Q. My baby cries a lot, and he seems inconsolable. How can I tell what is wrong?
A. I often hear this concern in my practice. Whether is a sniffle meaning “I am warm, take some clothes off,” or a howl saying, “I am hungry,” or a sob telling you “I am in pain,” it can all sound the same.
Babies have only one way to communicate with us, from whimpering to downright wailing every sound our babies make means something. To a new, sleep-deprived, hormonal mom, her baby’s cry can be a heart-wrenching sound. The good news is that, eventually, you will learn your baby’s language, and you will be able to respond to his/her needs. But it might take a little time.
Before we begin, please note: This too shall pass. Your baby is growing at a very rapid rate. In fact, repeating this phrase to myself often has helped me many times manage my feelings during my years of parenting. Parenting is a tough job and most of us learn as we go. That being said, here is a checklist of things that can help you calm your baby and distinguish between what is normal and when there is a problem.
Is the baby hungry? First and foremost, babies cry when they are hungry. They also need to self-pacify at the breast from the information over-load they are experiencing. Check this first; sometimes all the baby wants is love and security. She might want to feed every hour. It’s a big world to take in. This is called feed on demand, but you really need to understand what that means. At times babies come back from the hospital a bit drowsy, so don’t let your newborn sleep for hours without food. Get the counsel of a lactation consultant or educator to work on your initial feeding schedule.
Do you have a good latch on? Breastfeeding is an art; it might take some practice for both of you. You have all the knowledge within you, but you might need another woman to show you how it is done. If your baby cries during feeding, or seems restless and not really latching on, ask a lactation consultant to help you out. Most hospitals have them on staff, ask your pediatrician for referrals. You’ll find a comprehensive information at La Leche League  or this breastfeeding Web site .
What do you eat? If the baby seems gassy, holds his/her breath as he seems to go all red making noises as if he was passing some stool with difficulty, check your diet. If you think her “tummy” hurts, asks your pediatrician for help, but for the most part know that babies simply fart a lot. After all, their weight sometimes doubles in the next three months. For alternative care (the old school), try homeopathic remedies like chamomile. Look at your diet—maybe she has food allergy (this can last as little as three months or longer). Often eliminating all milk products can help a lot. Also eliminate: coffee, chocolate, soft cheese, alcohol, shell fish, spicy foods, peanut butter, and strawberries. Take one item at the time off your diet and discover what makes the baby uncomfortable.
Is she clean? Does she have a diaper rash that hurts (burns a little) every time she pees in her diapers? Change and wash with gentle water and pay extra attention to the area. Add some lotion, for the next few days. Some of my clients will blow dry the tush after cleaning to make sure it is completely dry (make sure the blow drier is on warm, not hot). Your local health food stores are great places to research health-conscious products.
Is there too much light/noise/lack of noise in the room? At times babies love lots of noise! But I personally do not believe in “white” noise. I don’t like to hang out and listen to a vacuum cleaner or a hair dryer. What has helped me and many of my clients is singing. Maybe it is because my mom was an opera singer, or maybe it is because women have sung to their children since the beginning of time, but this really works. If you are still pregnant, create a song with your baby’s name in it and sing it to your unborn child as often as you can. If you don’t feel creative, take a popular song and change the words to include your baby’s name. Once the baby is born, he/she will be very familiar with that song and as long as you sing as loud as he/she is crying you will see incredible results. Believe it or not, I still sing my children’s songs to them. (They are twenty-two and twenty and they love it!)
Have you swaddled the baby? Our ancestors have swaddled babies for centuries. Our grandmothers have wrapped up their love bundles into a piece of cloth or a beautifully woven carriage, and lugged their babies on their shoulders or hips taking them everywhere. If it worked for them, it will work for you too. Make sure the swaddle is tight creating the illusion of being back in the womb. Check out the Happiest Baby on the Block workshops  offered by some of my fellow doulas.
Do you have the gadgets? As much as I believe that trees make the best mobiles, here are a few items that really help. Swings, bouncy chairs, slings, some noise CDs, and swaddling blanket. Some purists say we can live without all that … just like we could live without chocolate, but why? See you local thrift store or Web sale . Ask your friends and relatives.
Have you enlisted your partner? Give the baby to your partner and have them hold him/her in a football style hold. This is called side-holding. It is shooting to the baby’s tummy and so very cuddly. You get a break too, and that will help a great deal. Ask them to hold the baby as if he were a football, with the baby looking forward, sprawled onto the forearm.
Is she warm? Cold? There are parents who dress the baby too much, and those who dress her too little. A good rule of thumb is look at what you and the people in your house wear. Do the same with the baby, but maybe add a little undershirt. Note: if the baby is well dressed and swaddled with a heavy blanket, take that into consideration. Use common sense. Watch for signs of heat: red neck and face, hot around the collar.
Have you tried a bath and massage? I hear you say, “Are you kidding? Giving a bath to a screaming child?” Well, it has worked for more then one of my clients. Most babies love the water; it is their natural environment. Here is what a client told me once. One day their two-month-old was a bit cranky. Okay, she was downright wailing. Mommy and daddy tried everything, then decided to rush home and prepare a nice soothing bath. They placed the baby into the tepid water and she calmed down immediately. It was summer! If you can try this, after the bath you may have time for a quick baby massage. Find infant massage classes  or rent/buy an infant massage video and follow along.
Have you considered a growth spurt? Yes, those come around periodically; you can read all about them in The Baby Book: Everything You Need to Know About Your Baby from Birth to Age Two  by James Sears. Babies usually eat a lot in those circumstances, so they fuss and you might think they have already eaten.
Last but not least, have you considered hiring a postpartum doula? Having a woman with you to gently show you the way, not only can be a great help, but it has proven to be helpful in reducing instances of postpartum depression. Moms are best. Unfortunately, we live in a world were some of our mothers live far away, some were told to bottle feed, some were told that picking up babies meant spoiling them. So some of us are at odds with our mom’s philosophies, and some of our moms cannot help. Look into hiring a postpartum doula! Go to DONA.org , a national organization with hundreds of doulas listed per state and city. Locally check out DASCDOULAS.org. or Joy in Birthing .
Once you have gone down the checklist, and you have tried everything to calm your baby down and he is still crying, do call your pediatrician. In fact, if you suspect anything, call you pediatrician immediately, and go down the list as you wait for his call back. Trust in your instincts, ask for help, be resourceful, and know … this too shall pass.