Although all parents expect some level of crying from their babies, nothing is more distressing than having a child who cries inconsolably. By learning how to read your baby’s cries and fix the problem, you can gain confidence as a parent, and your infant will appreciate your perceptual interpretation of their needs. This parent-infant communication insight saves you and your child the frustration of crying for what seems to be no reason.
Experts indicate that babies cry with a purpose, so the quicker you figure out what makes your little one upset, you can breathe a sigh of relief sooner. It is good to know that babies who cry a lot as infants are considered normal. According to studies, most infants who cry a lot are healthy and develop normally; many normal babies have a crying “peak” at around 1–2 months; and “unsoothable” crying bouts, which can alarm parents, usually resolve by three months of age.
So even if your sweet pea seems to be extra fussy, you can rest assured that this distressing time will pass and that expressing their needs robustly and frequently is most likely nothing to be overly concerned about.
What are the 3 types of baby cries?
Can you recognize the difference in your baby’s cries? Are there actually different types of crying that your little one uses to communicate needs?
Instead of guessing what your baby is crying about, can you interpret what they’re trying to tell you? The answer may be yes and no to these questions.
Infants do not consciously know how to cry differently to show their needs, but they instinctively display a variety of pitches and cry sounds that signal different demands. Knowing that a basic form of infant communication is through cry helps parents think differently.
Let’s explore some basic types of baby cries to shed light on what they are trying to communicate to you:
1. Ouch, something is uncomfortable!
If your baby is too hot or cold, itchy, or has a soiled diaper, they will likely let you know. Their cries are not insistent sounding in these instances but are more likely a softer pitch. It may come and go, and they may even forget about it for a while, but over time, the issue will keep them from napping, so they start fussing once again.
However, some infants just cry loudly and are more challenging than others to console.
A cry from pain sounds different altogether. This signal is steady, and your child’s cry will be loud and high-pitched. Your child will show agitation by flailing their arms and legs. Babies with colic or gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) will display this trait. A shrieking, inconsolable child is usually a warning of something causing discomfort in your baby.
This point is well illustrated by my twin grandsons, who behaved differently from each other in infancy. The “older” twin was easy to console, went to bed without difficulty, and slept well as a baby. His “younger” brother was a different story. This twin was bothered by everything around him and suffered from constipation and an upset stomach. His first few months of life must have been very uncomfortable as he shrilled and wailed a good portion of the day and night, pulling up his feet and thrashing them around the crib. He looked miserable, and he made sure that everyone knew about it.
An uncomfortable infant will act upset as well as cry. This twin could not get comfortable, so he expressed displeasure by frequently crying and his body displaying discomfort.
2. I’m so hungry!
Hunger cries may start as a little fussy cry but will escalate to a full-blown desperate-sounding wail if you do not heed their earlier signal to feed them. Besides the high-pitched “I am starving” wail, your hungry bunny will clue you in by rooting around or by putting their fingers or fists in their mouths when hungry.
3. Hey, what about me?
Believe it or not, infants get bored and lonely and sometimes just miss their parents. If this is the case, your little nugget will express his need by signaling you with a cry. This cry is typically softer than other distress signals but will serve to get your attention.
You will be surprised how quickly they learn that their cry will gain a cuddle from mom or dad, and they will continue using this even as they start communicating verbally. Your baby’s cries may sound more like a grunt or short spurts of screeching that catch your attention.
We have a busy 8-year-old happy camper who, as an infant, was easily bored. His frequent non-urgent crying marred his bubbly personality, but this would stop as soon as you played with him or changed his environment. Once he could move around on his feet and explore, this little whiny trait disappeared. As a baby, he just needed to be entertained and frequently change his scenery.
Little ones who cry inconsolably when you put them down at night may have trouble separating from their parent. This type of cry is usually loud and shrieking. Infants who cry for their moms at night are genuinely upset; their cries sound desperate like a lost coyote from the pack.
The hope is that any infant who wails when put down will learn to self-soothe, and their distress calls will shorten and lessen in intensity over time. Tips on how to put a fussy baby to sleep may help parents with this daunting task.
Do babies cry for no reason?
Although it may seem like some babies cry for no reason, there is usually a need behind the crying that we should meet. Some may, however, cry more than others as a reaction to distress or them wanting something. Babies may also cry when they see an unfamiliar face or are tired or overstimulated.
As with any child, they each react differently to individual situations. My twin grandkids are a perfect example. When one was overstimulated, he chose to go to sleep. The other twin responded as if the crib was on fire, thrashing and screaming until someone picked him up to soothe him quietly.
Why does my baby keep crying?
Unfortunately, inconsolable crying can extend longer than infancy’s typical first few months. This crying may signal that there’s a lot more going on. Food intolerances, colic, or other medical issues may be the cause. Discuss any ongoing crying or suspicion of colic with your pediatrician.
What can you do to help a crying baby?
Knowing what can cause your baby to cry puts you on the right track to quieting a crying infant. Until you and your little peanut have gotten to know each other well, you should go through a mental “checklist” of causes when he cries.
Could he be hungry, does he need to burp, is he tired or bored? By going through this list of possible reasons and eliminating your infants’ unmet needs one by one, you are likely to stumble upon the actual cause of his distress.
The fussy baby checklist
This fussy baby checklist can save you from tearing your hair out as your baby’s cries become more insistent and you grow frantic.
Here’s a quick list of why babies cry:
- Need to burp
- Need to sleep
- Soiled diaper
- Stomach ache
- Loneliness or boredom
- Too hot or too cold
- Feeling sick
Go through the checklist above that will help eliminate any chance of unnecessary crying and employ the 5 S’s to soothe your baby.
Calming a fussy baby using the 5s’ method
Dr. Harvey Karp, pediatrician and author of The Happiest Baby on the Block, pioneered this method when he coined 5 techniques parents have often used to calm fussiness.
- Swaddle: Swaddling provides security and comfort. A swaddled baby stays soothed longer because their arms can’t wriggle around.
- Side or stomach position: While the back position is safe for sleeping, it’s not the best for calming a crying baby. Hold them on their side, on their stomach, or over your shoulder.
- Shush: Use white noise or even your own voice to create the shhh sound that imitates the noise in the womb, making your baby feel calm and safe. A high-pitched shhh’ing is good for calming your fussy baby, while a lower shhh’ing sound is better for keeping a quiet baby calm.
- Swing: Rock your baby in your arms or use an infant swing. Slow rocking helps keep a calm baby quiet, but fast, tiny motions can help soothe your crying baby. This motion is similar to the jiggle they felt in the womb. If your infant falls asleep in the swing, place them flat on their back in their crib. Here’s more about SIDS prevention.
- Suck: A baby cannot cry and suck at the same time. Sometimes your baby isn’t hungry but wants or needs to suck to relax. If your little one doesn’t like a pacifier, don’t force it. Otherwise, offer them the opportunity to bottle-feed or breastfeed.
Comforting your little bundle using these techniques will go a long way in making them feel relaxed and happy. For more information on the 5 S’s, the video below illustrates how to use each technique to soothe a fussy infant.
You can also calm and relax your baby by giving your baby a warm bath or trying a baby massage.
How do I know if my baby is crying in pain?
Babies in pain are inconsolable. Their cries are loud and desperate. Many times, they are pulling their legs up or flailing about. After trying to feed or soothe a wailing baby without success, you should consider other causes such as discomfort or pain.
If you suspect that your infant is in pain, you will need to investigate the cause further. Gas or constipation are the typical culprits but also check your baby’s skin all over for redness or rash and clothing to make sure that nothing is constricting their tiny fingers and toes or causing discomfort.
When to be concerned
You know your baby the best. If you are fortunate to have an easy-going infant who rarely cries and consoles quickly, then going for long periods of desperate crying despite soothing is a red flag that you shouldn’t ignore.
If you have a typically fussy baby, do not dismiss this behavior as something your child needs to live with. Although 1 in 4 babies may experience colic in their early life, you need to discuss your concerns with your child’s doctor. The pediatrician should offer tips to help ease your baby’s crying and solutions to other possible causes.
Some babies like to exercise their vocal cords more than others and because they can’t speak, their only way of communicating their needs is through crying. By employing some of the tips and techniques we’ve listed in this article to help crying babies, you can enjoy your sweet infant without the added stress of wondering what to do. Once you have your little one figured out, your bond will strengthen, and you can enjoy all of the blessings of having a less fussy baby.
It’s essential to also look after yourself if the baby cries a lot. Give yourself a break and have another person (partner, friend, or relative) take over for a while.