better than me’, and so on.
Does any of this sound familiar? It certainly does to me. So what do we do? We are feeling exhausted, undermined, out-of-control and not sure what to do.
It might help to think about the early weeks as a sort of fourth trimester; where babies generally need a close association with their carers, lots of touch, rocking, feeding when needed and so on.
You cannot spoil a young baby. As suggested before, research shows that leaving a baby to cry, or to cope by himself for more than a very short period of time, does not create a more independent baby.
In fact, it seems to have the reverse effect as it undermines the baby’s confidence in the parent and in the world, leaving him often more dependent rather than less.
This is not to say you shouldn’t have a break — you may well need to in order to stay sane, but as a basic premise for dealing with the demands of the early weeks, it can help to know you are doing the best thing for your baby by keeping them near you and responding to them.
I have had mothers say to me, “Even though he was clearly distressed and continued to cry, I felt I was doing something for him, just because I was holding him”.
So when you hear your baby cry, don’t be discouraged, gather the support you need, filter your advice and feel confident that you are the unique parent for your baby, and that by attending to him responsively you are shaping the person he is to become.
Sometimes it takes a little time for us to work out how we want to parent, what our instincts tell us is right and what feels comfortable, but gradually you will find ways that work for you.
Fiona Dill is a childbirth educator, Doula and a registered nurse.
Oh Baby 2012!