The Competent Parent: Can’t Take Crying



Welcome to our weekly online series on parenting advice with local expert Dr. Deborah Wood.

Dear Dr. Debbie,

Should I be concerned about my friend who is pregnant and can’t stand to hear a baby cry? And I’m not saying she is one of those people who says, “Oh, the poor baby is upset!”  It’s more like “What’s the matter with that baby?  Can’t someone make it stop?!?”  I’m afraid she doesn’t have what it will take to be a good mother.

Concerned Friend


Dear Concerned Friend,

Yes.  Motherhood is a very demanding – and infinitely rewarding – role.  If you sense your friend is ill-equipped to respond appropriately to the cries of her future baby, by all means use your influence as a friend to steer her in a better direction.  Understanding a baby’s needs and having the capacity to meet them are key to a successful parent-child relationship.  Your friend would benefit from a support program for new parents which her prenatal care provider should know about.  Hospitals, churches, and other community agencies and organizations hold such programs.

For now, there are books, videotapes, and classes she can be taking during her pregnancy to help her understand why babies cry.  Some childbirth education classes include a segment on infant care, including decoding the differences among cries for food, discomfort, boredom, terror, and loneliness. One excellent website on the subject of babies’ cries is by Dr. William Sears, who is the co-author with his wife, Martha Sears, of Attachment Parenting.  You can view the website “11 Ways to Soothe a Fussy Baby” at:

One reason a baby’s cries are annoying is that the sound is meant to be perceived as an alarm.  Baby needs something.  The distressed wail is usually a secondary signal that Baby is now frantic because the need was not met and he or she has no indication that it will be.  Too much distress can bring on stress hormones which can adversely affect the developing brain.  Ignoring a baby’s cry can lead to a fussier baby.

Here are some of the common needs your friend can learn to read and respond to:

Hunger – Baby will start signaling with mouth movements (note, appetite fluctuates with growth)

Sleep – it may take a few weeks for patterns of napping to develop (also fluctuates with growth)

Boredom – sing a song, take Baby on a talking tour of the house (i.e.: “This is the kitchen clock.”)

Overstimulation – Baby may start to hiccup if there are too many new sights, sounds, people, etc.

Loneliness – hold Baby and talk to him/her (Dr. Sears recommends “baby wearing”)

Movement – rock her, walk with her, dance with her, take a walk, take a drive

Touch – caress him, let him wrap his fingers around one of yours, do “This Little Piggy” on his toes

Discomfort – change his position, change diapers as needed, watch for rashes or dry skin

Bellyache – pat her back or massage her belly until the gas escapes, get doctor’s advice if it persists

A good ear can quickly learn the differences in a baby’s cry, reducing the anxiety for everyone.  Maybe your friend will accept your help with this if you can spend some time with her in her first week or so of motherhood.  Priscilla Dunstan, a musical genius as a child, spent several years after the birth of her first baby intrigued by patterns of crying – not only in her child but in many others.  She learned to classify infant cries into five distinct signals.  The creator of Dunstan Baby Language is featured on several youtube videos, including:

 You are a good friend to be concerned.  Just what this new mother – and her baby – will need to get off to a good start.

Dr. Deborah Wood is a child development specialist in Annapolis.  She holds a doctorate in Human Development from the University of Maryland at College Park and is founding director of the Chesapeake Children’s Museum.  Long time fans and new readers can find many of her “Understanding Children” columns archived on the Chesapeake Family Magazine website. You can find her online at

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