The most important skill to have as a new dad (if you wish to maintain your sanity) is being able to calm your baby when she cries.
Whether your baby cries a lot or a little will largely determine whether your new dad experience seems easier than you thought or a whole lot harder. Unfortunately, whether you get a really happy baby or a cantankerous caterwauler is pretty much a crapshoot. Regardless of the straw you draw, here’s how to soothe their wailing.
Why Is My Baby Crying?
It may seem like your baby is crying as part of some malevolent plot to melt your brain. But usually there’s a reason; remember, when something is bothering her, she doesn’t have any way to communicate besides howling. Therefore, when you’re trying to soothe your scream-machine, it’s helpful to run through a mental checklist of what could be putting a bee in her bonnet:
- Dirty diaper? Doesn’t have to be full of #2. A big ol’ wet, soggy diaper can bring them to tears too.
- Needs to burp? Try the different positions outlined in our article on how to burp a baby.
- Gas? Try laying your baby on her back and then moving her legs and hips up and down like she’s riding a bicycle. Or gently massage her tummy in a circle. You can try over-the-counter remedies like simethicone and “gripe water,” but they haven’t been proven to work and honestly we had zero success with them with either of our kids. I think when people believe they work, the gas would have gone away on its own anyway.
- Physical discomfort? Is the baby too hot or cold? Is there something on her that’s too tight or scratchy? I once had a very fussy Scout on my hands, and she wouldn’t calm down no matter what I tried. I was getting pretty annoyed with her, when I realized the little pieces of hair that had stuck to me after getting a haircut that morning were now all over her. Gave her a bath, and once again had a happy baby on my hands.
- Lonely? The world is a big, unfamiliar place for your baby. If she wakes up and no one is around, she might cry out for some company and just want to be held.
- Overstimulated? The womb was a pretty boring hang-out, so too much new stimuli all at once can make your baby feel overwhelmed. Take her somewhere quiet to decompress.
- Hungry? Give her a bottle or hand her over to mom for some boob juice.
- Tired? Time for a nap.
- Fever? An easy-to-use forehead thermometer is a must for when you have a baby. If the reading says she’s running a temperature, you can give her some acetaminophen. Be sure to check with your doctor for the right dosage.
If you go through your checklist, and none of the fixes stop your baby’s wailing, you may just have a case of undiagnosed crankiness. Happens to all of us. Here are some potential soothers:
- Stick a cork (pacifier) in it. Not all babies take to the pacifier, and there are pros and cons to using one, but they can definitely work wonders in silencing a cantankerous newborn.
- Put the baby in a motorized swing. Neither of our babies ever really liked the ubiquitous baby swing, but works like a charm for others.
- Swaddle. Babies like being tightly wrapped – it reminds them of being back in the womb. Swaddling a baby using a blanket is pretty simple – but we really like these Velcro swaddlers for further idiot-proofing the process.
- Run the vacuum. The womb was a surprisingly loud place, so replicating that kind of white noise can put your baby at ease. Running your vacuum next to them can be amazingly effective; it’s like a hypnotist snaps his fingers and says, “Sleep!”
- Take ‘em for a drive. When all else fails, stick the baby in her carseat and take her for a drive. Highly effective at calming a baby down — and your wife will be incredibly grateful to you for removing the scream-machine from the premises.
What If My Baby Has Colic?
If none of the above remedies stop your baby’s caterwauling, and she cries for three hours a day for more than three days a week for three weeks, she has colic. The cause of colic is unknown, and it can wreak havoc on your mental state and your relationship with your wife. My only advice is to try the “5 Ss” (Swaddle, Stomach/Side position, Shush, Swing, Suck) as proposed in The Happiest Baby on the Block and hang in there. Colic often resolves itself around 4-6 months in.
Try To Be Zen About Crying (And Walk Away If You Need To)
Whether your baby has colic or just intermittent fussiness, their cries can really do a number on your equilibrium. Since babies can’t do anything for themselves, their cries are designed by nature to get your attention, burrowing into your brain and refusing to let go until you alleviate their distress. Their wails elicit a real physiological response – you start to sweat, your heart rate goes up, and your body releases cortisol – the stress hormone.
Try to deal with this physiological arousal the way you would any other kind of stressor. I find it helpful to concentrate on disassociating from the cries – I keep telling myself that it’s okay, that it’s just a noise. I also practice my tactical breathing.
Studies have shown that abusive parents have a stronger physiological response to crying, which leads them to lose control. So learning to calm yourself while you’re trying to calm your baby is crucial. Before you have a kid, whenever you see a commercial about not shaking your baby, you can’t help but chuckle and think, “What kind of Grade A moron needs to be told not to shake a baby?” Then, after you have a kid, and it’s 3 am, and you’re holding this little screaming tomato that won’t stop crying, you think, “Oh right, this is why people end up shaking their baby.” You won’t believe how angry you can feel at a little innocent baby — how tempted you are to drop kick them out the window!
If you’ve tried everything above to soothe your baby, and your brain is starting to short-circuit, there’s nothing wrong with putting your baby down in a safe place like her crib, closing the door, going into another room where you can’t hear her cries anymore (you may need to turn on the faucet and the vent), and taking five. Your baby will be fine — really. Far better to let her cry for a little while alone than for you to lose control.