Babies cry so the species will survive. They cry so their needs will be met. A baby's cry is her way of communicating to her parents that she needs something. If you are a parent trying to cope with a crying, fretful baby, you will know how distressing her prolonged crying is to herself, to you and to anyone nearby.
Picking up and cuddling or nursing your fretful baby will not start bad habits or spoil her. If she cries, she needs you, and the more upset she is, the more she needs a loving parent to make everything all right again.
Because you are a loving, caring mother you are distressed when your baby cries. When nothing you've done seems to help her, you may find your motherly feelings turning to despair and even anger. Most mothers of colicky babies can recall these times, often with an unwarranted sense of guilt.
Learning about the things that upset a baby can help you cope. It's easier to be patient with a constantly crying baby when you understand she has a positive reason for her distress.
Baby sleep-training programs are becoming popular, so it is worth reading the opinion of the Australian Association for Infant Mental Health Inc (AAIMHI) in its 2002 position paper (revised in 2004) on controlled crying. 'AAIMHI is concerned that the widely practised technique of controlled crying is not consistent with what infants need for their optimal emotional and psychological health, and may have unintended negative consequences.' You can read the background to these concerns in a PDF document that can be downloaded from the AAIMHI's website before you make your own decisions on this issue.
Is it my milk?
The breastfeeding mother immediately worries about whether it's her milk. Family and friends often recommend a change to formula. But breastfeeding is hardly ever the reason for the crying. It's a simple matter to eliminate problems like poor positioning and attachment, let-down reflex not working, or hunger.
Is it hunger?
If your baby is having breastmilk only (no formula, solids or water) and is having six to eight really wet cloth nappies or five heavily wet disposables in 24 hours, and regular soft bowel motions; then you know plenty of milk is going in the other end.
It may be that you are expecting your baby to ask for feeds every four hours. This is an unlikely frequency for newborns and many older babies. It is common for young babies to want to breastfeed between eight and twelve times (or more) in 24 hours. Breastmilk is food and drink and comfort to babies. Your baby doesn't know that she's hungry or thirsty, she just knows she needs you. As adults we help ourselves to a drink or snack many times a day, and can quite happily manage a cup of coffee or tea straight after we've eaten. Your little baby has a tiny stomach which needs refilling very often. If she's hungry, give her more breastfeeds and see our article on increasing your milk supply.
Run down the checklist in the ABA booklet Breastfeeding: and crying babies to investigate more reasons for crying. Booklets are available for purchase from the Australian Breastfeeding Association.
What else could it be?
You need to eliminate illness as a cause of crying. If your baby cries inconsolably for long periods each day, you will want to make sure she is not sick by getting a thorough check-up from your medical adviser. Most crying babies are not sick. Talk to a friendly and knowledgeable ABA breastfeeding counsellor on the Breastfeeding Helpline. She is a mother who has breastfed and undergone extensive training. With a breastfeeding counsellor you can explore a lot of possibilities to do with the feeding and with mothering.
Many crying babies end up with the label "windy" or "colicky" because no reason can be found for their distress, although they almost always bloom with health. The problem almost always disappears after three or four months, but it seems like an unbearable time for some parents. The booklet Breastfeeding: and crying babies contains twenty different suggestions for soothing and comforting a baby, as well as ideas for how to manage everyday life with an unhappy baby. It is very important that you eat well, take every chance to rest, and try to off-load some of your responsibilities during these difficult weeks that the crying lasts. It also helps to talk to other mothers who are sharing this experience. You and your baby will be warmly welcomed at an Australian Breastfeeding Association local group get-together.
© Australian Breastfeeding Association Reviewed August 2015