Your Baby’s Three-Word Vocabulary - Woodmam

Our tiny baby’s first word to us wasn’t Mama or Dada. It sounded more like … well, a smoke alarm! She just blasted! It was scary because we had no idea exactly what she was trying to tell us.

Marty and Debbie, parents of two-week-old Sarah Rose

When you first bring your baby home from the hospital, every fuss can sound like a problem and every cry an urgent alarm. All parents dedicate themselves to meeting their newborn’s needs, but when your baby cries, can you tell exactly what he needs? Should you be able to figure out why your baby is upset from the sound of his cry? Is the “I’m sleepy” cry of a one-month-old different from his “I’m starving” yell?

Some baby books tell parents that with careful observation they can decipher their baby’s message from the way he cries; however, forty years of studies by the world’s leading colic researchers have taught us that’s not really true.

In a 1990 University of Connecticut study, mothers listened to the audiotaped yells of two different babies, a hungry one-month-old and a newborn who was just circumcised. They were asked if the babies were hungry, sleepy, in pain, angry, startled, or wet. Only twenty-five percent correctly identified the cry of the unfed baby as sounding like hunger (forty percent thought it was an overtired cry). Only forty percent of moms identified the cries of the recently circumcised baby as a pain cry (thirty percent thought he was either startled or angry).

You might wonder if these mothers would better understand their babies’ cries if they were more experienced. However, the evidence shows that is not the case either. Researchers in Finland asked eighty experienced baby nurses to listen to the recorded sounds of babies at the moment of birth, when hungry, when in pain, and when gurgling in pleasure. Surprisingly, even these seasoned pros only correctly identified why the baby was crying about fifty percent of the time—barely better than by chance alone.

By three months your baby will learn to make many different noises, making it easier to decipher some messages from the sound of his cry alone. However, at birth, your infant’s compact brain simply doesn’t have enough room for a repertoire of grunts and whines. That’s why during the first few months, most babies only make three simple but distinct sounds: whimpering, crying, and shrieking.

Whimpering: This mild fussing sounds more requesting than complaining, like a call from a neighbor asking to borrow some sugar.

Crying: This good strong yelp demands your attention, like when your kitchen timer goes off.

Shrieking: This last “word” is a piercing, glass-shattering wail, as shrill and unbearable as a burglar alarm.

If asked what each sound signified, you’d probably guess that whimpering means a slight unhappiness like hunger pangs or getting sleepy; crying indicates some greater distress like being very hungry, thirsty, or cold; and shrieking signals pain, fear, anger, or irritation (if earlier cries got no response).

If your baby is an easy, relatively calm child, your guesses are probably correct. As a rule, the more intense and shrill your baby’s cry is—and the quicker it escalates to a shriek—the more likely he’s in pain or needs your help right away.

And by adding a few more visual clues to the sound he’s making, you’ll increase your accuracy. For example:

Is your baby opening his mouth and rooting? (This could indicate hunger.)

Is he yawning, rubbing his eyes, moving his head from side to side, or staring out with droopy eyelids? (This could indicate fatigue.)

Does he seem to be intentionally looking away from you or starting to hiccup? (This could indicate overstimulation.)

Is he making facial grimaces and trying to bear down? (This could indicate intestinal discomfort.)

In short, when an easy baby is a little upset he whimpers, like a puppy whining outside the door. Usually his protests only get louder if his cries are ignored or if he is in great distress.

The needs of fussy babies, on the other hand, are often impossible to decipher from the sound of their cries alone. These little ones lack the self-control to proceed patiently through their three-“word” vocabulary, especially when tired or overstimulated. They blow by whimpering and crying, and shift immediately into loud, piercing shrieks that make it impossible to tell whether or not they have an urgent problem. These babies often get so upset by their own screaming that it snowballs and they are crying because they’re crying! The gas or loud noise that started the wailin’ and flailin’ is almost forgotten.

Even when scientists use sophisticated acoustic analyzers to study the cries of fussy babies, they cannot find any differences between their shrieks of hunger, pain, overstimulation, boredom, startling, and even impatience. These intense babies blast out the same one-size-fits-all scream regardless of what’s bothering them.

Pam, the mother of two high-powered little boys, Matthew and Austin, told me when her boys were babies she joked with her husband that their screams were like the blasts of a smoke alarm. She said, “When you hear a smoke alarm go off, it’s impossible to tell from the sound whether it’s signaling a minor problem—burnt toast—or a calamity—your house is burning down. Likewise, with my boys, it was impossible for us to tell from the intensity of their cries if they were very ill or merely announcing a burp.”

Most of the time, even a baby’s most terrible shrieks are merely his way of telling you he’s hungry, wet, soiled, or lonely, and he will quiet once you give him what he needs. But what if your baby’s yelping persists even though his diaper is dry and you’re holding him? What happens if you try everything and he still doesn’t stop screaming?

That’s when parents start to wonder if their baby has COLIC.
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