Babies cry. It’s a feature, not a bug. Sure, we all know this before getting into the whole parenthood thing, but I don’t think any experience—being seated next to a tiny screamer on an airplane, holding a shrieking nephew as his bottle is prepped, or even living above an infant in full sleep-training mode—could ever prepare one for the relentless agony of being face-to-face with your own inconsolable child and feeling utterly helpless. The other night, I experienced this with my “easy baby.” I rocked him, stood up, sat back down, rocked him in a different position, stood up again, murmured some holy hells, and he still wailed.
For many moms and dads, seeing their baby cry is hard, but that’s not what’s maddening. It’s the pitch and the volume and the persistence of the shrieks. “It’s like he was screaming from the inside of my brain,” one redditor described of his first son. “When this happened, I would have feelings of anger, despair and even violence.” Others could relate.
There’s a tip that maternity ward nurses don’t tell you, and I’m not sure why. It is simply: Protect your ears. Writer Nicole Cliffe recently gave this advice on Twitter:
Major tip when you are the one soothing the shrieking baby: noise-cancelling headphones, it takes the edge off just enough to keep your brain from melting. Also, as always, if you are really losing it, PUT BABY IN CRIB AND LEAVE ROOM.
Babies can cry at over 100 decibels, which is in the danger zone for hearing damage with prolonged exposure. In one study (PDF) out of Eastern Kentucky University, a child’s cry was recorded at 120 decibels, an intensity “comparable to the noise generated by snowmobiles and only 10 [decibels] below that of an airplane departure.” The sound is designed to put you in distress (you can thank evolution for that). It’s been said that sound of crying babies is blasted at Navy SEALs to test their endurance. In rare cases, excessive crying can place an infant at risk for abuse.
So when you’re rocking and comforting a baby who is screaming in your ear, it makes sense to do what it takes to feel a little more human, as long as it’s safe. However, the thing about Cliffe’s recommendation—to wear noise-canceling headphones—is that it might not work. The New York Times explains the science behind the gadgets and gives the bad news: “At higher frequencies, like the human vocal range and higher, the headphones do very little if anything at all.” (Though some beg to differ and say that they’re awesome for dampening baby screams.) You might also try foam ear plugs at around the 30 decibel level. Some parents have used a combination of the two.
It’s important to note that you’re not ignoring your child, and you still want to hear the cries. (I would not wear any noise-blocking device after putting a baby to bed, unless perhaps another adult is on duty.) This is not a solution to a baby’s crying, if that must be said. It’s a given that you are talking to your pediatrician about any underlying issues. The tip is meant to help you be a better parent to your baby. For that, you need to hear yourself think.
(As Cliffe notes, if you have any disturbing thoughts that are “persistent and present when the baby is not crying,” talk to your doctor.)