The checklist for a crying newborn is pretty much standard procedure:
- baby is hungry
- baby needs to be changed
- baby needs a pacifier
- baby is cold or hot
- baby is sleepy or tired
- baby is bored
Just when you think you’ve got the hang of this, here you are, at 2am, having checked off all the items on your list, and your baby is still crying. Before we dig any further into the causes, rest assured that this is by far the norm! In fact, an average baby cries for approximately 2 to 3 non-consecutive hours per day, sometimes without an obvious cause, up until their third month. So no, you are not the worst parent out there.
Several hypotheses exist to attempt to explain the causes of seemingly excessive crying. Many swear by the idea that the baby is in some sort of physical pain. Gas, reflux, immature digestive system, teething, etc, are some common alleged culprits. Others lean towards immaterial pain, such as feelings of anxiety or insecurity, even trauma that the newborn is experiencing in her new extra-uterine habitat. So what’s really going on? The short answer is that no one has a scientifically proven answer to this question. Here are some arguments I’ve collected via various in-depth readings and discussions with pediatricians.
Physical pain is of course possible in newborns, but if it’s the real cause of your baby’s crying, it won’t happen consistently and exclusively at the same time of day or night. You would see symptoms of pain all through the day. This can happen for babies with colic but is generally rare. A good way of telling whether your newborn is experiencing biological pain is to check whether she systematically calms down when held, rocked, or taken on a stroll in her pram. If this is the case, and it is in a vast majority of healthy babies, you and your baby are better off if you abandon the physical pain belief. This belief can lead to over-medication of the baby, excessive worry by the parents which in turn impacts the baby’s wellbeing, as well as generates feelings of guilt. I lived through those feelings of guilt for the first few weeks of my baby’s life and abandoning the unfounded physical pain hypothesis, upon discussions with the pediatrician, was a huge relief for me.
So if it’s not physical pain, it must be psychological pain, right? This is a possibility and experts seem to think of it more in terms of a baby’s need to cry to let off steam, rather than actual emotional distress. Your newborn baby has virtually no other means of communication with the outside world besides crying. She has also just experienced a surreal birth experience and is slowly adjusting to a totally new world. It would be as if you were transported to a different planet over the course of a few hours and are expected to adapt overnight! As long as your baby calms down when held, reassured or distracted, your best bet is to calm down as well and reassure yourself that this shall pass. This phase is well-documented and generally lasts for what is known as the baby’s fourth trimester, or roughly her first 3 months of life. The best you can do for yourself and your newborn is to accompany them through it, empathetically and with an open mind, without trying to simplistically explain it away. At no point is the experience of being a new parent more humbling than when you’re holding your newborn, speaking to them in a calm voice, rocking them gently and admitting to yourself, and to them if you wish to verbalise it as well, that you don’t know what’s making them cry, that you probably never will, and that you’re here for them while they work their way through it.