Decoding your baby's cries: The five cries to listen out for
They may not be able to talk, but you can still learn a lot about what your baby is trying to tell you from their wails
What is your baby telling you?
You've changed their nappy, fed them and winded them. You're certain they're not too hot or too cold. You've tried singing, rocking, massage and white noise. But still the baby is crying. Wouldn't life be so much easier if your infant could just tell you what they want instead of wailing for hours on end?
But of course, that wailing is your baby communicating. And, according to some experts, if you learn to listen closely, then you can decipher exactly what he or she is trying to tell you.
"Babies are talking to their parents though their cries," says Di Bustamante, faculty member of Dunstan Baby Language, an Australian company set up to help parents develop their 'baby ears'. According to its founder, Priscilla Dunstan, there are five different cries that every baby makes and these correspond to five different physical needs.
"Priscilla and her husband George did five years of independent studies in 20 different cultures that showed all babies have the same 'language' as they are actually responses to a physical need," explains Di.
The main cries (see panel) relate to hunger, tiredness, wind (upper and lower) and discomfort. "Some babies combine the cries," adds Di. "Parents then would act on the dominant cry - maybe burping the baby first and then feeding - and not all cries will be heard. Sometimes babies do not complain when they have a dirty nappy.
"You need practice," she explains. "And not every one is auditory. Some are more visual and then they can look for the tongue at the top of the mouth for the 'neh' hunger cry and the oval mouth that accompanies 'owh'. The program sets the basics for all parents need and gives them the ability to adapt it to their own learning and parenting style."
She finds that parents who attend her classes (there are none available as yet in Ireland but the website dunstanbaby.com has great information and apps) report feeling a lot more confident once they become accustomed to listening out for specific cries and reacting accordingly. A lot of it is instinctive and, yet, she believes many parents have this innate skill drowned out by the sound of a million baby manuals.
"Experience has shown me that many mothers come to me looking for guidance and in tears because they can't make their baby fit into some parenting books' guidance," reveals Di. "When they follow their babies lead, listen to the baby's cries and respond appropriately and quickly, everyone is much happier."
Crying is a baby's way of signalling a need - it might be that they're ready for a feed, require a nappy change or just want a bit of a cuddle. But what if you don't respond? What if it's 3am and you know baby is physically fine - is it ok just to let them howl in the hope that they (and you) might eventually get some much needed shut-eye? The honest answer is that the jury is still out when it comes to scientific research and the impact of CIO (cry it out) or controlled crying as a means of sleep training.
On the concerning end of things, there are studies that suggest not responding to an infant's cry (even if it's just because they want to snuggle) can place intense stress on a child, altering their brain and causing changes similar to those seen in depressed adults.
However, there was also a study conducted earlier this year in Australia that monitored the stress hormone in babies and found that those left to CIO weren't any more stressed than infants encouraged to sleep using a 'gentler' method. The study also found that those in the CIO group went to sleep faster and slept more soundly.
But whether you're a proponent of CIO or not, it's still important that you can differentiate between an urgent and less urgent cry.
"Parents often ask me 'how would you know when a child is crying for attention and not for some other reason?'," says Doreen Buckley, an experienced midwife and early-parenting expert. "You have to learn to distinguish between different types of cry and know your child. Unusual cries should be responded to immediately. Crying for attention or comfort has a different pattern. It often starts with a fretful, complaining sort of sound and then breaks off while the child waits to see whether you will respond."
Doreen recommends responding to these night-time cries with a specific technique. "After he has cried a short time, go to him," she advises. "Don't pick him up. Soothe him with a comforting word 'night, night go to sleep' and rub his tummy in a clockwise motion for a while. Don't make eye contact, as this will stimulate him into full wakefulness and keep the lights off or low."
In doing this you're showing you haven't gone away, but that it is night time and when baby is calm, leave the room. "The next time he cries, repeat the same stages but wait double the time before you go to him," suggests Doreen. "Keep doubling the interval each time he wakes. It's tough and many parents have shed tears when it all gets a bit overwhelming, but it's important to stick with it to break the pattern - this will usually take about five nights."
Of course there are also 'tears free' sleep training methods like Elizabeth Pantley's No Cry Sleep Solution, for parents keen to avoid any wailing whatsoever. Whether you can listen to your child cry or not, is up to each individual parent to decide what best works for them.
But don't just dismiss crying as something babies do for no reason. For over seven months, Dublin mum-of-one Edel Quinn put up with her daughter Sian crying for hours on end through the night, arching her back, clenching her fists and throwing her head back as she cried.
Her mum and dad tried everything to soothe her but without success. "The amount of people who said 'that's wind' or 'that's a bit of colic'," says Edel. "And they'd always say 'is she your first?' as if I just hadn't been prepared for a baby crying. I was told she was 'just a grumpy baby', but I knew something was wrong."
Eventually, and with the help of another mum on a Reflux Survival Facebook group, Edel had Sian diagnosed with Cows Milk Protein Intolerance and prescribed Neocate - suddenly the crying stopped.
"I felt let down that it was dismissed as 'just a baby crying' because Sian was otherwise thriving," says Edel. "It's devastating listening to your child cry and not being able to fix it. Babies don't cry for no reason. It's their only means of communication. Even when everyone was trying to say otherwise, I knew she was trying to tell me something was wrong. My advice to any other mum in my position is to trust your instincts and listen to your baby."
THE FIVE CRIES TO LISTEN OUT FOR
'NEH' relates to hunger, the sucking reflex has kicked in so the tongue moves to the top of the mouth, hence the 'N' sound. If breastfeeding, the shape of the mouth during this cry also helps baby to latch.
'OWH' relates to tired, the yawn reflex has kicked in.
'EH' relates to the need to burp.
'EAIRH' relates to lower wind and is usually the most troubling of the cries as it is reflecting their discomfort.
'HEH' relates to skin discomfort and the need for a nappy change or too hot or cold, maybe a change of position.