Human babies are born so immature that they need an alarm to bring their parents running at the slightest hitch. Simply being alone can be enough to trigger tears for the average baby. But the single most common reason for crying is the baby’s need to suckle.
Current breastfeeding advice tends to divide suckling into two different categories: hunger versus comfort. We are supposed to limit baby’s time at the breast in case he spends too long merely sucking when he is no longer hungry. Yet the desire for comfort-sucking (and for the caresses which go with it) is absolutely enormous for the tiny baby. In tests, crying babies are more easily soothed by being held in human arms – even if they have to wait for food – than they are by being artificially fed until their stomachs are full, without the benefit of being held.
Mothers in many other cultures do not ask themselves why a baby wants to suckle so often. They cannot measure the amount of milk a baby needs, so tend to presume that all nursing is a good thing. Perhaps they do know that the newborn baby has a stomach the size of a walnut. He needs to be fed frequently and cannot take in much milk at a time.
Babies who cry a lot are inevitably viewed as ‘difficult’, but one interesting study suggests that crying can actually be good for babies, helping them survive in critical situations. In the 1970s, Dutch researcher Marten de Vries observed Masai babies in Kenya, labelling them ‘difficult’ (i.e. babies that cried more) or ‘easy’ (i.e. passive and quiet.) When he returned three months later, he found that seven out of the thirteen study babies had died during a terrible drought. Amazingly, only one of these was a baby he had previously labelled ‘difficult’. The other six fatalities had all been in the ‘easy’ category.
Crying invites nurture. It forces parents to take notice of the baby, to attempt to pacify him with extra feeds, stimulation and care. In some circumstances, crying really can be good for your baby. When yours is crying his heart out, think to yourself: perhaps my baby is the most intelligent on the block. He’s a survivor.
Crying and breastfeeding go together in a very specific way. Scientists tell us that the sound of her baby’s voice, including the crying, helps to stimulate a mother’s ‘milk ejection reflex’. In fact, a newly delivered mother can use her baby’s first cries to help to initiate nursing. It’s an instinctive and hormonal reaction which produces a tingling in the nipples and areola and can even make the breasts ache.
So crying is a baby’s way of switching his mother ‘on’ for breastfeeding. It is not, however, the only way of encouraging the milk flow. Studies from America show that skin-to-skin contact also excites the release of milk in a lactat-ing woman. In some cultures, midwives give new mothers regular breast massages to encourage milk production.
Bathing is also a stimulant, especially when the breasts are sponged during the bath or shower – but soap should not be used as its artificial scent is off-putting to the baby. The sound of running water is another trigger, and so is warmth: mothers in the mountainous region of Guatemala believe the cold climate can turn their milk ‘sour’. They heat their homes with rocks before they begin nursing.
Before you begin nursing, you might imagine yourself in the rainforest, gathering your crying baby in your arms, skin-to-skin in the warm, humid atmosphere. Trees are rustling outside (leave the heating on and windows open) and there’s the sound of a running spring (experiment with the bath taps!). You do not even need to put your breast in your baby’s mouth – it is not a bottle, after all – just relax and wait until he turns his head and opens his mouth as wide as a fledgling bird. Let him take the breast for himself. This is the call-and-response system in full motion.