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CRYING is natural for babies: how else can they tell their mothers they are hungry, wet or cold? But some cry more than others, and first- time parents may wonder whether their infant's crying is normal. With increasing family mobility, advice may not be easily available from a grandmother or other relative. How much crying should a mother expect? Should the baby be left to cry or be picked up at once?

A research study in Manchester may help answer these questions: 201 women attending St Mary's Hospital for antenatal care were invited to take part in a study of infant growth and development. They were shown how to keep diaries of their child's behaviour, and babies were brought to a clinic for measurement and assessment at six, 13, 26 and 52 weeks. The mothers were also interviewed at length. They were asked if they thought their babies cried a lot, what their response was when the baby cried, and how effective they thought they were at soothing their baby. The mothers' responses to crying were divided into four categories: leave alone; leave for five minutes; go to immediately; pick up immediately.

At six weeks the average time a baby cried in 24 hours was 43 minutes, but 15 never cried for as long as five minutes, and one cried for nearly five hours. At 13 weeks the average crying time was 29 minutes, at 26 weeks it was 21 minutes, and at one year it was 13 minutes. By the end of the year, 55 of the babies were no longer crying at all for as long as five minutes; one was still crying for nearly two hours.

Mothers who replied "Yes" when asked if their babies cried a lot did have babies who cried more than average. Those who cried a lot at six weeks went on crying more than the others throughout the year. No links were found between crying and social class, housing, lack of social support, being married or not, or the father being the biological father. Breast- fed babies cried less: but only one infant in six was still being breast- fed at 13 weeks. Nevertheless, the babies who cried least were those who were breast-fed longest.

Mothers who picked up their babies the moment they began to cry recorded the shortest crying times, while those who ignored the crying had babies who cried longest. Mothers who thought they were good at soothing their babies reported less crying. Not unexpectedly, most of the crying occurred when the babies were not being held by either the mother or the father, and other studies have confirmed that some infants (but not all) may be largely dissuaded from crying by increased contact.

Overall, this study confirms others in finding wide variation in the amount that babies cry, but consistency for each individual child: those who cry a lot in the first weeks of life seem to go an crying later in the first year. As early as six weeks, virtually all the babies were quieter at night than during the day, and crying did become steadily less frequent during the first year of life. Though there is still some disagreement among childcare experts, the weight of evidence seems to favour the belief that a quick response to crying has good effects both at once and in the longer term. Mothers who pick their babies up and sooth them as soon as they cry will find their babies cry less - and will cry less as they grow older. The belief that picking up a baby will "spoil" it seems to have little evidence to support it.