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Babies are crying out for change: is crying communication?

white in blue hat and top baby crying in cot sleep training and communication cues
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Babies are crying out for change: is crying communication?

white in blue hat and top baby crying in cot sleep training and communication cues
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crying baby communication and cues

A baby’s crying pierces the night

It’s 2am, dark, quiet, still. You are sleeping. You are dreaming of being alone on a beach somewhere, its warm, quiet and there’s no kids in sight; everything is wonderful and rosy as you skip along the sand. You look at the seagulls on the rocks and smile. Suddenly one of the seagulls lets out an almighty screech. It’s so loud it makes you jump.  It’s screaming now, wailing at you.

You wake up with a start, completely confused and disorientated. You’re not on a beach, you’re in your bedroom and the screaming isn’t a seagull, it’s your baby crying in the next room. You quickly jump out of bed and run to baby’s room and pick them up. You try to feed them. They’re too upset for you to easily help them to latch. Also, their crying is ear piercing. It cuts through the night air and your entire being like a knife. You struggle and feel flustered and angry, you want to cry too.

The sound of a baby crying is probably one of our least favourite sounds ever. As humans we are programmed to hate the sound so that we will react accordingly to try to help the baby. It doesn’t help that as a society we’re conditioned to see crying as a weakness. So often, on top of the dislike of the noise, we find babies’ crying triggering. It can make us feel irrationally angry or upset ourselves.

Bedsharing, breastfeeding and calmer nights?

Let’s imagine the same scenario above but instead of baby being in the next room, baby is in bed next to us. Let’s imagine we are living in Brazil and the family sleep in one room as this is the norm for the Terena culture. This is the norm for millions of families from many cultures world over.

You’re having your beautiful beach dream and all is calm. You start to hear snuffling noises and little squeaks and tiny hands reach out and grab at you. Small sounds and movements next to you slowly rouse you. Your instincts, always aware of baby being there, your subconscious somehow alert, even when you’re asleep. You offer a nipple towards baby’s mouth, they latch easily and calmly and neither of you have even opened your eyes. No crying baby, no fuss, only quiet effective communication, and needs easily met. You can lay together half asleep until you feel your baby unlatch and you both drift back off to sleep.

Responsivity and calm vs British norms

In an ideal world this is how naturally and easily we’d be able to respond to our babies at night. There would be no need for baby to cry if we were close enough to notice their early communication cues. If we were right there the whole time we would be able to meet our babies’ needs immediately. I realise, in western societies, at least, this is not the norm. Many parents aren’t breastfeeding, whether, by choice, lack of support, or for a physiological reason. The majority of babies are in their own cots and often moved into a separate room after 6 months.

Our modern society has moved away from the biological norm for our species although many other societies retain these optimal nurturing practices. The traditional community support for new mothers is no longer available. Healthcare services give actually helpful breastfeeding support little priority. In fact the UK have some of the lowest breastfeeding rates in the world. Care providers also don’t offer safe bedsharing information to new parents by default. They simply tell us not to do it, and that it is dangerous.

Bedsharing, breastfeeding and night-time crying

The reality is, that if done safely, bedsharing has a lower SIDS (Sudden Infant Death Syndrome) risk than babies left alone in their own room. There are hundreds of other factors that contribute to the fact our babies cry more at night too. A study published in the Journal of Paediatrics found British, Italian and Canadian babies cry the most, whereas Danish, German and Italian babies cry the least. Interestingly Denmark has one of the highest rates of breastfeeding and Japanese families usually sleep with babies in the same bed.

You can see how our culture may be increasing the chance of our babies crying. We aren’t able to respond to them quickly enough, responding to their many other cues and communications before they resort to crying. Because, actually, crying is a last resort!

Crying is a last resort: distress is not communication

And it’s not just at night time that we aren’t set up to respond before crying starts. We are often further away from our babies during the day than we are biologically programmed to be. Babies often spend time in prams, bouncers and rockers in which they are not close to us. Our ancestors didn’t have these options. They would have carried their babies in arms or in some form of sling.

Many people around the world in other cultures still do just this and even here in Britain we are slowly beginning to recognize the benefits of carrying our babies in slings again. A study published in Paediatrics by Hunziker UA, et al in 1986, showed that babies whose parents carried them often cried 43% less than those carried only for feeding or in response to crying. One reason for this may be that the baby is close to the parent who recognises and responds more quickly to communication cues before they need to cry.

The point I am trying to make is that crying is not a baby’s only form of communication and that our society has made it increasingly difficult for us to remember this; unfortunately it has become the norm for us to miss our babies cues for hunger, discomfort, connection and everything in between.

Cues, communication and reducing crying

So if we could find ways to have our babies closer to us, day and night, would we perhaps, be able to decrease the amount of crying our babies do? Obviously it’s not going to be straightforward or as simple as this; there are times that babies cry because they are in pain. There are always parents who cannot or do not choose to breastfeed. Preparing bottle feeds takes some time, so there is going to be a delay in sating a baby’s hunger, even parents recognise early cues.

There are times we can’t respond immediately to our baby’s cues; that’s ok, we are human, we cannot, nor do we need to be perfect! Read more about ‘the good enough mother’ as ideal here. But we can take some time out and slow down a little bit to listen to our babies. To learn to recognise their other means of communication and their hunger, discomfort and other cues to make our lives a little easier.

Knowing your baby’s cues

I’m sure you’re expecting me to now list all of a baby’s different cues and communication signs to look out for and what each means. Well, I could tell you what MY baby’s cues were. She made squeaky noises, pursed her lips and turned her head from side to side when she was hungry. She wriggled and arched her back and frowned when she had wind or needed a nappy change. As it happens these are quite common traits. However, she is not your baby. I’m not an expert in your child, only my own child. You are the expert in your baby.

Your baby will have their own unique ways to communicate how they’re feeling and what they need. It may take a little bit of practise but you can learn the differences. Watching your baby is the best way to learn. It turns out gazing at your baby is not a waste of time after all! There are some universal cues that can generally point towards certain needs, such as a rooting reflex when a young baby is hungry. and a quick Google of baby cues will bring up tons of information about those. But, ultimately, your baby is an individual and their little faces and noises and movements will all mean different things.

In fact, I’m sure if you thought about it, you probably already know all their cues. You can tell when they’re hungry or tired or need a nappy change before anyone else, and the more time you spend with your baby the easier it will get to recognise their unique little cues. You will realise that your baby can communicate with you in a hundred different ways before you’ve even counted the different types of cry they have!

Counter-cultural parenting

Our society may sometimes feel like it’s set us up to fail both us and our babies, and the mum guilt is increasing day by day, but we don’t have to parent the way society expects. Nobody will stop you from carrying your baby all day, nobody is going to call social services if you don’t have a cot and you bed share safely instead. The neighbours won’t talk about you for being close to your baby all the time, and if they do, I can guarantee it is probably because they are amazed at how little your baby cries!

If we can have the confidence to go against the status quo, ignore the societal norms and do what is best for our babies and ourselves now, then we can help future generations have the correct set up and support from the start. Our society is crying out for a change and so are our babies! Hug your babies whenever you want to, carry your babies however you want to, keep your babies close to you and don’t let anyone tell you how to parent!!! Not even me!

For more information on safe bed sharing please see:
Lullaby Trust

Roma Malone

Roma Malone: CalmFamily West Norfolk

Roma has a 2 and a half year old daughter named Belle and is expecting baby number 2 later this month! Exciting times! She is passionate about psychology and fascinated by the brain, and loves to spend time with her family. She is also a big fan of rock music and cooking.

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  1. Fascinating read Roma. I am a 58 year old mother to 5 children and 11 grandchildren living in the UK. I currently work in a local maternity unit , and see new parents at home with their new borns. I am proud to say that we fully support parents with all aspects of care, and can see parents on a daily basis to support with feeding etc if needed, I am always promoting safe sleep, breast feeding and baby wearing. I agree that bed sharing is beneficial to prolonged breast feeding and aid optimum brain development when done safely. I am proud that we can give evidence based information to allow parents to make the right choices when it comes to the care of their babies. My only regret is that I didnt know then what I know now, I wish that I had listened to my heart more and my head and health professionals less! I love the work carried out by Durham University around realistic expectiations regarding infant sleep and baby wearing.

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