Babies tend to have different cries to express different needs or emotions. Here are the most common reasons newborns cry, what each type tends to sound like and how to soothe your little one.
IN THIS ARTICLE
- Why is your baby crying?
- What if you can’t find a reason for baby’s crying?
- How can you learn to understand a newborn’s cries?
- How to cope with baby’s crying spells
Even though your baby can’t talk, she is capable of giving you some clues to help you understand what she’s communicating. Since she can’t exactly tell you what she needs with words, she relies on an array of whimpers, cries and all-out screams to get your attention.
But all cries are not created equal. Here’s how parents and caregivers can learn how to decode a newborn’s different types of cries.
Why is your baby crying?
Babies tend to have different cries to express different needs or emotions. While you might be a natural at cracking the code on some types of crying, most new parents benefit from a little guidance. Here are some “crib” notes to help clue you in to what your baby may be saying (or screaming):
1. I’m hungry
- Listen for: A low-pitched, rhythmic, repetitive cry, combined with other signals such as rooting for the breast, a sucking motion with her tongue, lip-smacking, or putting her fingers into her mouth.
- The solution: Respond to hunger cues quickly so that baby doesn’t get too worked up. If she’s upset and begins gulping air with her milk, she may trap gas or spit up, which will probably result in more crying.
2. I’m tired or uncomfortable
- Listen for: A whiny, nasal, continuous cry that builds in intensity is usually baby’s signal that she’s had enough (as in, “Nap, please!” — usually accompanied by yawns, eye-rubs or ear-tugs) or is otherwise uncomfortable (“I need a clean diaper” or “I can’t get comfortable in this car seat”).
- The solution: Check for a dirty diaper, and help your baby get as much sleep as she needs (remember that newborns often sleep more than 16 hours a day).
3. I’ve had enough
- Listen for: Get ready for a fussy, whiny cry. She may try to turn her head or body away from overstimulating sights or sounds.
- The solution: When you recognize this cry, try moving your baby away from the noise, movement, visual stimulation or whatever it is that’s stressing her out. A calmer environment, white noise from a fan or vacuum cleaner, or a recording of nature sounds, like ocean waves, may help relax her.
4. I’m bored
- Listen for: This cry starts out as coos (as baby tries to get a good interaction going), then turns into fussing (when the attention she’s craving isn’t coming), then builds to bursts of indignant crying (“Why are you ignoring me?”), alternating with whimpers (“C’mon, what’s a baby got to do to get a cuddle around here?”).
- The solution: Pick your baby up or play with her and you should find the crying stops immediately.
5. I’ve got colic
- Listen for: Intense wails or screams, accompanied by fidgeting movements. Colic often occurs in the late afternoon or evening, and the episodes can last for hours. It typically peaks around 6 weeks after birth and goes away by the time baby is 3 to 4 months old.
- The solution: While it’s difficult to calm a colicky baby, you can try comforting positions (laying her on her tummy on your forearm or across your knees, supporting her head and rubbing her back). You can also try putting her down on her back and gently pushing her knees up to her stomach for 10 seconds, then releasing and repeating, in hopes of getting the gas (which is thought by some to be a possible cause of colic) out of her.
6. I’m sick
- Listen for: Soft whimpers that are weak and nasal-sounding, with a lower pitch than the “pain” or “overtired” cry — as if baby doesn’t have the energy to pump up the volume. If you suspect your baby is sick, be on the lookout for additional symptoms that warrant a call to the doctor, such as fever, diarrhea, constipation, vomiting, rashes and anything else that seems out-of-the-ordinary for your baby. There’s no sadder cry that tugs harder at parental heartstrings than this one.
- The solution: Babies get sick sometimes, and often it’s nothing to worry about. Still, it’s important to trust your instincts. If you are concerned that your infant is sick (especially if she’s younger than 3 months), check her rectal temperature. If it’s 100.4 degrees F or greater, call her doctor right away.
What if you can’t find a reason for baby’s crying?
Some newborn crying seems entirely unrelated to basic needs. In fact, 80 to 90 percent of all babies have crying sessions of 15 minutes to an hour that are not easily explained or decoded.
Most of these crying sessions happen in the evening. It may be that this is the most hectic and stressful time of day in the home: Everyone’s tired, everyone’s hungry (and Mom’s milk supply may be at its lowest level of the day), everyone’s done, done, done, and that goes for baby, too.
Or it may be that after a busy day of taking in and processing all the sights, sounds and other stimuli in her environment, baby just needs to unwind with a good cry. Crying for a few minutes may even help her nod off to sleep.
However, if you think you’re hearing a cry of discomfort or pain, check to see if there is something making your child uncomfortable, such as clothing or hair wrapped around her finger. If your baby’s crying seems unusually prolonged or intense and she is inconsolable, call your pediatrician.
How can you learn to understand a newborn’s cries?
It may feel like a lot to figure out, but as your baby becomes a more effective communicator and as you become more proficient at understanding her, she will cry less often, for shorter periods, and will be more easily comforted when she does cry. You’ll also learn to identify what her cries mean more quickly. So hang in there!
Meanwhile, having a repetitive routine can help. If your baby’s day falls into a pattern of feeding, a period of alert play, and then a period of sleep, knowing where you are in the cycle can help you determine quickly what your little one needs. If she has a full belly and an empty diaper, she may be ready for a nap, or she may just need a cuddle.
How to cope with baby’s crying spells
There may be times when your baby seems inconsolable, especially if she has colic. Though even hours of daily crying don’t seem to hurt a baby, it certainly can leave its mark on parents.
Listening to a baby’s wails can be upsetting and anxiety-provoking, even when you love that baby with all your heart. Scientific studies show that it’s linked to a rise in blood pressure, a speeding up of heartbeat and changes in blood flow to the skin — in other words, it can take a physical and emotional toll.
Here are a few strategies that may help you cope with the crying spells:
- Take a deep breath. Remind yourself that the wailing won’t last forever. If it’s colic, it should typically resolve on its own by about 3 months.
- Give yourself a break. Enlist the help of your partner, a trusted family member or friend, or get some hired help to pitch in so you can take a timeout to collect yourself. Taking shifts with your partner or other caregiver can help, so that each person gets a longer chunk of rest (for example, if feeds are every three hours, one parent sleeps through one feed so they can get six hours of sleep or rest). When you do get a break, try de-stressing with some relaxation techniques, like meditation or yoga, or simply take a warm bath or shower.
- Keep yourself healthy. Although it’s easier said than done when you have a newborn, try to make time to eat healthily, exercise and sleep when you can. Taking care of yourself will help you take better care of your baby.
- Know your limits. If your baby’s crying is really getting to you and you’re worried that you might lose control, set your baby down in a safe place, such as a crib, and move into another room so you can calm yourself down and gather your thoughts. If you need extra help or just someone to listen, don’t hesitate to reach out for additional support from your doctor, a therapist, a support group or a crisis intervention service.