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In the beginning, crying is all your baby has as a means to get what she needs. It is an early, rudimentary form of communication.

The meaning behind the cry
Lynne Murray and Liz Andrews, in their book called The Social Baby show that infants attempt to communicate with us from a very early age. Many of their communications go unnoticed because we are not sufficiently in tune with them. 

When your baby cries, he is telling you that something is wrong. If you don’t respond quickly enough or in the right way, he might have to shout louder and louder until you finally grasp the meaning behind the cries. Your baby might cry an enormous amount for the first few months and it can be hard to know whether this indicates a problem or not. Particularly if you are a first time mother, you may not really know what is normal and what isn’t and you may struggle to interpret the meaning of the crying. Donald Winnicott, a British pediatrician, author and influencial developmental psychologist, has outlined four basic different kinds of cries. According to him there are cries of satisfaction, cries of sadness, cries of rage and cries of pain. The way you respond depends on your interpretation of your baby’s cry. Your baby’s response then depends on whether or not you have understood her cry. You will intuitively respond differently if your baby is sad or if she is enraged. The trick is to interpret her crying correctly.

Crying 101
There are a few dumping-ground explanations for crying that you might (sometimes accurately) have used at times. “She’s just tired!” or “She’s teething!” or “It’s colic!” Although these may very often account for some babies’ troubles, my guess is that more often there might be other, perhaps more obscure reasons for the crying.

If your baby is crying and you manage somehow to soothe her, the crying subsides. You have done a good enough job of tuning into the distress and you have helped your baby find relief. If this kind of positive, validating experience is repeated often enough, the bond of confidence, trust and love will be strengthened and your child will most likely be on her way to developing healthy self-esteem. She will have the sense that somebody loves her enough to make every effort to understand and to bring relief when things are not going well. 

Because your baby understands very little about the world, she needs you to help her to make sense of things for her. She needs to borrow your mind at times until her own mind is more developed.

Your baby needs to borrow your mind
Your baby needs you, not only physically to keep her warm, fed, clean and comfortable, but she also needs your mind. Very young infants can and do feel distress but the source and meaning of distress is largely unclear to them. This is because their minds are in a rudimentary stage of development and there is not yet the ability to make coherent sense of things. So you may observe that your baby is at first crying in response to the perception of physical discomfort, like after an injection or even after a simple nappy change. But this experience of pain or discomfort can escalate into a state of extreme, wordless, mindless terror and your containing, soothing presence goes a long way to helping your baby to understand that the pain is survivable.

Your baby can experience terrifying feelings that can escalate to panic. Your job is to provide emotional containment for her.

What is emotional containment?
It is through the experience of a containing and soothing caregiver that your baby will begin to discover that she can and probably will endure moments of intense pain, fear or frustration. Your containing presence will show her that her extreme discomfort will not cause the world (as she knows it) to end. You contain your baby by holding her together emotionally and making her feel safe. That might mean practically that you hold her in your arms and keep a relatively cool and sane head yourself. You contain your baby by being physically and emotionally present and by being tuned into her experience.

If you respond to your baby’s cries, she will learn to trust you. If she trusts you, she will develop an inherent trust in herself and the world. That is the basis of mental health. The belief that everything is going to be okay. Your baby needs to learn this during the first year of her life.

What to do with a crying baby 

  • Observe your baby closely and think about what the problem is likely to be
  • Try to tune into the cry and work out what it means
  • Offer her the breast or bottle
  • Offer your baby a dummy, but don’t force it and don’t keep offering it if she spits it out (Dummies dipped in glycerine can work like a charm, but ignore this if you are a purist. Only use glycerine before the first tooth comes out – then stop forever)
  • Pick her up, stroke, pat and gently rub her back
  • Rock her gently in your arms
  • Talk and sing to her
  • Walk with her in your arms or over your shoulder
  • Put on some music if she likes it
  • Change your baby’s nappy
  • Make sure there is nothing making her uncomfortable, such as a chaffing nappy or tight clothes
  • Try to give her a massage if that’s what she wants
  • If she is under two months of age, wrap her firmly in a blanket (with her arms inside the blanket) and hold her closely and firmly to your chest
  • Carry her in a sling or pouch or let someone help you to put her on your back, held firmly in place by a blanket
  • Change her position
  • Offer her something to do or some kind of distraction
  • A completely new or different experience or toy might capture her interest and bring her out of her misery
  • Take your baby for a walk in the pram or the papoose
  • Take your baby to a different place for a change of scenery (perhaps outside)
  • Take a step back and see if she finds a way to comfort herself (like putting her fist in her mouth)
  • Take her to a quieter place or a darker room
  • Perhaps try to give her a moment on her own if she seems to want that
  • Put your baby in the car-seat and take her for a drive (Don’t forget the seat-belt)
  • Take off your baby’s clothes and put her in a warm bath (supervised, of-course)
  • Hand the baby over for a short while to another caring adult who you trust 
  • Ascertain if she is ill and treat accordingly
  • See (or phone) your pediatrician if there is any chance that the crying might have a physical basis

Your baby learns to self-soothe from you. You are her role model. When you have successfully helped her out of her distress enough times, she will get the message and she will begin to do this for herself. She will then need you less and less because she will have learned from you how to soothe herself. Of-course, the older she gets the more you will expect her to wait for her needs to be met. This happens gradually throughout the course of the first year and beyond. Don’t be too concerned with teaching her to be strong and capable during the first year.

An adapted version of an extract of Babies in Mind (Double Storey)
by Jenny Perkel