First things first: this post is a lighthearted sort of affair about various child-generated wailings. I’m not here to give actual advice about crying – after all, I’ve been doing this less than twenty weeks. Guys wearing red shirts on Star Trek have lasted longer than that.
However, if you’re reading this and you’re really struggling to cope with your baby’s crying, there are places that do give advice, and they are:
Cry-sis – they have trained volunteers who can talk to you
Family Lives – offers a 24-hour free helpline
NCT – they have lots of information on their website, or you can attend a group
Need help? Call them up!
Right then. So I’ve read that babies have three cries: basic, pain and angry. This is of course wildly misleading, suggesting they only make three sounds. Kitty at four months has a repertoire of ‘basic’ cries that includes:
give me the bastard dog’s bastard ear, right now
I’m so hungry I’m milliseconds from starvation. Also, get this nipple out of my mouth
a crushing sense of ennui
you sneezed and woke me
I rolled over! Kitty FTW! No, wait. I rolled over. FML.
I cannot bear this traffic jam, so am going full Negasonic Teenage Warhead to help daddy stay calm
Each has its own subtly varied tone. It’s sort of a miracle, of course. But none of them are as shattering as the first cry, and here’s where things get tricky, as you actually get a couple of false starts before the first one.
False start number one is the very first sound they ever make. It is and will always be the single most wonderful sound I have ever heard in my life, and I’ve seen Springsteen and the E Street band play the entirety of the ‘Born to Run’ album live, in order. But it’s not really the first cry. It’s the soundcheck. It’s tentatively winding up and opening the musical box to make sure everything works – Kitty made a beautiful, tinkling kind of sound when she emerged.
Then there are the various cries on the maternity ward. They don’t count. I was surrounded by intimidating, amazing midwives and was so saturated with hormones and coffee that my brain had checked out for a while. So I defaulted to acting like dads I’d seen in Friends and suchlike, sort of cooing and rocking and basically play acting. Anything to avoid getting a telling off from a midwife.
No, the first cry doesn’t come in hospital, or while the midwife is there for your home birth, or indeed anywhere you have company. The first cry, the true introduction, is when you’re finally alone, and it’s you, and it’s night, and mum is slumped somewhere else, and the tiny splotch of matter you’re cradling, the microhuman shorter than your forearm, shudders, inhales, and lets rip.
When Kitty did this for the first time she transformed from microhuman to Purple Faced Hissing Demon of Infinite Fury. She cried so loudly she went silent. Or maybe my ears simply gave out. The physical effects are genetically hardwired and impossible to ignore, and in my case felt exactly as if someone was inflating a balloon inside my skull while I held a rabid goblin against my chest. My skin prickled. I felt my temperature soar. In subsequent crying fits, according to Fitbit, my heartrate went from 52-ish to 184 BPM, so lord alone knows what the first one did to me. It was a sonic boom and when it was finally over, I felt pummelled.
It’s apparently not clear why babies cry the way they do, although there are some fun theories. One is that they’re trying to stop adults making more babies, in which case, I tip my hat to you, babies: it’s a solid gold solution. Dr T and I don’t even hold hands anymore lest we unwittingly summon another Hissy Demon into this dimension.
But while in evolutionary terms an apocalyptic cry seems like a fairly quick way to get tossed to the sabre toothed tigers by a tired hunter-gatherer, it’s mitigated by the fact that we’ve evolved to react sympathetically. The thing they say about how you learn to interpret your baby’s cry turns out to be true. To my amazement, in a matter of a week or so I could hear the difference between cries (top tip: it’s the rhythm of the cry as much as the tone that tells you what they’re saying).
Realising that you’re actually managing to communicate with this tiny being, that it’s able to tell you things without language, is extraordinary. Not that it always feels amazing when your ears are ringing, it’s three AM and you’ve run out of soothing things to say and are now simply hoping an asteroid will impact reasonably close at hand.
But most of the time, it’s remarkable. And it all started from that first true cry. It shocked me. It was challenging. But, as I remind myself often, the Hissy Demon was also Kitty saying ‘I’m here, Dad. Help me.’
And what could I do but shake my head, take a deep breath, and do what the Demon asked? That’s the power of the first cry. It’s your wake up call. Time to step up, daddy.