You don’t need an app to decode your baby’s cries. This works way better.
If you’re new to baby care, you might think an Infant Cries Translator sounds like the most genius must-have tool since the pacifier-thermometer. Keep wishing.
The translator app is the brainchild of a group of well-intentioned researchers at the National Taiwan University Hospital Yunlin. They built a database of more than 200,000 cries from 100 newborns that claims to interpret the waaaaaah with 92 percent accuracy for newborns under 2 weeks old.
Record your crier with your smartphone and upload the sound. Voila! An anime baby pictured on the app, who has an impressive head of hair down to the shoulders and a mug right out of an older sibling’s videogame, reveals the diagnosis: hungry, sleepy, in pain, or in need of a fresh diaper. (The Taiwanese app joins a Spanish competitor, Biloop’s Cry Translator, a device that promises to reveal one of five “modes” your baby may be in, including “annoyed.”)
Too bad it’s mostly myth that lots of different cry sounds exist, most research shows.
May we suggest instead this quick(er) guide to why babies cry—and how to tell:
“I’m hungry.” Before you hit the record button on that phone app, glance at the time. How long has it been since the last feeding? For babies under 2 weeks old, the answers are pretty much always “Not long ago” and “Yup, probably time again, no matter how tired you are.” Until 3 months, babies need to eat every two to four hours, and even more often during growth spurts.
Even better than clock watching: Look at your baby. Do you see lip-smacking, rooting, hands up near the mouth? These are hunger cues that usually show up before crying. If you miss them, your baby might get so worked up that she ignores your breast or bottle even though she’s hungry, so you might need to be persistent in offering the feeding as you’re cuddling and soothing.
“I’m wet.” Feel the diaper. Is it warm and heavy? Peek inside. Sniff. Even using this three-senses examination, you’ll have your answer faster than it will take to hold your phone next to your wailing baby, record for 10 seconds, and wait 15 more seconds for the Cloud to tell you it’s time to fetch the wipes.
“I’m dirty.” This one’s even faster than any app: The nose knows.
“Excuse me, but I have to pass gas.” If burping or jiggling brings some air out one end or the other while you’re soothing, you have your answer.
“I feel bad—it’s worse than gas.” Another more useful action than holding a phone next to a crying baby is to feel his forehead (or take his temperature). Is there a fever? Are there other symptoms that suggest something’s “not right”—say, diarrhea, vomiting, a rash, spitting up a lot after feeding, or a super-shrieky sound like you’ve never heard before? Do you just have a gut feeling something’s wrong? Even newbie parents have good parent instincts. Trust them. Use that phone to call a doctor or nurse.
“I’m tired—or tired of what’s going on right now.” Fatigue or being overstimulated are top suspects after the obvious, more easily fixed, discomforts are ruled out. Stop to consider whether your baby’s been up for awhile or has maybe had enough, already, of visitors’ coos and rattles waved in her face.
If your baby doesn’t need milk, burping, or diapering, you’re left with all the comfort measures: a pacifier, swaddling, rocking, or a change of scenery (like a stroller walk or car ride). Holding a young cranky crier often tends to result in a baby who cries less over time, showed research by psychologist Mary Ainsworth. This is the basis of that classic advice that you can’t “spoil” a baby under 3 months old by too much holding.
“I have colic—whee for all of us.” Colic—unexplained crying of a very particular kind—happens to some babies during the first three months. Both breast and bottle-fed babies get it, especially in the late afternoon or at night. You can recognize it by the “rule of threes”: Colic usually starts around 3 to 6 weeks and lasts for more than three hours at a time on more than three days in a week. It is…NO. FUN.
Believe this voice of experience when I say recognizing colic requires no detective work (or app). A few afternoons and nights of its reappearance make it pretty clear. Colicky babies are “difficult or impossible” to soothe, according to the trusted physician-authored Up to Date. The good news: Colic disappears by 4 months in 90 percent of babies.
“I’m just randomly crying. Deal.” Here’s the thing about crying that’s even more mystifying than colic: Sometimes no algorithm—and no parenting guru, either—can tell you what’s up. It’s wrong to assume a crying infant must be hurt or scared or unhappy, says Marc Weissbluth, a Chicago pediatrician and infant-crying authority, himself a father of four. Nor are they purposely crying to get us to do something. (Young infants aren’t wired to manipulate us.) Sometimes, he says, babies just cry.
As he explains in his book Your Fussy Baby, “The meaning of a baby’s crying is open to interpretation.” One school of thought holds that some infant crying has roots in evolution: Maybe it evolved as a way to get parents to hold their newborn, and therefore protect her. Then there’s the Harvard evolutionary biologist who recently suggested this reason why night crying peaks around 6 months: It’s a sneaky libido-zapper, distracting parents from creating siblings who might detract from the first baby’s odds of survival.As you see, it’s a toss-up. If scientists can’t agree on the whys or even whether there’s a why, don’t be too hard on yourself or feel you’re the only parent on the planet who can’t figure it out.
In the end, “Why” matters less than “What now?”
Fun as the idea of a pocket translator of babywails might be, it doesn’t translate to better or even more confident parenting. That comes through trial and error—that simple human algorithm that’s more reliable than anything that technicians can dream up, because it comes from the close, responsive, back-and-forth relationship you’re building with your baby.