SANTA CRUZ, Calif. — Every parent with a new baby has to figure out what to do when the baby wakes up at night and cries. Alicia Zenteno knows that crying is the way a baby communicates.
"It's OK," said Zenteno, 29, whose daughter, Sofia, is 3 months old.
"She's trying to tell me something."
She knows how to soothe her baby and "not be anxious and desperate."
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It's not something she learned when her older daughter, Camila, was born more than three years ago.
Instead, she learned the secrets of baby behavior from Jane Heinig, executive director of the University of California, Davis, Human Lactation Center.
While interviewing mothers participating in the federally funded Women Infants Children nutrition program, Heinig discovered that many switched from breast feeding to formula and cereal, thinking their babies awoke at night and cried because they didn't get enough milk.
She teamed up with the WIC program to provide handouts to parents explaining how often infants wake at night — three to four times a night in the first eight weeks — and why they cry.
It could be that the baby needs a diaper change or a break from activity rather than another feeding. A baby who frowns be indicating too much interaction or too much noise.
Her ground-breaking three-year study found that when mothers got information about baby behavior, more of them breast-fed their infants exclusively for the first four months, and the percentage of overweight babies dropped.
A year and a half ago, Heinig started a "Secrets of Baby Behavior" blog, with short 500-word posts illustrated with baby photos. It has grown from 40 readers to more than 36,000.
"So many parents needed this information," she said. A father soothing his baby at the Phoenix airport told her he knew what to do because he read a blog about it from the University of California, Davis.
Parents of a newborn might be short on sleep, but that's normal.
"A 2-week-old sleeping through the night is not normal," said Robbie Gonzalez-Dow, the regional breast-feeding liaison at Community Bridges, which runs the WIC program in Santa Cruz County, Calif. She had heard about babies being given Benadryl at night.
"Commercials sell parents on the idea that they can have a perfect baby," Heinig said. "On television, all those babies can be controlled. People don't see real babies doing real things."
When a baby cries in public, strangers step in with advice, said Cathy Cavanaugh, director of the Santa Cruz County WIC program.
"The response to every cry is to feed," said Dana Wagner, who chairs the Santa Cruz County Breastfeeding Coalition. "That leads to tremendous overfeeding."