Everybody knows that babies cry. A lot. It’s their way of communicating. Here we try to decode crying to help you get to the bottom of your baby’s bawling.
It can be incredibly frustrating and stressful for mums and dads, when all you want to do is satisfy their need… If only you could work out WHAT that is.
As time goes on, you will get to know your baby’s language and things will get easier. There’s a certain amount of trial and error, as you try to work out what they’re telling you, but this responsive method is a good way to get to know them (Murray, 2014).
In the meantime, our guide can help you work out why your baby is crying in those early days and weeks.
What’s wrong, baby?
Is it hunger?
Chances are, if you have a young baby and they’re crying, they may well be hungry. Don’t be fooled by thinking ‘but they fed only an hour ago’. Babies don’t always stick to a schedule, and sometimes they want lots of short feeds one after another.
"A hungry baby’s cry can begin with a rhythmical cry or whine. It quickly escalates, getting louder and louder (Shapiro, 2003)."
- turning their head – sometimes called ‘rooting’
- opening their mouth
- licking lips or sticking out their tongue
- trying to suck on anything in close contact to their mouth, often their fists
- getting increasingly agitated.
Keep an eye out for these, so you can respond quickly and feed your hungry baby before they get too upset.
Are they overtired?
Tired babies are not much different to tired grown-ups. They are grumpy and irritable.
If your baby is being a bit whiny and getting upset over seemingly small things, they might be overdue a sleep. Their cry might be long and hard, and they may not respond to you trying to calm them down (Shapiro, 2003).
The paradox of the tired baby is that the more tired they get, the harder it is for them to sleep. Try to crack the art of spotting when they’re just starting to feel tired. That way you should be able to get them settled to sleep before things get nasty. Some common sleep cues to look out for are:
- rubbing their eyes
- the ‘thousand mile stare’ – staring blankly into the distance.
Make sure your baby’s room is quiet and dark, to help reduce stimulation and aid sleep. Light stops our bodies making the sleep hormone melatonin.
Try soothing your overtired baby then putting them down in their cot to nod off (and give you a break). Failing that, the gentle rocking motion of being held in a sling or pushed along in a pram can help an overtired baby get some sleep. You could even try driving them somewhere to help them snooze.
Is it wind?
It’s common for babies to swallow air with their feeds, causing discomfort. If your baby is squirming around or arching their back, they might be telling you they need to be burped.
Too much going on?
It’s easy to forget that babies can get overwhelmed. If they start to seem agitated and look away, they might be over stimulated.
This can be tricky if a friend has popped around to smile at your beautiful baby, but speak up. You know your baby best, so don’t feel bad for telling any well-meaning visitors that it’s time for some quiet time.
Perhaps they’re uncomfortable?
Dirty nappy? Too hot? Too cold? There are so many reasons your baby might be less than pleased with their environment.
Feel their nappy to check whether they need a change. Using a barrier cream will help make sure a wet nappy doesn’t irritate their sensitive skin.
If you’re concerned about temperature, feel the back of your baby’s neck to check they’re not getting too hot or cold. You’ll also want to make sure you’re keeping your baby at the right temperature.
Maybe it’s teeth?
- red cheeks
- teething rash on chin
- lots of drool
- constantly sucking and chewing on anything in reach
- some babies get sloppy poo, which can lead to painful nappy rash.
You might find giving your baby a teether toy can ease their pain. Read our teething articles for more hints and tips.
Are they in pain?
The cry of a baby in pain is often quite distinctive. It begins without warning and is long, loud and shrill, followed by a big pause, as if they’re holding their breath. They might tense their body, drawing up their hands and feet (Shapiro, 2003).
Give your baby a cuddle to calm them down and try to work out what has caused their pain. It could be something as simple as a trapped finger.
Could they be feeling unwell?
If your baby is crying constantly and you can’t console or distract them, they might be ill. Or if their cry doesn’t sound like a normal cry – it is weak, or high pitched – they could be ill. Check their temperature and seek medical advice from your health visitor or GP if they have a fever, or if they are showing other symptoms of illness.
Maybe it’s… nothing?
If you’ve gone through all this and can’t find anything wrong, it might be that, well, it’s nothing. Frustrating as that may be.
It might be that your baby is going through the period of PURPLE crying – a perfectly normal stage of development where they can cry for hours yet they’re healthy. Purple is short for: Peak of crying; Unexpected; Resists soothing; Pain-like face; Long lasting; and Evening (NCSBS, 2018).
Here’s one approach to this kind of crying:
‘...there will be times when you will not know what the crying is about. This doesn’t matter. What matters is that you calm them down and that you have the mental and emotional space in your minds to really hear and take seriously her panic and her pain.’ (Sunderland, 2007)
Cuddle time: Perhaps they just want a cuddle. Babies love to be held. This is especially the case during the first three months after birth, sometimes referred to as the fourth trimester. This is when babies are still adjusting to life outside the womb and crave close comfort from their caregivers (Brink, 2013).
Playtime: Maybe they’re bored, so try a change of scenery. Sing them a song, play a little or go outside. Perhaps just a bit of a bouncing up and down might do the trick.
Colic: If your baby cries a lot and cannot be soothed, it might be that they have colic. No one knows what causes colic, but if your baby has it, rest assured you’re not alone. And the good news is that most babies grow out of it by themselves around three months of age. Read more about colic here.
Seek advice: Talk to your health visitor or GP to ensure there aren’t any underlying issues that could be causing your baby to cry a lot. Issues might include reflux, or tummy problems caused by allergies.
My baby won’t stop crying and I don’t know what to do
It can be extremely hard to deal with a crying baby who won’t be soothed when it appears nothing is wrong. But there are steps you can take to keep calm, see our article about how to cope and keep calm with a crying baby.
This page was last reviewed in August 2018.
Our support line offers practical and emotional support with feeding your baby and general enquiries for parents, members and volunteers: 0300 330 0700.
You might find attending one of our 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.
Make friends with other parents-to-be and new parents in your local area for support and friendship by seeing what NCT activities are happening nearby.
Watch our coping with crying film.
Understanding childhood also have a range of resources available online and to download, developed by child psychotherapists, including a leaflet on crying.
There’s also useful information on the NHS website.
The NSPCC helpline provides help and support to thousands of parents and families.
The Lullaby Trust has lots of useful information and support for parents about safe sleep.
The AIMH website has some lovely videos for parents getting to know their babies.
Brink S (2013) The fourth trimester; understanding, protecting and nurturing an infant through the first three months. University of California Press, Berkeley.
Murray L (2014) The Psychology of Babies. Constable and Robinson, London.
NCSBS (2018) What is the period of PURPLE crying? Available at: http://www.purplecrying.info/what-is-the-period-of-purple-crying.php [accessed 18th October 2018].
Shapiro L (2003) The secret language of children. Sourcebooks, Chicago. p.20-21.
Sunderland M (2007) What every parent needs to know. Dorling Kindersley Ltd., London. p.37.