A clinic offering guidance to parents who find it difficult to cope with babies crying for prolonged periods has opened in south London.

The Crying Clinic, which operates from the Moffat health centre in Lambeth, tutors parents in techniques such as massage which are designed to promote bonding with their children.

Nicki Bainbridge, a health visitor who runs the clinic, said: 'You can imagine what it is like. It's bad enough going to Sainsbury's and hearing a child screaming and crying. If it is your own child crying all the time you feel so helpless and so guilty.

'I've seen parents whose children are crying most of the time. One baby was crying 24 hours a day. Mum couldn't even put it down for more than half an hour.

She and Dr Alan Heath, a clinical psychologist who also works on the project, carried out research into what was most likely to trigger parents to hit their child. A child's

inability to sleep, constant crying, or difficult behaviour came top.

Not much is known about why babies cry for prolonged periods. It is normal for them to cry if they are hungry, need changing, want attention or are too hot. Colic - extreme discomfort because of wind - can also be a cause.

Although the clinic opened only last month, Ms Bainbridge has been seeing anxious parents for the past year in their own homes, offering support and advice.

Baby massage has proved extremely helpful. Parents are taught to stretch their child's legs and arms very gently, to manipulate the baby's fingers, and to rub the back and tummy.

'It takes a while for the baby to get used to it, but then they really love it, said Ms Bainbridge. It is also good for the parents, some of whom may not naturally touch their baby in this loving way, she said. 'It gives them a special time with their baby outside the general care. It also promotes closer bonding with the parents, particularly if the mother suffers post-natal depression.

She also teaches parents what has been dubbed 'the miracle cure - a way of holding the baby that stops it crying. The child is held tummy down on the parent's forearm, with legs and arms straddling the parent's arm, and the heel of the hand under the baby's diaphragm. It works almost every time, said Ms Bainbridge.

The initiative is one of many projects she has set up to promote 'positive parenting. She also runs a sleep clinic that teaches parents how to encourage their child to go to sleep and not keep waking up through the night; a baby massage clinic; and a therapeutic play clinic, which shows parents how to play with their children in a way that encourages closer bonding and gives the child full attention. Unlike most health visitors, who would have a caseload of families with new babies to visit, Ms Bainbridge's job is as a specialist health visitor, working solely on improving parenting skills.

She works for West Lam-beth Community Care NHS Trust, which is committed to a pioneering programme of promoting positive parenting and early prevention strategies in child protection work.

Although the clinic is open to all parents, they are keen to target the most vulnerable families.

Lambeth does have a serious child abuse problem, with more children on the at-risk register than anywhere else in England and Wales. There were 650 children on the council's child protection register in March 1993, the equivalent of 116 per 10,000 population. The average for London was 60 per 10,000 population.

'Really, it is to work with parents who are more vulnerable in their parenting styles, said Ms Bainbridge. 'I think the Trust realised that children who are living in these inner- city areas are more likely to be vulnerable. They thought it would be really good to help before it was too late.

All the signs are that the project is having some effect. Parents attending the sleep clinic felt it was a valuable resource. In the first year (May 1992 to April 1993) 23 of the 39 cases dealt with were able to settle the child to sleep quickly and let them sleep through the night, on average after just six visits. The other clients were still receiving help.

The baby massage also improved parenting skills, with half the parents surveyed saying they found it a relaxing, special time outside the baby's hectic routine.

But it is not just 'at risk families who attend. The clinic is open to anyone living in its Lambeth catchment area:

'Anybody who finds they have a crying baby which is difficult to manage can benefit from the clinic, said Ms Bainbridge. 'We are not saying sorry, you live in a big house, so you can't come. It is there for everybody.

For more details contact Nicki Bainbridge on 071-735 4169.

'30 DAYS WERE LIKE 30 years'

When Alla Smith gave birth to Daniel five months ago, she immediately had a taste of things to come. 'He was born in the morning. The following night he cried all night. The nurses eventually took him away from me to give me a break, but they brought him back, still crying,' she said.

For about a month she and her husband, Stephen, struggled on through Daniel's constant crying.

'It was really very difficult. He wasn't sleeping - quite a lot of the time he was crying. I was totally exhausted. Those 30 days seemed like 30 years. It is difficult to cope with the pressure. I had to get up most of the time as my husband was working. I was constantly tired.

Sometimes she felt she could not cope any more.

Then Nicki Bainbridge visited Alla and Daniel.

'She introduced us to full-body massage. I could see the results almost immediately. At first Daniel wasn't sure whether to give me hell or let me do it. Now he loves it. Alla also learnt how to time Daniel's feeds so he would not be hungry in the night. Now he is much happier.

'If it weren't for Nicki he would still be crying and not sleeping. She helped us tremendously - it's been wonderful.

(Photograph omitted)