Babies cry. That’s how they communicate. Crying, in fact, has several useful purposes.
Aletha Solter, the founder of the Aware Parenting Institute, outlines two main reasons for a baby’s crying: communication and colic or irritable crying.
Communication is straightforward. Your baby cries when they’re hungry, bored, cold, or just in need of some love and attention. As parents, it’s our responsibility to try to understand and meet our baby’s needs as promptly and accurately as possible. According to the aware parenting approach, you can’t spoil a baby with too much love, attention, or physical contact.
The second reason, colic or irritable crying, is less clear. Babies can continue crying even after all their basic needs have been met and even when being held. This type of crying, which usually peaks around six weeks of age, has been called “colic” or “irritable crying.”
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According to Solter, irritable crying can last for several hours. Traditional explanations focus on physical problems like gas pains or indigestion, but research has shown that most babies with colic are in excellent health. Therefore, we need to consider possible emotional reasons for crying.
Solter’s perspective is based on the vulnerability of babies. Every day, babies experience something new about the world around them, and they can easily become frightened and overstimulated as they try to understand their surroundings. Babies also become frustrated as they try to learn new skills, resulting in emotional pain that’s stored in their bodies. Crying is a natural healing mechanism that helps babies overcome the effects of stress.
For instance, a three-month-old baby may need to cry for a long time after a family gathering during which they were held by many unfamiliar people. A six-month-old baby who has been trying to crawl all day may need to cry to express their frustrations by the end of the day. Solter defines crying in these examples as the process of becoming unhurt.
In this article, you will read more about crying in babies, how to soothe a crying baby and learn some answers to frequently asked questions.
Table of Contents Hide
- What does crying mean for a baby?
- How much crying is normal for a baby?
- Baby crying sounds: What do different cries mean?
- Dunstan Baby Language (Different Baby Sounds)
- When will my baby stop crying so much?
- How to soothe a crying baby?
- Tips for helping your baby settle down
- What if my baby won’t stop crying?
What does crying mean for a baby?
Your baby’s cries are their primary method of communication. During the early stages, it may be difficult to interpret what your baby is trying to convey. Every baby has a unique way of vocalizing, and their crying sounds can express various needs and emotions.
As you spend more time with your baby, you will become attuned to their crying patterns and begin to understand what they are trying to tell you. Are they hungry, angry, sleepy, distressed, or in pain? The first few weeks after birth can be particularly stressful as you attempt to decode the reasons behind your baby’s cries.
It is important to note that some babies may cry more frequently than others. However, with time and practice, you will become better at identifying your baby’s needs and feelings through their cries. Understanding the emotions and needs behind your baby’s cries will help you comfort and calm them. Remember, a crying baby does not mean you are a bad parent; it simply requires patience and practice to interpret their needs.
Typically, babies begin crying shortly after birth and cry the most at around 2 months of age. As they develop, they tend to cry less frequently, typically between 3-5 months of age.
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How much crying is normal for a baby?
During the first few weeks of life, it’s normal for babies to cry for an average of around two hours per day. However, during the first three months of life, crying tends to peak and babies may cry more frequently during this time. Some babies may cry very little during the first couple of weeks after birth because they’re still adjusting to life outside of the womb, but as they become more alert, they may start to cry more frequently to communicate their needs.
Additionally, some babies may experience periods of inconsolable crying that can last up to five hours per day. This is a normal stage of development known as the period of PURPLE crying. PURPLE is an acronym that stands for Peak of crying, Unexpected, Resists soothing, Pain-like face, Long lasting, and Evening.
It’s worth noting that some babies cry very little during the first couple of weeks of their lives. This is because they are still adjusting to life outside the womb and sleeping a lot. But as they start to become more alert and aware, they may start crying more frequently to communicate their needs.
Baby crying sounds: What do different cries mean?
During the first few months of life, babies cry to let you know they need to re-establish a sense of closeness. Responding quickly to their cries with warmth, affection, and reassurance can help them feel secure and calm down faster. This will make sure they can enjoy a good feed or playtime.
Physical reasons for crying are often easier to identify shortly after birth, such as needing a diaper change, hunger, sleepiness, colic, or feeling too hot or cold.
But emotional needs are just as important for babies. They need help managing their feelings because they can’t do it on their own. Fear, anger, over-stimulation, loneliness, and boredom are difficult emotions babies can experience but cannot manage by themselves.
Babies use different cries to express their various needs and emotions, and with time, you will become an expert at deciphering your baby’s cries. However, at the beginning, it’s natural to seek guidance on how to respond to your baby’s cues.
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The hungry cry is a low-pitched, rhythmic, repetitive cry that’s like a siren. Your baby may also put their hand to their mouth, smack their lips, clench their fingers, and turn their head towards the bottle or breast.
The solution: Swiftly respond to hunger cues so that your little one doesn’t get too worked up. If they get upset and begin gulping air while feeding, they may trap gas or spit up, leading to even more crying.
I am uncomfortable
The discomfort cry is a unique cry that seems to combine all the other types of cries. It can persist until the baby’s needs are met. Discomfort crying can occur at any time, whether the baby feels too hot or too cold, has a dirty diaper that needs changing, or is experiencing some other type of discomfort.
The solution: To soothe a baby experiencing discomfort crying, you will need to be patient and attentive to their cues. Your baby may squirm or turn their head from side to side, so be sure to follow their lead and try different things until they feel more comfortable. Don’t worry, with a little patience, you’ll be able to help your baby feel better in no time.
When a baby is tired, their crying can be quite distinct. It’s often high-pitched and sounds like they’re struggling to hold their breath, with short and soft whimpers gradually escalating into more intense cries.
The solution: To soothe your little one, check if their diaper needs changing. After that, make sure they have a comfortable sleeping environment and try to create a soothing bedtime routine. You can also try gently rocking or swaying your baby, singing a lullaby, or playing white noise to help them drift off. Remember that every baby is different and it may take some trial and error to find the right approach that works for your little one.
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I’ve got colic
Babies with colic are known to cry excessively, with intense and persistent wails or screams. Whereas most infants cry for an average of 2-3 hours a day, babies with colic cry even more, often in long and inconsolable episodes that can last for hours. Colic usually strikes in the late afternoon or evening, adding to the stress of the day.
The solution: To ease your little one’s distress, you can try some comforting positions, such as laying your baby on their tummy on your forearm or across your knees, being sure to support their head. Gently rubbing their back can also provide soothing relief. Alternatively, try putting them on their back and gently pushing their knees up to their stomach for a while.
Sick crying is different from other cries as it’s persistent and doesn’t cease even after your baby has been fed, comforted, or put to sleep. Crying that accompanies sickness is usually soft and weak. They’re also higher in pitch, but lower in intensity. There can be long pauses between crying fits. If you suspect that your baby is sick, be on the lookout for additional symptoms such as fever, diarrhea, constipation, vomiting, rashes, and more.
The solution: If you’re worried that your baby is sick, take their temperature and follow your instincts. Don’t hesitate to call your doctor for help.
I am overstimulated
Babies can get easily overstimulated by new sights, sounds, and experiences, and their cries might become whiny as a result. When this happens, the baby may try to turn away from overstimulating stimuli or become fussy and irritable.
The solution: To help your baby calm down, try changing their environment. Moving your baby to a quieter or darker room, reducing visual stimulation, or adding some white noise can help. You can also try using recorded nature sounds to soothe your baby.
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A baby who is bored may start with soft cooing sounds to get your attention, but if left unattended, this can escalate to a fussy cry and then an indignant cry with alternating whimpers. This cry pattern is similar to that of an overstimulated baby.
The solution: To solve this, you can pick up your baby and play or talk to them. You can take a walk outside or sing a song together. Every baby and family has their own way of combating boredom.
Dunstan Baby Language (Different Baby Sounds)
Babies have a wide range of sounds that they use to communicate, and researchers have studied these sounds extensively in an attempt to understand and respond to their needs.
The Dunstan Baby Language is one theory that has gained popularity in recent years. It proposes that all babies under 3 months old use a set of specific sounds to communicate their needs before they start crying.
Although the theory is not scientifically proven, it has gained traction, and many parents have found it helpful in understanding their baby’s needs.
According to the Dunstan Baby Language theory, there are five universal baby sounds that all babies use to express their needs:
- “Neh” for hunger
- “Eh” for the need to burp
- “Owh/Oah” for expressing tiredness
- “Eair/Eargghh” for cramps or low belly pain
- “Heh” for physical discomfort; such as feeling hot or wet
Although the Dunstan Baby Language is not scientifically proven, some researchers have found evidence that it works. For example, one study used a voice-based emotion recognition computer program to test the accuracy of the Dunstan method.
The program was fed 250 Dunstan recordings and their meanings and then used it to test 65 more recordings for accuracy. The study found that the Dunstan method was correct at classifying cries 89 percent of the time.
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When will my baby stop crying so much?
As babies grow, they start to develop other ways to communicate their needs and may cry less frequently. They may also start to sleep for longer stretches at night, which can be a relief for parents. By the time babies are 6 months old, they typically cry much less often than they did in their first few months of life.
It’s important to remember that every baby is different and some may continue to cry more than others. It’s always a good idea to seek support from healthcare providers, family, and friends if you are feeling overwhelmed or concerned about your baby’s crying patterns.
And most importantly: remember that this does not last forever.
How to soothe a crying baby?
To comfort a crying baby, it’s crucial to identify the reason for their distress. Without understanding the underlying cause, parents may try various techniques that don’t effectively address the issue.
The book, Happiest Baby on the Block by Harvey Karp (a prominent pediatrician, author, and child development expert), introduces a set of general calming methods known as the Five S’s: Swaddle, Side-Stomach Position, Shush, Swing, and Suck. These techniques aim to help parents quickly and effectively soothe their babies by mimicking the sensations they experience in the womb.
Here are some tips on how to soothe a crying baby using the Five S’s:
- Swaddle: Babies often love to be swaddled since it creates a sense of security similar to the gentle hug of the womb. To swaddle your baby, wrap them in a snug but not too tight blanket with their arms at their sides.
- Side-stomach position: Holding your baby on their side or stomach can be comforting and help resolve tummy issues. However, it’s important to note that it’s not safe to let babies sleep on their side or stomach; the back is the only safe sleeping position.
- Shush: Contrary to popular belief, babies don’t need total silence to sleep. They prefer a noisy environment because of the sounds they heard in the womb. Make a gentle shushing sound directly into the baby’s ear to replicate those noises. Don’t be afraid to turn up the volume a bit for a crying baby.
- Swing: Rocking and swinging can reduce crying and improve overall sleep quality. Try gently swinging or jiggling your baby to calm them down. Always support the baby’s head and neck during these motions.
- Suck: Sucking is very calming for babies. It can lower their heart rate, blood pressure, and stress levels. Nursing or using a pacifier can help calm a fussy baby. If you’re breastfeeding, wait until nursing is well-established before introducing a pacifier.
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Tips for helping your baby settle down
It can be helpful to think of your crying baby as trying to communicate with you. By listening and learning their language, you can build a strong relationship between the two of you. It may not always be easy, but it’s worth the effort.
Here are some additional tips for soothing your crying baby:
- Make sure your baby is clean, dry, comfortable, and fed. Sometimes all they need is to be held by someone they’re emotionally connected to.
- Hold your baby close and use a gentle, soothing voice while patting, rocking, or swaying.
- Change the environment by taking a walk outside or moving to a different room.
- Try holding your baby in different positions to see if one is more comforting than another.
- Give your baby a warm bath and a massage, but be aware of their cues and preferences.
- If you’re breastfeeding, offer your baby the comfort of nursing. If bottle-feeding, they may need more milk.
- Play calming music, hum, sing, or read to your baby. The sound of your voice can be soothing.
- Hand your baby to a trusted adult and take a break from the intensity of their crying.
What if my baby won’t stop crying?
If you feel like you have exhausted all possible ways to soothe your baby, and they are still crying, here are a few things you can do:
- Ask a friend or family member for help. It can be a big relief to have someone come over and take care of the baby while you take a much-needed break. It’s okay to ask for help!
- If you feel like you’ve reached your limit and nothing is working, place the baby on their back in their crib (without any loose blankets or stuffed animals) and step out of the room for 5 minutes. Take some deep breaths or do something to relax yourself. You’ll be better equipped to comfort your baby when you come back.
- If you’ve tried everything and your baby is still inconsolable, call your doctor. Sometimes there can be an underlying medical issue causing your baby’s fussiness, and your doctor can provide advice or recommend treatment options.
References: healthychildren.org, thebump.com, whattoexpect.com, www.pregnancybirthbaby.org.au, healthline.com, kidshealth.org, babycenter.com, nct.org.uk, webmd.com, awareparenting.com, happiestbaby.com