Seven reasons babies cry and how to soothe them

Why do babies cry?

All babies cry sometimes. They have to. Even entirely healthy newborns will cry for somewhere between one and three hours each day. Unable to do anything for themselves, babies rely on someone else to provide them with the food, warmth, and comfort that they need. Crying is a baby’s way of communicating one of those needs. As a new parent, it can sometimes be difficult to work out what your baby is telling you – is she hungry, cold, thirsty, bored, looking for a cuddle? In the early days, when you have not yet learned to work out what your baby needs, this crying can be upsetting. However, you will gradually begin to recognise your baby’s different crying patterns and, as you get to know her better, will be able to anticipate her needs.

As babies grow, they gradually learn other ways of communicating with us, too. They get better at eye contact, making noises, and even smiling, all of which reduce the need for crying. The most common reasons babies cry are listed below. If you have a baby who is difficult to soothe, try working your way down the list. That way, you can reassure yourself that you have tried to meet her needs as well as you possibly can.

• I need food
Hunger is the most common reason a new baby will cry. The younger your baby is, the more likely it is that she is crying because she is hungry. The exception to this is in the first day or two after birth, when some babies feed very little. If you are breastfeeding, you may well be aware of this, as the very concentrated early milk, colostrum, is produced in small amounts and you notice when the milk “comes in” around the third day. A baby’s small stomach cannot hold very much, so if your baby cries, try offering her some milk, as it may well be that she is hungry. She might not stop crying immediately, but let her keep feeding if she wants to, and she will gradually be soothed as her stomach fills up. If your baby has been fed and is still crying, however, perhaps she is expressing the next need.

• I need to be comfortable
Babies will very sensibly protest if their clothes are too tight or if a soiled nappy is bothering them. Some babies don’t seem to mind if their nappies are full – it just feels warm and comfortable to them – while others will call out to be changed immediately, especially if some tender skin is being irritated. Checking your baby’s nappy and changing it may meet her needs, so this is always worth trying. It also gives you an opportunity to check that a nappy tab isn’t too tight or that there isn’t something else about her clothing making her uncomfortable.

• I need to be warm – and not too hot or too cold
Some newborns hate having their nappy changed or being bathed – they are not used to the feel of the air on their skin and much prefer to be bundled up and warm. If your baby is like this, you will soon learn how to perform a nappy change quickly so that you can calm her down again. Take care not to overdress your baby, though, so that she gets too hot. A good rule to follow is that she needs to wear one more layer of clothing than you do to be comfortable.

In the cot or Moses basket, try using a sheet and cellular blankets as bedding, rather than a duvet, so you can add and remove layers as necessary. You can check whether your baby is too hot or too cold by feeling her stomach: if she’s too hot, remove a blanket, if she’s cold, add one. Don’t be guided by her hands or feet, as it is normal for them to feel slightly cold. Keep your baby’s room at a temperature of around 18 degrees C / 64 degrees F, and put her down to sleep on her back with her feet at the end of the cot so that she can’t wriggle too far down under the blankets and get too hot that way.

• I need to be held
Some babies need a great deal of cuddling and reassurance. An older child may be soothed by seeing you in the room or hearing your voice, but new babies often need close physical contact for comfort. If you’ve fed your baby and changed her nappy, you may find that she now simply wants to be held. Some parents worry that they will “spoil” their baby if they hold her too much, but during the first few months of life that’s impossible. While some babies don’t seem to need that much physical contact, others want to be held almost all the time. If your baby needs a lot of holding, you might like to try a baby sling, which allows you to keep your baby close while leaving your hands free for other tasks; this may be a solution that keeps you both happy.

• I need a rest
It is easy to assume that babies will fall asleep whenever they need to, wherever they are, simply because so many of them do. However, if your baby has been receiving a lot of attention – perhaps you’ve had a busy day with hordes of visitors round – she may become overstimulated and then find it hard to “switch off” and settle. Newborns can find it difficult to cope with too much stimulation at once – the lights, the noise, being passed from one adoring relative to the next – and can become overwhelmed by it all. Many parents have found that their baby cries more than usual when relatives come to stay, or sometimes just towards the end of each day. If there seems to be no specific reason for your baby’s crying, she may just be saying, “I’ve had enough”. If you can take her somewhere calm and quiet, gradually withdrawing the stimulation, she may express her feelings by crying for a while and then eventually settling to sleep.

• I need something to make me feel better
If you’ve fed your baby and checked that she’s comfortable, but she’s still continuing to cry, you may wonder if she is ill or in pain. First-time parents often find it difficult to tell whether their baby is crying purely because she’s an unhappy baby by nature (and some are, as it takes them a long time to adjust to being in the world) or whether there’s something genuinely wrong. A baby who is ill often cries in a different tone to her usual cry – it may be more urgent or high-pitched. Equally, for a baby who normally cries frequently, an unusual quietness may be a sign that she’s not well. The most important thing to remember is that nobody knows your baby as well as you do. If you feel that there may be something wrong, give your GP, midwife, or health visitor a call. Health professionals will always take your concerns seriously, and it may be reassuring for you to know that there isn’t a physical cause for your baby’s crying. Always call your doctor if your baby has difficulty breathing through the crying, or if the crying is accompanied by vomiting, diarrhoea, or constipation. See our article on when to call the doctor for more guidance.

• I need something … but I don’t know what
Sometimes you might not be able to figure out what’s wrong when your baby cries. Many newborns go through patches of fretfulness and are not easily comforted. The unhappiness can range from a few minutes of hard-to-console crying to several hours at a stretch, an almost constant state of crying that is sometimes called colic. Colic is defined as inconsolable crying for at least three hours a day, for at least three days a week. Many parents find it very difficult to cope with a baby who has colic, and it can put a strain on the whole family. There is no magic cure for colic, but it rarely lasts for more than three months. If you can hold on to the fact that your baby will grow out of it, that may help. See our article on coping with colic for more strategies on how to deal with this distressing condition.
My baby’s crying – what can I do?
There are things you can try to comfort a crying baby. Not all of them will work for all babies, so you need to gradually get to know your own baby and her particular personality to find out what works for her and for you.

• Wrap her up and hold her tight
Newborns show a definite preference for feeling snug and secure, just as they were in the
womb, so you might like to try swaddling your baby in a blanket to see if she likes that. Many parents also find that holding their baby close, especially when she can hear their heartbeat, or putting her in a baby sling is soothing. Other babies find swaddling too restrictive and respond better to other forms of reassurance such as being rocked or sung to.

• Find a constant rhythm
In the womb, your baby could hear the regular beat of your heart: that’s one of the reasons many babies continue to like being held close. However, other regular, repetitive noises can also have a calming effect. You could try playing gentle music or singing a lullaby. Many parents find that if their baby can hear the steady rhythm of a washing machine or the “white noise” of a vacuum cleaner or hairdryer, that will soon lull her off to sleep. (Never put your baby on top of a washing machine or clothes dryer – always put her on the floor next to it.)

• Rock-a-bye baby
Most babies love to be gently rocked, and you may find that your baby is calmed by this, too, whether you walk around rocking her or sit with her in a rocking chair. Special baby swings can soothe some babies, while others are comforted by being in rather faster motion and drop off almost as soon as they’re driven somewhere in a car.

• Try a massage
Giving your baby a massage or gently rubbing her back or tummy can help soothe her. If she seems to have pains with wind, try feeding her in a more upright position and winding her after a feed by holding her against your shoulder. Babies who have colic may sometimes be soothed by having their tummies rubbed, and it may make you feel better to know that at least you are trying to do something to help your baby’s distress.

• Let her suck on something
In some newborns, the need to suck is very strong and sucking a dummy or (clean) finger or thumb can bring great comfort. “Comfort sucking” can steady a baby’s heart rate, relax her stomach, and help her settle.

• Don’t demand too much of yourself
A baby who cries almost constantly will do herself no lasting harm, but may cause a great deal of stress and worry for her parents. If your baby seems pretty unhappy to be here and resists every effort that you make to cheer her up or calm her down, it can be hard not to feel rejected as well as frustrated. Parents sometimes blame themselves, feeling that it is their incompetence as parents that is causing the crying, but this is rarely the case. If you know that your baby’s needs have been met, that there is nothing physically wrong causing your baby to cry, and if you’ve tried everything you can think of to calm her but nothing’s worked, it’s time to take care of yourself so that you don’t become overwhelmed. Here are a few suggestions:

• Take deep breaths.

• Put your baby down somewhere and let her cry for a while out of your hearing.

• If it helps, put on some quiet music and let yourself relax for ten minutes.

• Call a friend or relative and get some support. Give yourself a break and let someone else take over for a while.

• Talk to your health visitor about local support groups or mother-and-baby groups where you can share your feelings and discuss ways of coping with the crying with other new parents.

• If it all gets too much, call one of the telephone helplines. The Cry-sis helpline on 020 7404 5011 is for parents of babies who have sleep problems and / or who cry excessively. The helpline is open 24 hours a day, seven days a week for emotional support and practical advice.

• Remind yourself that nothing is wrong with your baby and that crying in itself won’t hurt her. Sometimes simply accepting that you have a baby who cries a great deal can help, in that you don’t wear yourself out looking for reasons for the crying, blaming yourself for it, or offering endless new remedies which don’t work.

• Remind yourself that this is a phase and it will pass.

Being the parent of a newborn is hard work. Being the parent of a newborn who cries a great deal is even harder work. Get help and support when you need it, rather than letting things build up. And take comfort from the fact that each day, as your baby grows, she learns new ways of being able to communicate her needs to you. Gradually, as she does so, the crying will stop.

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