Is he hungry or wet? How to interpret baby’s cries

From the wobbly bottom lip to the angry screaming sessions, here’s how to read between the sobs and wails.

Is he hungry or wet? How to interpret baby’s cries

Coping with a crying baby can be a huge challenge. After going through pregnancy and enduring labour, you thought the worst was over — but now, you find yourself pacing the room at 3am with a howling baby in your arms. Some crying demands action, yes, but at other times, it’s just your newborn expressing himself.

Some people believe that a baby has individual cries for each specific need — be it hunger, tiredness or pain. But not everyone is in agreement about this. Indeed, in a recent US experiment, 35 per cent of mothers couldn’t even distinguish their own baby’s cries from those of another baby when a recording was played back to them.

On the other hand, crying is rarely a warning sign that something is badly wrong with baby. In fact, when babies are subdued and floppy — then they are REALLY unwell. Consult a doctor if your baby has previously been sleeping and feeding well, but suddenly starts crying hysterically or inconsolably for no apparent reason. You should also see a doctor if your baby cries on and off even mildly while showing signs of illness. Look out for changing colour (going blue), struggling to breathe, a rash, a high temperature of 39 deg C or above and fits (febrile convulsions).

Other than that, here is a list of reasons for crying so you have a checklist of sorts to use.

#1 “I’m hungry”

You need to know that just because a baby has fallen asleep at your breast doesn’t mean he’s had enough milk. Make sure you feed your baby on both sides fully for each meal, so the baby gets the richer, more filling hind milk that comes later in the feed.

For the first week or so, feed on demand. After that, you can try a full feed every three to four hours or continue breastfeeding on demand. If your baby Is bottlefed, if bubba is still sucking even after finishing the bottle, add an extra ounce to the bottle to ensure your child is getting all the milk needed. Check what is recommended on the tin for a rough guide.

#2 “I’m tired”

Before launching into a sleepless screech-fest, most babies give earlier cues, such as rubbing their eyes or yawning. A frazzled, overtired baby finds it hard to fall asleep on their own, especially if they’ve had people around all day, playing with them and exciting them. Go into a quiet room and rock and sing to calm your baby. If all else fails, putting baby in a sling against your body or in a stroller for a run around the block. If you have a car with a baby seat, that may also work.

#3 “I’m hot/cold”

Your baby can’t regulate body temperature or sweat to cool down, and needs your help to make sure they’re comfortable. Overheating can be particularly dangerous, as it’s been linked with sudden infant death syndrome, so ensure that he’s not overdressed or overloaded with blankets; and check if you use a muslin cloth to cover the stroller or pram — the temperature inside could still be too high.

Doctors advise dressing your baby in light cotton clothing in our hot climate. In an air-conditioned room that’s 25 to 26 deg C, add a cotton blanket. Baby sleeping bags are great because your little one can’t kick them off.

To check whether your baby is too hot (or cold), feel his tummy and add or remove layers accordingly. Keep checking him until his tummy feels right — it should feel warm, but not hot or clammy. His hands and feet may be colder than the rest of his body, so feeling them won’t give a true indication.

#4 “I’m feeling alone/scared”

A cuddle with Mummy or Daddy might be all your baby needs. You can’t spoil a newborn with too much cuddling, so enjoy this period because it won’t last!

Photo: INGimage

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#5 “It’s all too much”

Even you, as a grown-up, can get fed up with people bugging you — much less your baby! One way out of this is to establish a routine based around four-hourly feeds, timed from the start of the first feed to the start of the second. You feed, then entertain the baby for about one and a half hours, then put them down to sleep. Aim for a bedtime around 7pm. Other parents forgo the idea of a routine, but a baby still needs quiet time built in to their day.

#6 “I don’t need a reason”

Some babies are less easy-going than others. If your baby seeks more attention even after the first five reasons have been eliminated, try a reassuring, stable routine to avoid over-stimulation. This phase should pass by four months.

#7 “I’m teething”

From about three months, look out for your baby rubbing his gums, chewing hard objects or dribbling excessively. Your baby can start teething even though his mouth may not show visible signs that he’s cutting a tooth. Try over-the-counter teething gel or a teething ring to soothe his discomfort.

#8 “I miss you”

Around the six-month mark your baby may start crying every time you leave the room — so-called separation anxiety. Don’t worry: This is a positive sign that he is maturing and becoming more aware of his world and your importance in it. Start talking to them and telling them that you are going away to do something.

#9 “Something’s wrong, take me to the doctor”

Babies often bring up milk after a feed and this is seldom a major problem but occasionally, the vomiting causes discomfort and can lead them to miss out on nutrients. Also look out for babies rubbing their ears or for redness in the area. It could mean an infection — and your baby will need treatment by a GP or paediatrician.

Many babies suffer from a stiff neck or tense abdomen after the birth and will cry because it aches. A treatment called cranial osteopathy may help (Google for practitioners) — but take care with the delicate skull. Then again, if your baby has a white coating on their tongue that doesn’t come off if you gently scrape it, they may have thrush, which is a painful yeast infection (similar to that suffered by women). It can also cause a rash on their bottom. Again, bring them to the paedi.

Also check out How to soothe your crying baby (and tell if he has colic)

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