Babies and toddlers speak their minds through screaming and crying.  Don’t scream back!  Learn how to read their minds to interpret their needs using “noise” signals.

Nancy Fielding, mother of 2-month-old twins, Jeffrey and Jenna, looks harassed and tired these days.  “Just when I get one baby settled down, the other one starts crying,” she regularly moans. 

Fielding is experiencing what could be labeled “crying baby stress syndrome,” a kind of parent burnout especially common in parenting twins.  It comes from constantly monitoring and responding to baby noises to the point of parental exhaustion.  Like most mothers of twins, Fielding will soon learn how to interpret baby noises—which to respond to and which to ignore.

Research had shown that even the most experienced mothers and fathers can’t interpret babies’ crying beyond basic messages like hunger, pain, or rage.  When carefully trained researchers listened to tape-recorded cries of babies, they guessed a baby’s reasons for crying only 60% of the time.  Studies have found that mothers and fathers can interpret the three for four reasons behind their babies’ cries with 90% accuracy.

Babies crying have always been hard for some people to tolerate; now research is documenting why crying is so stressful.  In the New England Journal of Medicine, reporter Dr. Bruce Bostrom shared the results of tests on the loudness of babies’ cries.  A baby’s cry recorded six inches from his mouth registers between 100 and 117 decibels, which is louder than a car horn measured at the usual distance of 16 feet.  It is 30 times louder than adult conversation and only a few decibels less loud than a pneumatic jack hammer.  Multiply the intensity and loudness of baby crying by two and you have a real noise problem on your hands!

With the help of computers, scientists have been able to use recorded cries to analyze their usefulness in diagnosing hidden neurological problems in babies.  It is known, for instance, that many premature babies have high-pitched, intense cries.  Some researchers believe that there may be a connection between the irritating nature of premature infants’ cries and the unusually high incidence of child abuse among this population.

What Makes My Babies Cry?

Although it may take practice, most parents can interpret their twins’ noise signals.  For example, if the babies have been asleep for several hours and wake up crying, some parents know that means the children are hungry.  If they’ve been up for several hours and begin to fuss or bat at their ears, children may be trying to tell Mom and Dad it’s nap time, according to some parents.

When a baby wakes his parents in the middle of the night with shrill screams, they may suspect pain is from a string of his sleeper wrapped around his little toe, or from a bubble of gas trapped in a loop of his intestines.

A baby’s hunger cries usually begin as rhythmical, short cries followed by a pause to catch his breath before another cry begins.  Some babies mouth their fists or suck on their fingers at the first signs of hunger.

Breastfed babies usually get restless and ‘hyper’ when it’s feeding time, make whining noises, and nuzzle at the mother’s chest.  It’s not unusual for breastfed babies to have sieges when they appear to want to nurse more than normal.  This may be caused by the onset of illness or the beginning of a growth spurt.  According to scientists, hunger cries quickly turn into pain cries when left unanswered.

A twin’s unique personality affects why he cries.  One twin may be mellow and rather patient about waiting to be fed or picked up, while the other may be unstable, quick to cry and unable to soothe himself well.  While some babies love to be held and rocked others hate too much touching.

Sometimes the uncuddly or ‘skin sensitive’ baby has an immature nervous system that can’t tolerate incoming stimulation.  These babies need repetitive soothing strategies that last long enough to ‘bore’ their overly irritated nervous systems.

Very young babies don’t have good temperature regulation mechanisms; this often causes them to cry fiercely when their diapers are changed or they are being bathed.  One useful hint is to bathe them under a warm receiving blanket with a warm wash cloth rather than stripping them down and putting them in a tub.

Similarly, young babies often get upset by abrupt handling, sudden noises, or light changes.  It’s wise to handle babies in a fun, slow manner.

Baby-Soothing Techniques 

All babies need to be physically close to their parents; the most potent baby soothing techniques are those that involve closeness and motion.  Putting a baby on one’s shoulder often interrupts crying.  Rocking or wrapping each one firmly in a receiving blanket so that his arms and legs are restrained (swaddling) works well to ease fussiness, too.

By the time babies are 3-months-old they may fuss and cry simply because they are bored or because they miss keeping track of you visually.  This is a good age for using upright baby seats so the twins can be moved from room to room to watch what you are doing.

By 8-months of age, most babies cry when they are approached by strangers or left with babysitters.  It appears that nature has built in this wariness as a protective mechanism at the very time when babies are most likely to be crawling around and getting into trouble.

If the babies are extraordinary fussy, they should be examined by a doctor to rule out milk allergies, hernias, urinary tract infections or a hidden infection in their inner ears.

Some babies may have colic, a term used for a mysterious form of baby fussiness that gets worse at sundown and usually disappears by the time babies are about 3-months of age.

Baby illnesses can also cause excessive crying.  A few hours after immunizations or during an illness, babies will probably begin to get feverish and fretful.  Signs of babies’ illnesses are flushed, red faces; unusual paleness and circles under their eyes; and foreheads that feel hot to parents’ lips.  Breastfed babies often want to nurse more when a virus is coming on.  Fussy bottle-fed babies may need extra water supplements because of the high sodium in formulas (always check with your doctor first, though!)

Toddler Noise

As babies mature, crying episodes usually subside and become replaced by toddler noise.  Banging on toys, hitting, screaming, biting and tears—all are normal part of high-energy toddler life.

Giving tots enough opportunities for outdoor exercise and play is a critical way to siphon off toddler noise and tensions. Don’t be afraid of getting them out in damp or cold weather.  Swedish mothers keep their tots and babies out almost all day, on the belief that fresh air keeps their babies healthier.  Tots who have had this outdoor exposure appear to be more robust and rosy-cheeked than those constantly kept indoors.

Coping with noise sometimes takes ingenuity, like removing the small plastic strip on the back of wheeled toys to eliminate its irritating, clacking sound.  Practical decorating can sometimes help lessen the irritation of toddler noise.  For example, using full-length drapes in the babies’ room or installing a colorful fabric canopy that covers the room’s ceiling are some ways to contain noise.  Carpeting can also help lessen the sounds of running feet and rolling walkers or trucks.  Radio stations often use cardboard egg cartons to line walls as a way of muting sounds.

Parents who live in apartments can get together and set up a basement playroom containing a sliding board, big blocks and other sturdy play equipment for rainy and snowy days.  Also, tots may be enrolled in an exercise and swim program, or in special toddler gym classes.

Parents must not forget to meet their own human needs for a respite from baby crying or toddler noises.  If possible, they should set aside one afternoon or night out a week for their own “time-off” from the strenuous and often loud work of caring for children.

Bio/Byline:  Sandy Jones is a psychologist and the author of four books including ‘Crying Baby, Sleepless Nights.’

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