One of the first things you’ll notice as a parent is that babies cry. Here we look at what makes babies cry and how to help them settle.
Experiencing your baby crying can be upsetting, frustrating and exhausting. Not only are you trying to work out what’s wrong, but you’re desperately trying to soothe them at the same time. Don’t despair, all parents have been there and it’s a natural part of the journey.
When will my baby stop crying so much?
The good news is it doesn’t last forever. Babies cry most in the first three months of their lives, with the peak being around six weeks (Hiscock and Jordan, 2004).
It’s normal for babies to sometimes cry inconsolably and studies have shown that 20% of infants cry for long periods without an apparent reason during the first four months (Powell et al, 2018). On average they’ll cry for two to three hours a day.
This can’t be normal, or can it?
Even if your baby is crying a lot, it might be that your baby is going through what is sometimes called period of PURPLE crying – a perfectly normal stage of development. (PURPLE is not about the colour – it’s short for: Peak of crying; Unexpected; Resists soothing; Pain-like face; Long lasting; and Evening.)
PURPLE crying is a stage of inconsolable crying that can last up to five hours a day (NCSBS, 2018). The idea is that a lot of people misunderstand developmental crying when it is labelled as colic, mistakenly thinking their baby is abnormal.
Why is my baby crying?
There’s one main reason babies cry, beyond hunger, tiredness or PURPLE crying. It’s because they can’t communicate in any other way. They can’t talk, point, move or send you a text. When you’ve got limited options, it’s natural to do what you do best – for babies that’s exercising their lungs.
As you get to know your baby, you’ll hear differences in the cries and may be able to work out what they mean. There are some very common reasons for crying, and ways you can help.
It might not seem long since they’ve last fed but your baby’s tummy is tiny and can’t hold much milk. If you’re breastfeeding offer them your breast until they come off naturally. If you’re bottle feeding, check to see whether they’re finishing their feeds and try little and often.
If they continue to cry while breastfeeding, check their attachment. Reflux is common at feeding time, and while not usually a major problem, it can be a reason for the tears.
Read the food cues
Certain behaviour tells you when they’re ready for dinner, such as rooting for the breast, licking lips, fist in mouth and getting agitated. Acting quickly stops hungry becoming hangry (anger due to hunger).
Babies often cry when they’re tired, and it’s easy for them to become overtired with so much going on. Try stroking, holding and shushing, driving or walking them around, or finding a quiet, dark room where you can both have a nap.
I’m wet and dirty
No-one likes sitting in their own poo, and a dirty nappy can irritate a baby’s sensitive skin. Try some nappy-free time between changes to avoid nappy rash, just remember to put a protective towel underneath. Getting good at the quick change can avoid tears caused by the cold air and the feeling of exposure.
I need a cuddle
After nine months of being attached to mum, it’s a big deal to suddenly be on your own. Babies need a lot of love, reassurance and interaction so giving cuddles and play helps them feel comforted and secure.
I’m in pain or unwell
If it’s not immediately obvious why your baby is crying, it could be pain or illness like teething, PURPLE crying, colic, wind or earache. No one knows your baby as well as you do so if you’re worried, get medical help.
I’m colicky or in the PURPLE crying period
The chances are it’s PURPLE crying as that can last up to five hours a day. Colic is also usually characterised by periods of intensive crying for several hours a day. If it is colic, there’s no single cause for it.
You can try lots of different methods to sooth a baby with colic or PURPLE crying, from distractions to diet change.
I’m too hot or too cold
Make sure your baby’s clothing is right for the weather. When it’s hot and sunny, give them plenty to drink and don’t spend more than a few minutes in direct sunlight. When it’s cold, keep them wrapped up but regularly check they’re not excessively hot if wearing several layers or thick clothes.
I’ve got wind
When everything’s so small, there’s not much room for food to be digested. Wind and reflux can be a source of discomfort worth crying about. You could try the following to help your baby’s food go down and the burps come up:
- Winding your baby – rubbing and patting them on the back.
- Gently massaging the stomach in a clockwise direction.
- Slowly bending their legs toward their stomach, like they’re riding a bike.
I need attention
Babies are learning all the time and they soon know that crying leads to attention. Be it day or night.
It’s up to each parent how they manage cries for attention. You might use approaches from cuddling or feeding, through to encouraging self-soothing or controlled crying. Whichever method you choose, be prepared for changes in your baby’s routine, even from one night to the next.
Will it ever end?
Rest assured every parent has felt overwhelmed by their baby’s crying at some point. It’s OK to take time out for a few minutes. Make sure your baby is safe in their cot or basket and give yourself a break. If possible, get your partner, a family member of good friend to take over.
At six months, babies cry less as they find more and more ways to communicate, become more self-confident and able to work out the world for themselves. It won’t happen overnight, and there will be plenty of tears to come but as with every stage of a baby’s life, this phase won’t last forever.
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.
The Purple Crying website looks in detail at the stage in your baby’s life when they cry more than at any other time.
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.
Hiscock H, Jordan B (2004) 1. Problem crying in infancy. Med J Aust. 2004 Nov 1;181(9):507-512. https://www.mja.com.au/journal/2004/181/9/1-problem-crying-infancy
NCSBS (2018) What is the period of PURPLE crying? Available at: http://www.purplecrying.info/what-is-the-period-of-purple-crying.php
Powell C, Bamber D, Long J, Garratt R, Brown J, Rudge S, Morris T, Bhupendra Jaicim N, Plachcinski R, Dyson S, Boyle EM, St James-Roberts I (2018) Mental health and well-being in parents of excessively crying infants: Prospective evaluation of a support package. Child Care Health Dev. 2018 Jul;44(4):607-615. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/29667223