How can knowing your baby’s cries help with sleep?

These days virtually every parent will have heard of Dunstan Baby Language which teaches you the different sounds that babies can make when ‘crying’. This is their communication and it can help new parents to understand when their little ones may have wind or are hungry and so on. It is a great tool for new parents to add to their repertoire. However, these sounds are only accurate up to 3 months of age and some parents still struggle to tell the difference even before 3 months. Others believe that this hasn’t been put through the ropes of proper scientific testing so they don’t believe it is accurate. Regardless, after 3 months it doesn’t really apply.

So, what about when you have a little one who is past this newborn stage and you are trying to get them to sleep? Most of the time a baby will cry regardless of how you are putting them to sleep. After all, it is their main form of communication and if we were to stop all crying, we would be stopping them from communicating with us. All babies cry – the key is to listen to their cries and respond accordingly. Babies cry when you are settling them, be it in your arms or the cot, for a variety of reasons; to unwind, let off steam, because they don’t want to stop playing, they are fighting the feeling of falling asleep, they aren’t tired enough, they are overtired and the list goes on. These are all reasons where the solution is to get them to sleep. Sleep will resolve overtiredness and get them rested so they can happily play again. So, this is the cry that, regardless of how you are settling them, from the most parental involved methods through to unassisted, that you need to get through to get them to sleep. The need here that your child wants you to meet is sleep.

Babies also cry because they are hungry or in pain or some other need that requires attention right away. This is the cry that you really need to pay attention to immediately and work out what is wrong in order to solve the issue before getting them to sleep. Here the need is something more urgent and needs to be met right away.

The reason efforts to settle little ones to sleep often fail or parents feel the need to resort to feeding to sleep, rocking or even co-sleeping is that they don’t know the difference between these cries; the cry where sleep is the solution and the cry where something else is wrong. This is the cry I call emotional and it always needs immediate attention. This doesn’t mean you don’t pay attention to the other cries, it just means you know which cries where persisting with sleep is the answer, however you have chosen to get your little one to sleep, and the cries in which you need to meet an urgent need before you can get your baby to sleep. This also helps you to know to meet this need before sleep next time.

So, what are the differences? How do you know what the answer is?

If your little one is fighting sleep and sleep is the issue then there will be pauses in their cries. It will be stop-start. There will also be changes in pitch. If you listen then you can very much tell they are venting and working things out. They are trying to work out how to do this. This cry maybe when you are holding them – I am not only referring to when parents are settling in the cot. It applies to all babies and all situations.

If your little one is emotional then something is really wrong and the answer is they are hungry or they have wind or reflux pain or something along these lines. This is when the cry will be more constant. They won’t take pauses and they won’t change pitch. This cry will sound urgent like ‘wa wa wa wa wa’. This is where you know you need to meet their need before you can get them the sleep that is much needed. Yes, sleep is the need but it is secondary to something more urgent.

Many parents I work with will tell me they didn’t realise there was a difference in cries or what they sounded like until their little one was unwell and woke crying. Or they learnt it when that first tooth was coming through and their little one was in pain. They may have thought they knew but when they did hear that cry, they knew it. It was unmistakable.

I find that knowing the difference in your little one’s cries is one of the keys to successful sleep. It helps us to know if there is a need that hasn’t been met. Perhaps we find that a baby is always struggling with the wind when we hear that cry. We now know we need to work harder and seek out solutions for trapped wind before they will be able to fall asleep easily. Usually, once parents have gotten wind under control, they will find at sleep time that cry will now have moved from being emotional to the cry which means sleep is the answer.

The same often happens if a little one isn’t taking full feeds. Each time mum or dad try to get them to sleep they will get emotional and we find they are seeking out a feed. Now we know we need to work on nice big feeds which may be a matter of keeping them awake while feeding or making sure to wind frequently so their tummy can fill with milk rather than trapped air. When we get on top of their feeding, parents find that the cry changes back from emotional to the whinge/letting off steam cry that happens at sleep time.

If you read my blogs regularly, you will know that there are many needs that have to be addressed to see good sleep and if they haven’t been met, then any form of settling either won’t work or will be harder on all of you than it needs to be. When you are working through all of these issues, knowing the difference in the cries is such an important tool to help know you have met their needs and now it is a matter of helping them learn how to sleep.

I find that so many people, parents and even sleep consultants don’t look at meeting all these needs and addressing all relevant issues before settling which is why it can be so much harder and people shy away from helping their little ones learn how to sleep. Also, when they do look at settling, they don’t listen for the different cries which result in failed or harder settling because they aren’t listening to the baby or toddler. Babies communicate to us through their cries and also how they are sleeping. These are the two main forms of communication. As adults, we need to listen to them. By listening to your little one you are following and meeting their needs. This is baby led parenting and is key to good sleep.

Dream Winks bases everything we do on what babies are communicating to us through their cries and their sleep. Our process is completely baby led. If you have trouble with sleep and settling then often you can’t tell on your own if you have it all covered. The issues that affect sleep and settling are wide-ranging. If you are struggling with your baby’s sleep, this is often a sign you need help to identify and work through them all. You also need to learn to read your little one’s communication in regards to sleep. This is where we can help. We not only get little ones sleeping well – we teach families how to read their little one so they can do the same.


You may also like to read:

Understanding the needs of your newborn

Bringing baby home. Now what?

Why it’s ok not to “just enjoy it”.