Parents can get really anxious when their baby cries. This is because crying has evolved to be hard to ignore and really tugs on a parent’s heartstrings! Your baby cannot talk and so cannot tell you exactly what they need. Instead you will need to try to work out what the problem is and to soothe their tears away.
Common reasons why babies cry
- Being sick or in pain
- Being hungry
- Being tired
- Having a wet or dirty nappy
- Being too hot
- Being too cold
- Being uncomfortable
- Needing a cuddle
- Being over-stimulated
If your baby is sick or in pain their cry will be very loud, high-pitched and energetic. This is the cry you will hear when your baby has their immunisations: very loud and very sad. A pained cry will really bring you running and may have such a strong effect on you that you feel anxious and upset yourself. You need to look carefully at your baby and how they are behaving to see if there is something obviously causing pain, eg a wound or a rash.
You should also check your baby’s temperature to rule out a fever. If your baby has cried for a prolonged time and you think they are in pain or unwell and can’t be soothed, you should see a doctor as they will be able to assess them more thoroughly. When your baby’s cry isn’t an intense pain cry you will need to go through the list of possible reasons and rule them out.
Crying with hunger
If your baby hasn’t fed recently, or if feeding hasn’t been established (eg you are having trouble latching your baby on to breastfeed), they may be hungry. Hungry babies display feeding cues so they will also root for the breast and suck on their fist.
A good way to check if your baby is hungry is to use their rooting reflex as an indication. If you stroke your finger gently down your baby’s cheek they will turn their head if hungry and suck your finger furiously, in which case offer them a feed.
Tired and over-stimulated babies
As you get to know your baby you will begin to recognise their signs of tiredness or feeling over-stimulated. Tired and over-stimulated babies need the opportunity to sleep. Babies can get easily over-stimulated and can become very restless. A classic sign of an over-stimulated baby is if they starts to frown and avoid eye contact with you (which is usually their favourite thing). Try to give them some calm, quiet and soothing time, and avoid loud noises and exciting games.
Check if their nappy needs changing, feel their tummy and see if they have too many or too few clothes on. See if they just want to be picked up for a cuddle (they will stop crying immediately if this is the case).
Babies need ‘nappy-free’ time. This allows them to kick freely without the restriction of a nappy and clothes so it can be nice – while changing a nappy – to give baby plenty of time to kick free. Clothes also need to be appropriate for the temperature of the day or night, with all uncomfortable labels removed as these can be itchy and cause irritation and crying.
If your baby regularly cries for long periods – for more than three hours, more than three days a week and this has persisted for three weeks – they may have colic.
Babies like lots of cuddles
Babies love to be carried and cuddled. For thousands and thousands of years people have carried babies during the day. Try to make sure that your baby has lots of opportunity for cuddles and that you and your partner carry them a lot.
Newborn babies will be much happier being carried in a soft sling than spending prolonged periods of time in car seats, prams or cots. This ‘babywearing’ is common in many cultures and is associated with less crying.
Your baby wants to be near you. When you cuddle and carry them, they feel your warmth, smell your skin, listen to your voice and heartbeat, and relax and feel safe and secure. This closeness also means that you can read their cues and often anticipate your baby’s needs before they feel the need to cry. Babywearing can be a really nice way for dads to bond with their baby and can help to give mums a break in the early days, when there is lots of feeding going on.
Your baby picks up on your emotions
Babies pick up on your feelings too so try to remain calm when they are crying. Try not to feel pressured by feelings of disapproval that often meet a crying baby when out in public. Crying is not a failure but a natural part of baby’s development. It is only your baby’s way of saying that they need your help.
How to soothe a crying baby
Mums and dads have good natural instincts when it comes to soothing babies, and parents around the world seem to do broadly the same things. To soothe your crying baby (and relax yourself) use these timeless soothing techniques:
- Hold your baby in your arms close to your chest so they can feel your heartbeat
- Walk or rock them in a chair – the movement is soothing
- Sing to your baby – all cultures have lullabies
- Gently shush them – some doctors have suggested that the shushing sound reminds babies of the calming white noise in the womb
As you get to know your baby and they settle into recognisable patterns of behaviour you will be able to anticipate when they tend to be hungry, sleepy, over-stimulated, etc. This will take a bit of time as you get to know each other, but spending lots of time carrying them will help you to see their cues and signals up close.
Feeling overwhelmed by your baby’s crying
It is very upsetting, tiring and frustrating when a baby will not stop crying. Every parent of a little baby will feel overwhelmed at times. Make sure you have support and talk to family and friends. See the ISPCC’s booklet Avoiding a Crysis for more help to understand and cope with a crying baby.
Babies are very vulnerable and can be seriously injured if they are shaken or treated roughly. If you feel that you are losing control it is important to give your baby to someone calm and responsible in the house, eg your partner or your mum, so you can calm down and regroup for a bit. Have a bath, have a cup of tea, go for a walk. If you are home alone with your baby and feel overwhelmed it is better to safely place them in their cot for a few minutes, while you calm down and relax.