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Baby Talk: Decoding your baby’s cries and how to figure out what they need

Question: People have told me that they know what their baby needs by listening to their cries. How do you tell one cry from another? How many cries are there?

Answer: There probably are as many cries as there are needs for a baby. Hunger, wet diapers, loneliness and please sing to me are all needs that a baby may communicate to their caregiver.

Babies cannot speak to us so they communicate in other ways. Crying is only one of these ways.

Babies also communicate by opening and closing their mouths to indicate a need to nurse. They may also follow someone with their eyes with a longing look that means, please pick me up. Crying is considered to be a late clue.

I recently read an article that talked about the importance of holding babies during quiet alert and sleeping times. The article said there was research to support the thought that if a baby is held for approximately 3 hours a day during quiet time and held for only the purpose of holding, they cry significantly less.

Cries are also an important part of the initial assessments we make of babies when they are born. We listen to the quality of the baby’s cry, the body movements associated with the cry and the facial expression of the baby during the cry.

Katie Powers mug shot.jpg
Katie Powers, R.N., is a board-certified lactation consultant and perinatal educator at Manatee Memorial Hospital’s Family BirthPlace.

A loud lusty cry is a sign of a healthy baby. A weaker, more feeble cry may be present in a premature, depressed or ill baby. A high pitched cry may be present in infants with neurologic disturbances, metabolic abnormalities and drug withdrawal.

Baby’s with high-pitched, incessant or easily stimulated crying and who are also hyperirritable raise the concern of possible drug withdrawal. A catlike cry may be heard with cri du chat syndrome, a chromosomal disorder.

Stridor (a high-pitched coarse sound heard on inspiration and expiration) raises a concern of partial vocal cord paralysis. This could be the result of soft tissue damage of the airway or narrowing of the airway.

As I have said before, becoming a parent is a process, not an event. It takes time to get to know your baby, your child, your teenager, your young adult.

Make the time to get to know your son or daughter. That is the only way to know their needs and also the only way they will get to know you.

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 in Healthy Living in the Bradenton Herald. Contact her at katie.powers@mmhhs.com.

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