By Cari Dineen
Babies can cry as much as two to three hours in a 24-hour period, and living with the wailing isn’t easy. Try these strategies to calm both of you.
My son George was a screamer. Unlike his go-with-the-flow older sister, he cried for what seemed like the first six months of his life. He screamed when he was hungry, when he was wet, when he was tired, when he was bored. He would change from a sweet cherub to a hot mess in a matter of seconds. His face would turn red, and he’d arch his back and flail his arms. I tried my best to soothe him with nursing, diaper changes, and hugs. When those didn’t work, I’d end up in tears too. Thoughts such as, “What’s wrong with my baby?” were soon replaced with, “What’s wrong with me?” I felt totally overwhelmed and, worse, like I was failing at a basic task of mothering—the ability to comfort my child.
“For new parents, figuring out what all the crying means can be challenging, frustrating, and even scary,” says Rallie McAllister, M.D., a family physician in Lexington, Kentucky, and coauthor of The Mommy M.D. Guide to Your Baby’s First Year. “If they aren’t able to immediately pinpoint the reason for the crying, they get frightened that there is something physically wrong with the baby.”
An inconsolable little one can also make a new parent feel powerless, notes Crystal Clancy, of Eagan, Minnesota, a licensed marriage and family therapist who specializes in perinatal mental health. This can be particularly distressful for women who felt competent and in control in their pre-mom life, she says. The good news: You will get better at interpreting and responding to your baby’s cries, says Dr. McAllister. Until then, put these tricks to work.
- Do the Shoosh-Bounce
Rock your munchkin in a carrier while shooshing over and over again in her ear. “I put my fussy baby in a sling and bounced her all over the apartment, the block, the city,” says Lili Zarghami, of Brooklyn. “I cooked and cleaned while swinging her back and forth.”
Why it works: “Studies suggest that a calming response is triggered in an infant’s brain when being carried or rocked, causing the baby’s heart rate to slow and the muscles to become more relaxed,” says Kristie Rivers, M.D., a pediatrician in Fort Lauderdale. At the same time, the shooshing sound creates a repetitive distraction that your baby may focus on instead of crying.
- Turn Up the Tunes
You needn’t limit yourself to lullabies. Try all different genres and songs, including what you like. “Vivien used to chill out to ‘Forget You,’ by CeeLo,” says Jennifer Rainey Marquez, of Atlanta. Reggae was a favorite choice for Brooklyn mom Lindsay Reinhardt’s son. And Melanie Pleva, of Springfield, New Jersey, had a baby with a penchant for “Iron Man” by Black Sabbath. “He would giggle as soon as he heard it begin to play,” says Pleva.
Why it works: Like movement, music has the ability to calm the nervous system, decreasing a baby’s heart and respiratory rate. And don’t underestimate the power of your own voice—even if you’re no Taylor Swift. “Infants may be especially soothed by the sound of their mom singing, because her voice is familiar and the rhythm is calming,” says Dr. Rivers.
- Play It Back
“When my sons were babies, I would record them fussing and crying on my phone and let them listen to it. They were fascinated by the sound of a crying baby,” says Jillian St. Charles, of West Knoxville, Tennessee.
Why it works: “Babies sometimes get so distressed, they have a difficult time calming down, even when the offending agent, such as a dirty diaper, gets taken care of,” notes Dr. Rivers. They literally get “stuck” crying. But a surprising distraction, like a recording of their own voice, can jolt babies out of what is making them upset. “Babies are so interested in the world around them that simply introducing something new can help break that cycle of crying,” she notes.
- Put Out Lights
When Polly Blitzer Wolkstein’s twins would get overstimulated, she found that putting them in a completely dark room was the most effective way to soothe them. “I’d pull down blackout shades and put them in their swings with a pacifier. The swings gave them the sensation of rocking in our arms, and they’d be out like a light in about two minutes,” says the New York City mom.
Why it works: Babies can easily become overstimulated with all the noise and lights of everyday life. “After all, newborns are used to the quiet, dark confines of the womb,” says Dr. Rivers. Blocking out all that stimulation can calm them down.
- Make Some Noise
Another trick that parents swear by: Turn on white noise. Try a fan or vacuum cleaner, use a white-noise machine, or download an app.
Why it works: The theory is that these sounds imitate what an infant heard in the womb as Mom’s blood passed through the placenta, says Dr. Rivers. White noise also masks other sounds, such as siblings playing or dishes being put away. Just keep the volume low. Research shows that white-noise machines could contribute to hearing loss if they’re too loud and too close to Baby for long stretches of time.
- Change the Scenery
Jessica White, of Smyrna, Georgia, swears that her fussy baby could sense when she was getting stressed. “That’s when I knew it was time to hand her off to my husband or Grandma,” says the mother of two. If she couldn’t change caregivers, White would at least move to a different environment. “Going from the nursery to the patio or kitchen was sometimes enough to snap her out of the crying spell,” she says.
Why it works: “A new location to focus on may be all a baby needs to change her mood,” says Dr. Rivers.