We live in a fast-food, fear-based, instant gratification society. As a consequence many mothers are induced before their due date or during labor to get the baby out quickly. They are encouraged to get an epidural, terrorized by the stories of unbearable pain during labor. And once that baby is born, parents are taught to quickly shush and soothe a crying baby, because a baby’s cry needs to be “fixed.”
There is only one way for a baby to communicate to the world around her – crying. That is what most people call it. I prefer saying that a baby is talking. Babies usually talk when they are: hungry, startled, thirsty, tired, wet, have to burp, want to be held, wonder where you are, are just lonely, or want to tell you something. You will quickly learn what your baby is trying to tell you, if you shift your belief from “My baby cries she is in distress and I have to fix it.” to “My baby is talking, I might not understand exactly what she wants but I WILL LISTEN?” Your baby has a right to self-expression.
Responding to your baby’s talking every time she does, will not spoil her; it will however build a trusting relationship between her and you. At birth you will want to hear your baby’s voice as an indication she has taken her first breath, don’t try to shush her or even saying things like “don’t cry, it’s ok.” Use empathy and listen to her very first expression. You could use something like “Wow is that your voice? Please tell me more.” Psychologist Erik Erikson’s stages of psychosocial development suggest that trust and mistrust are the first building blocks of personality. According to Erikson, choosing one versus the other, trust or mistrust, is the result of our first learned experiences in the womb, at birth and throughout the non-verbal life of a child.
Babies ‘talk’ a lot so the best thing to offer is empathy and an attentive ear. Babies have only one way of communicating – it sounds like crying – and if every time they attempt to talk we try to shut them down they will get the wrong message.
In my work as a postpartum doula, I’ve noticed that sometimes when babies cry they just need your attention. Of course I encourage parents to always attend their crying baby. In fact, I am not a big supporter of anyone who tells you to let you baby cry to self-soothe or sleep on her own. But when I respond to a baby who is crying, instead of shushing or bouncing him on a ball to quickly quiet him, I rather approach the baby and simply empathize. I say something like, “I hear you, I am here, tell me more. Did you wake up scared?” “You seem very upset, tell me how you feel?” Invariably the baby hearing and feeling empathy calms down.
By empathizing we give respect to and acknowledge the baby’s feelings. Sometimes babies talk when they want to tell you the story of their birth, or they want to tell you they just had a scary dream. Maybe they just want to let you know that when they fall asleep on your breast and then wake up in the crib alone, they get scared.
Picking up a baby who cries using words such as “Don’t cry, there is nothing wrong. Shushhhhhhh,” is denying his/her feelings. Think about it, how would you feel if your loved one used these words when you were crying? Of course sometimes babies are simply hungry, have a dirty diaper, are overtired, or need to be burped, but once you have checked that their bodily needs are met, allow them to tell you their thoughts and feelings. If this talking happens in the middle of the night it is ok to give yourself a time limit; you can tell your child “I hear you, I’ll listen to what you have to say for awhile, then we’ll go back to sleep.” After you have allowed the baby to express himself, go ahead and use the gentle shushing, swaddling or other techniques to help your baby go back to sleep.
Remember that as much as your child has a right to expression, so do you. It is ok to tell your baby:“When you talk this way I also feel frustrated because I wish I could understand you better.” But beware of boundaries. Empathy is one thing, while simply crying with them is another. When you respond to a baby’s voice first check in with yourself and settle your feelings, only then can you truly help another. Excessive crying is the number one culprit for postpartum blues and depression. By changing your belief system from my baby is crying to my baby is talking, you will begin to shut down the voices inside that tell you that you don’t know what you are doing, that you are a terrible mother, that you cannot satisfy your baby’s needs, or worse that your are starving your baby.
The development of trust and mistrust continues into the toddler and childhood years. The level of reliance your child will feel in her life is correlated with your ability to keep your word and allow her to freely express herself with you. As a mother, you represent the safe haven the child can rely on and return to when going out and exploring the world. You are the one person she was born to trust unconditionally; a trust that she will be heard and that her right to self-expression is respected.
Once you have picked up your talkative baby and have empathized with him here’s what you need to check:
Check list for the newborn
When your baby is talking up a storm here’s a good check list for you:
1. Is the baby hungry? First and foremost babies cry when they are hungry. They also need to self-pacify at the breast from the information over-load they are experiencing. Check this first; sometimes all the baby wants is love, and security. She might want to feed every hour. It’s a big world to take in. This is called feed on demand, but you really need to understand what that means. At times babies come back from the hospital a bit drowsy, so don’t let your newborn sleep for hours without food.
2. Do you have a good latch on? Breastfeeding is an art, it might take some practice for both of you. You have all the knowledge within you, but you might need another woman to show you how it is done. If your baby cries during feeding, or seems restless and not really latching on, ask a lactation consultant to help you out. Most hospitals have them on staff. Ask your pediatrician for referrals. Ask you care provider for a list of specialists in your town.
3. Is she clean? Does she have a diaper rash that hurts (burns a little), every time she pees in her diapers? Change and wash with gentle water and pay extra attention to the area. Add some lotion, for the next few days. Some of my clients will blow dry the tush after cleaning to make sure it is completely dry (*make sure the blow drier is on warm not hot). I love using calendula for diaper rashes. You can find calendula creams at your local health food store.
4. What’s in your diet? If the baby seems gassy, holds his/her breath and seems to go all red making noises as if he was passing some stool with difficulty, then check your diet. If you think her “tummy” hurts, asks your pediatrician for help. But for the most part know that babies simply fart a lot… after all their weight sometimes doubles in the next three months. For alternative care (the old school), try homeopathic remedies like chamomile, cocyntal or colic clam (gripe water). Look at your diet, maybe she has food allergy (this can last as little as three months or longer). Start by eliminating all milk products as many newborns are allergic to them, and then eliminate all those food that make you gassy. The trick is moderation. Cheese pizza, with a glass of milk will not work, but a little Parmesan on your pasta is usually ok.
5. Is there too much light / noise / lack of noise in the room? At times babies love lots of noise!!!! But I personally do not believe in “white” noise. I don’t like to hang out and listen to a vacuum cleaner or a hair dryer. What has helped me and many of my clients is singing. Maybe it is because my mom was an opera singer, or maybe it is because women have sung to their children since the beginning of time, but this really works. If you are still pregnant create a song with your baby’s name in it and sing it to your unborn child as often as you can. If you don’t feel creative, take a popular song and change the words to include your baby’s name. Once the baby is born he/she will be very familiar with that song and as long as you sing as loud as he/she is crying you will see incredible results.
6. Have you swaddled the baby? Our ancestors have swaddled babies for centuries. Our grandmothers wrapped up their love bundles into a piece of cloth or a beautifully woven carriage, and lugged their babies on their shoulders or hips taking them everywhere. If it worked for them, it will work for you too. Make sure the swaddle is tight creating the illusion of being back in the womb. Check out the Happiest Baby on the Block DVD. But remember use this as a remedy for a fussy baby. There is no need to swaddle a perfectly happy baby. I like to use and encourage moms to use swaddling as a tool not a crutch. Swaddling will work in calming your baby down, but he does not need to be calm all the time. Read the swaddling dilemma article on this.
7. Do you have the gadgets? As much as I believe that trees make the best mobiles, here are a few items that really help. An electric tooth brush. No, we are not brushing baby’s teeth. These gadgets are amazing for noise. Just turn one on and place it gently next to the baby’s head and see him being mesmerized by it. I love those tooth brushes because they are portable and you can hold one as you hold your crying baby, or place one next to the changing table when you change him, or even put one in the co-sleeper again next to their little head. Basically it is white noise. The same white noise he heard while in your womb, so it will feel familiar. Dr. Karp says it turns a ‘switch’ on in baby’s brain and quiets him down. It really works. Despite working wonders, the tooth brush is difficult for us adults to listen to after a while, so I also recommend white noise machines. When I spend nights with my clients I make sure they have this little toy called The Sheep Sleep which has a little ‘portable’ white noise machine. I set it to the ocean waves and babies usually love it. Some purists say we can live without all that… just like some say we could live without chocolate, but why?
8. Have you enlisted your partner? Give the baby to your partner and have them hold him/her in a football style hold. This is called side-holding. It is soothing to the baby’s tummy and so very cuddly. Ask them to hold the baby as if he were a football, with the baby looking forward, sprawled onto the forearm. They can also use their thumb as a pacifier. You get a break too, and that will help a great deal.
9. Is she warm? Cold? There are parents who dress the baby too much, and those that dress her too little. A good rule of thumb is look at what you and the people in your house wear. Do the same with the baby, but maybe add a little undershirt. Note: if the baby is well dressed and swaddled with a heavy blanket, take that into consideration. Use common sense. Watch for signs of heat: red neck and face, hot around the collar.
10. Have you tried a bath and massage? I hear you say, “Are you kidding? Giving a bath to a screaming child?” Well, it has worked for more than one of my clients. Most babies love the water, it is their natural environment. Here is what a client told me once. One day their two month old was a bit cranky. Ok, she was downright wailing. Mommy and daddy tried everything, and then decided to rush home and prepare a nice soothing bath. They placed the baby into the warm water and she calmed down immediately. It was summer!!! If you can try this, after the bath you may have time for a quick baby massage. Find infant massage classes or rent/buy an infant massage video and follow along. Remember ask yourself how you like to bathe. Usually it feels good when your entire body is under water; the outside environment is warm too. Many baby’s tubs allow only for a wet behind and babies might not like that. Full immersion, save the head, is what a baby’s bath should look like. You can also take a bath with your baby promoting peace and relaxation for both of you.
11. Have you considered a growth spurt? Yes, those come around periodically. Babies usually eat a lot in those circumstances, so they fuss and you might think they have already eaten.More on this here
12. Last but not least, have you considered hiring a postpartum doula? Having a woman with you to gently show you the way, can not only be a great help, but it has proven to be helpful in reducing instances of postpartum depression. Moms are best. Unfortunately, we live in a world where some of our mothers live far away, some were told to bottle feed, some were told that picking up babies meant spoiling them. So some of us are at odds with our mom’s philosophies, and some of our moms cannot help. Look into hiring a postpartum doula! Go to DONA.org, (in Los Angeles go to DASCdoulas.org). These are organizations with hundreds of doulas listed per state and city.
Once you have gone down the check list, and you have tried everything to calm your baby down, if he is still crying, call your pediatrician. In fact, if you suspect anything call you pediatrician and go down the list as you wait for his call back, no harm done if the baby has calmed down by the time s/he calls back. Trust in your instincts, ask for help, be resourceful and know…this too shall pass.