Coping with a crying baby
A baby crying can be one of the hardest things for parents to deal with. Here we look at why young children become upset, as well as ways to help you cope when your baby won't stop crying.
Crying is normal behaviour for babies. Research shows that babies tend to cry most between the ages of two weeks and three months, with crying peaking between six to eight weeks. Periods of inconsolable crying are not unusual.
Just like adults, babies have a range of different needs and crying is one of their ways of trying to let their parents know what they need. Here are some of the reasons why babies cry:
- Nutrition: Your baby may be hungry or thirsty. Crying may not stop immediately when you offer a feed. If you are able to stay relaxed, your child will be able to calm herself more easily and start to feed. Newborns have very small tummies so don’t be surprised if they need to feed frequently.
- Sleep: Babies often cry when they are tired so finding a way to get your baby to sleep may help you all. You could try soothing your child then putting her down in her cot and leaving her for a few minutes to see if she will go off to sleep while you have a break, or you could put her in the buggy and go for a brisk walk.
- Over-stimulation: Too much stimulation can be overwhelming; try taking your baby somewhere calm to settle them.
- Emotional comfort: Babies need to adjust to the transition from womb to the outside world. They generally love to be held and touched and can also need reassurance that someone is close by.
- Physical comfort: Check if your baby has a soiled nappy or perhaps she is uncomfortable, or too hot or too cold.
- Illness: If you’ve done everything you can, you may wonder if your baby is ill or in pain. A child who is ill often cries in a different tone. It may be more urgent or high-pitched. If your child has difficulty breathing through the crying, or if the crying is accompanied by vomiting, diarrhoea or constipation, call your GP.
Some babies keep on crying even when you’ve tried everything and there are no obvious signs of illness. If you find that your baby is constantly crying; they may have colic. Colic is excessive crying or extended and repeated periods of crying or fussing in babies who are otherwise healthy and thriving. Common symptoms in babies usually begin within the first few weeks of life and generally end by around three months.
The causes of colic remain unclear, despite much research into the topic. While there are lots of products available, pharmaceutical treatments have not been proven to be effective. The section on soothing your child may give you some other ideas to try.
Excessive crying might also be caused by reflux, which is when the stomach contents— food (milk) and acid — come back up into the gullet or into the mouth. Most babies have reflux to a degree because the muscular valve at the end of their food pipe, which acts to keep food in the stomach, hasn’t developed properly yet. This is painful for only a small proportion of babies but if you suspect that reflux is upsetting your baby, talk to your GP or health visitor.
Some experts suggest that re-creating a ‘womb-like’ environment in the early weeks and months, as well as staying close to them, can help your child feel safer and therefore calmer. You could try some of the following to soothe your baby:
- Gently rock her in your arms, in a sling or her buggy.
- Stroke or massage her back gently.
- Try holding her in different positions.
- Take her outside: babies often like to feel the air on their faces.
- Try soothing sounds or talk gently, sing or hum.
- Offer her a clean finger-tip to suck.
- Ask someone else to take over, sometimes a new pair of hands works wonders.
Self soothing is skill that babies learn over time and some babies learn to do it more quickly than others. In their early months, babies will need help from their parents or other adults to calm down.
There may be times when you are unable to comfort your baby immediately, for instance, if your child starts crying when you are driving or wakes up when you are in the shower. Research suggests that if babies are usually responded to sensitively, the occasional bout of prolonged crying won’t have a detrimental effect.
For parents who are exhausted, sometimes leaving a baby to cry on their own can feel like the only option they have in order to preserve their own emotional wellbeing. This is a decision for each parent to make but always seek help if you think you need it.
Dealing with a crying baby can often make parents feel stressed and anxious. Here are some approaches which may help:
- Remember this is probably a phase and your baby’s crying should ease off at around three months.
- Talk to other mums and dads. They may have some ideas you’ve not thought of or simply provide reassurance that things will get better and you are doing a good job.
- Talk to your partner, relatives, friends, health visitor or GP about how your child’s crying is affecting you and get help from them if you need it.
- Keep a diary of your baby’s crying and sleeping patterns so you can see progress.
- Take some ‘time out’ from your baby. Get your partner, a relative or friend to look after her while you recharge your batteries.
If you are afraid that you may shake or otherwise hurt your baby, put her down in a safe place, such as her cot, and go to another room. Get help immediately by calling your partner, a friend, neighbour or Cry-sis.
Trying to soothe a crying child can be stressful but thinking about why your baby might be crying and also seeking help when you need it are good coping strategies. Your child will continue to change and what is most important is that they are comfortable and that you feel happy with your parenting decisions. Consider these early months as a ‘getting to know you’ time.
NCT's helpline offers practical and emotional support in all areas of pregnancy, birth and early parenthood: 0300 330 0700.
You might find attending one of NCT's Early Days groups helpful as they give you the opportunity to explore different approaches to important parenting issues with a qualified group leader and other new parents in your area.
Cry-sis has advice on coping with a crying or sleepless child. The Cry-sis helpline – 08451 228 669 (08451 ACT NOW) – is open seven days a week from 9am-10pm, and can give you the number of a volunteer contact, who has experienced similar problems in the past and can understand what you are going through.
Home-Start has a parent-helper visiting scheme and a helpline 08000 68 63 68 (Mon-Fri 8am-8pm and Sat 9am-12pm)
The national charity family lives has a free 24-hour helpline (0808 800 2222) for information and support on any parenting issue, including crying babies.
For advice about coping with a crying child, see Babycalming: Simple Solutions for a Happy Baby by Caroline Deacon available from NCT Shop.