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Babies cry to communicate; reinvent womb to console

Why do babies cry?

Crying is a baby’s way of communicating. Babies cry and parents respond.

Scientists have studied whether crying is a behavior common to other mammals. Some evidence suggests that baby animals communicate with their parents by using noises and motions similar to the cries of human infants.

Today’s ultrasound pictures of babies in the uterus are so sophisticated that one can even see a baby practicing the facial movements associated with crying.

Crying is an activity that involves more that just their voices. Before a baby cries, they may make some noises similar to a low wail, whimper and maybe even do some gasping. They wrinkle up their faces, squeeze their eyes shut, open up their mouths, extend and flail their arms and clamp their hands into tight fists.

Dr. Harvey Karp has written a wonderful book about how to console a crying baby. It is titled “The Happiest Baby On The Block.” In it, he develops his theory that to console a baby that appears to be inconsolable, one should reinvent the womb. In the womb, babies are in a tight space, usually are on their side, get jiggled around as their mother goes about her day, listen to the mother’s heartbeat and suck. The womb environment is created by swaddling, placing the baby on his side, gently rocking them back and forth as if you were wiggling Jello, then making a loud SHHH sound, and finally allowing the baby to suck. He calls it the 5 S’s.

Inconsolable crying is the No. 1 stimulator for an adult to abuse an infant. The Manatee Memorial Foundation has purchased 300 DVDs titled “The Period of Purple Crying” that we will be distributing throughout the county. We hope to reach parents and caregivers through many different venues. The word Purple is an acronym: P = Peak of crying, U = Unexpected, R = Resists soothing, P = Pain-like look on baby’s face, L = can be Long Lasting, and E = usually is worst in the Evening. The DVD helps parents and caregivers understand normal crying, discusses the danger of shaking a baby, and provides guidance on how to calm oneself as well as the baby.

In cultures that believe babies should have parental contact almost continuously, babies tend to cry less than cultures that believe babies “need” to cry.

Babies follow a fairly predictable pattern of crying. It increases during the first few weeks and then diminishes after two or three months. Then when they start to get teeth it might pick up again. By then most parents understand their baby’s crying and know what works best to console them.

Some babies cry more and some cry less. By learning how to respond to your baby’s cry you begin to establish a pattern of life-long communication.

Katie Powers, R.N., is a board-certified lactation consultant and perinatal educator at Manatee Memorial Hospital’s Family BirthPlace. Her column appears every other week. Contact her at