While standing in the kitchen of a friend's home this weekend, my little one, eight week old Lukas, let out an ear-piercing wail. I carried him into the living room where I laid him on the couch and starting pumping his legs, bringing his knees up to his chest and letting him push them back down. Almost instantly the cries stopped, and Lukas gave us a gurgle and wide-eyed smile. "It's amazing how mothers just instinctively know what each cry means." Not yet a mother herself, my friend made the same assumption that I did prior to becoming a mother for the first time two years ago, that mothers have this natural intuition when it comes to their infant's cries: we instinctively know what each whimper and wail means.
This is not the case.
It's a myth that mothers can simply tell by the sound of a cry what their child may need. However, it's been repeated so many times in parenting magazines, books, blogs, and by well-intentioned grandmothers that as a culture we've convinced ourselves that mothers must have nearly magical powers when it comes to their children, that all women are born with these magical powers of premonition. I'm here to tell you this is not the case. I may have other magical powers, but I certainly can't distinguish between the cry for food versus one for a messy diaper simply on sound alone. "It's a myth that you can tell what's wrong by the sound of the cry," says Harvey Karp, author of The Happiest Baby on the Block. "Babies are like smoke alarms: You can't tell if you burnt the toast or if the whole house is burning down."
So why do new moms (and even not-so-new moms) berate themselves for not being able to decipher a need to burp cry from my-feet-are-cold cry? We drive ourselves mad, buying each new book or DVD that might help hone our intuition, in an effort to be the natural-born mom we think we should be. It is not intuition that makes us parents. It is experience.
Unlike two years ago when we were first learning to be parents, my husband and I are much less anxiety-ridden, or at the very least, we are less anxious about the little things when it comes to our newest arrival. We don't know what every cry means. Instead, we're more comfortable in the not-knowing. Each time Lukas lets out a cry, we don't rush to the baby, worry-faced, concerned that each cry indicates something horrible. We've learned that babies cry. They just cry. Instead, being a parent has taught us the importance of being patient, taking deep breaths, and remembering that our newborn is learning just like we are.
In the case of this weekend, I knew that I had fed Lukas about an hour earlier and that he tends to be a bit gassy following a feeding. So I took a guess that Lukas was crying because he needed to pass gas. I pumped his legs to help relieve his tummy. He gurgled and smiled when he filled his diaper. It wasn't intuition. It was gas.