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Why Is My Baby Crying?The Parent's Survival Guide for Coping with Crying Problems and Colic
By Barry Lester
HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.Copyright © 2006 Barry Lester
All right reserved.
No Language but a Cry:
What Your Baby Is Trying
to Tell You
An infant crying in the night:
An infant crying for the light:
And with no language but a cry.
-- Alfred, Lord Tennyson
Crying is normal. Colic is not. People who say that colic is normal not only are wrong; they also are doing a huge disservice to families who have colicky babies. Those families know it is anything but normal. Being told it is normal just makes those parents feel like there is something wrong with them. But it is true that to understand colic you first need to understand normal crying. So in this book, we will keep moving back and forth between crying and colic.
Within the first 5 minutes of a baby's birth, the doctor examines the newborn and assigns an Apgar score as a measure of the baby's health. The Apgar is scored on five dimensions: heart rate, respiration, muscle tone, reflex response, and skin color. A baby gets 0, 1, or 2 on each dimension, so the highest score -- the "perfect" baby -- is a 10. A good strong cry rates a 2 on the respiration scale. Getting a 0 means the baby is simplybreathing, and this is considered a bad thing.
A good cry indicates that a large part of the baby's physiological system is intact and functioning well. Crying requires a baby to perform a complicated and sophisticated set of physiological activities that involve the brain and the respiratory, motor, and vocal systems. Crying helps physiology by increasing pulmonary (lung) capacity. The baby gets more active when he cries, which increases muscle activity, generates heat, and helps the baby regulate his temperature. (What do babies do when they're cold? They cry. This generates heat and they warm up.)
We want babies to cry. Crying means a baby is robust, is intact, has energy, and can communicate. Physicians even talk about an infant's "respiratory effort" -- a strong, lusty cry. When babies don't cry or when their cry is abnormal, this can mean there is something wrong.
Little babies can't talk with words, so for them the cry is their language. We are used to thinking that communication means language, as in words and sentences, and that you have to have language to communicate. (In fact, the word infancy comes from the Latin infans, which means "speechless.") But speech, or language, has two components. The first is the words themselves and their syntax (the grammar and all that stuff we hated to learn in school but which turns out to be quite useful because, after all, we are able to communicate). The second component of language is its prosodic features: pitch, loudness, melody, and intonation. In a sense, these prosodic features carry our feelings. Cry is all prosody. Babies don't have the words, but they sure have the feelings -- and they communicate their feelings, their needs, and their wants through the prosodic features of pitch, loudness, melody, and intonation. Crying is a baby's first way of communicating. It is the language the baby uses before words.
Our job as parents is to understand our babies' cry language. We need to correctly interpret it so that we can figure out what the baby wants and respond accordingly. Our job is much more complicated than the baby's is. First we have to interpret the little tyke's screams. Then we have to figure out an action plan -- what he needs, how to implement it, and how to provide the right kind of parenting. The baby's job is simpler. (After all, he's only a baby.) The baby has to tell us what's on his mind, what he needs, and make sure that he is communicating well by sending out clear and unambiguous signals so we can tell from his cry what's up. The only way he can mess up (and I'm not talking diapers) is to have an unusual or even ab-normal cry. Right from birth, a baby is crying to tell us about his medical or neurological state.
What is an abnormal cry? A very high-pitched cry usually signals abnormality and can mean that the baby has a neurological problem -- a problem in the brain. For example, there is a syndrome called cri du chat (the term is French and means "cry of the cat"), a very rare genetic problem in which the cry is high-pitched and almost hollow-sounding. But the sound is so distinctive that the condition is virtually diagnosed from the cry. Fortunately, this is a rare chromosomal disorder. I have only seen and heard three of these babies in my career, but the sound of their cries literally sent chills down my spine.
There are a few other situations when we know that something is wrong with a baby from the cry. Sometimes, and this too is rare, babies are asphyxiated because of lack of oxygen during birth, and the brain is damaged. These infants also have very high-pitched cries.
There are important parallels between abnormal, normal, and colic cries.
Think about why an ambulance siren gets our attention. Humans are particularly responsive to higher-pitched sounds -- the maximum acoustic response of the ear is above 800 Hertz (cycles per second). And sirens are not only high-pitched; they change, they are dynamic. So are baby cries. What gets us going in a baby's cry is its high-pitched, warbling sound. Sounds at certain frequencies make people sit up and take notice. This is part of the biology of the human auditory sys-tem. In fact, there are evolutionary biologists who argue that a baby's cries are programmed to be at certain pitch levels to ensure the baby's survival! When parents hear that loud, highpitched cry, they can't help but look around to see what's wrong.
The cry is an information transmission system that sends affective messages -- hunger, pain, and need for attention. Crying has been called an acoustical umbilical cord that keeps the infant close to the mother . . .
Excerpted from Why Is My Baby Crying? by Barry Lester Copyright © 2006 by Barry Lester. Excerpted by permission.
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