There’s no getting around it: Babies cry. It’s how they communicate hunger, pain, fear, the need to sleep, and more. So how are you supposed to know exactly what your baby is trying to tell you? It can be tricky to interpret your child’s cries, especially at first.
Here are the most common reasons babies cry:
This is probably the first thing you think of when your baby cries. Learning to recognize the signs of hunger will help you start feeding your baby before the crying stage. Some hunger signs to watch for in newborns include fussing, lip smacking, rooting (a newborn reflex that makes babies turn their head toward your hand when you stroke their cheek), and putting their hands to their mouth.
Stomach problems from colic and gas
Tummy troubles associated with gas or colic can lead to lots of crying. The rather mysterious condition known as colic is usually described as inconsolable crying for at least three hours a day, at least three days a week, at least three weeks in a row.
For more help, learn helpful strategies for soothing a colicky baby.
If your baby often fusses and cries right after being fed, she may have some sort of tummy pain. Many parents swear by over-the-counter anti-gas drops for babies or gripe water (made from herbs and sodium bicarbonate), though neither has been proven to be effective. Get your doctor’s okay before using either of these.
Even if your baby isn’t colicky and has never been fussy after eating, an occasional bout of gas pain can make her miserable until it passes. If you suspect gas, try putting her on her back, grasping her feet, and moving her legs in a gentle bicycling motion.
Needs to burp
Burping isn’t mandatory. But if your baby cries after a feeding, a good burp may be all he needs. Babies swallow air when they breastfeed or suck from a bottle, and this may cause discomfort if the air isn’t released. Some babies are intensely bothered by having air in their tummy, while others don’t seem to burp or need to be burped much at all.
A dirty diaper
Some babies let you know right away when they need to be changed. Others can tolerate a dirty diaper for quite a while. Either way, this one is easy to check and simple to remedy.
It seems like tired babies should simply be able to go to sleep, anytime, anywhere. But it’s harder for them than you might realize. Instead of nodding off easily, babies may fuss and cry – especially when they’re overtired.
Wants to be held
Babies need a lot of cuddling. They like to see their parents’ faces, hear their voices, and listen to their heartbeats, and can even detect their unique smell. Crying can be their way of asking to be held close.
You may wonder if you’ll spoil your baby by holding him so much, but during the first few months of life that isn’t possible. To give your arms some relief, try wearing your baby in a front carrier or sling. (Learn how to put on a baby carrier.)
Too cold or too hot
If your baby feels chilly, like when you remove her clothes to change a diaper or clean her bottom with a cold wipe, she may protest by crying.
Newborns like to be bundled up and kept warm – but not too warm. As a rule, they’re comfortable wearing one more layer than you need to be comfortable. Babies are less likely to complain about being too warm than about being too cold, and they won’t cry about it as vigorously.
Something painful and hard to notice
Babies can be troubled by something as hard to spot as a hair wrapped tightly around a tiny toe or finger, cutting off circulation. (Doctors call this painful situation a “hair tourniquet,” and it’s one of the first things they look for if a baby seems to be crying for no reason.)
Some babies are extra sensitive to things like scratchy clothing tags or fabric. And they can be very picky (understandably) about subtleties ranging from the position they’re held in to the bottle you offer.
Teething can be painful as each new tooth pushes through tender young gums. Some babies suffer more than others, but all are likely to be fussy and tearful from teething at some point.
If your baby seems to be in pain and you’re not sure why, try feeling his gums with your finger. You may be surprised to discover the hard nub of an emerging baby tooth. (On average, the first tooth breaks through between 4 and 7 months, but it can happen earlier.)
Wants less stimulation
Babies learn from the stimulation of the world around them, but sometimes they have a hard time processing it all – the lights, the noise, being passed from hand to hand. Crying can be a baby’s way of saying, “I’ve had enough.”
Many newborns enjoy being swaddled. It seems to make them feel more secure when the world gets overwhelming. If your baby’s too old for swaddling or doesn’t like it, try retreating to a quiet spot and letting your baby vent for a while.
Wants more stimulation
A “demanding” baby may be outgoing and eager to see the world. And often the only way to stop the crying and fussing is to stay active. This can be exhausting for you!
Try wearing your baby facing out in a front carrier so he can see all the activity around him. Plan plenty of activities. Hang out with other parents with babies. Go on regular outings to kid-friendly places, such as your local playground, a children’s museum, or the zoo.
Not feeling well
If you’ve met your baby’s basic needs and comforted him and she’s still crying, she could be coming down with something. You may want to check her temperature to rule out a fever and be alert for other signs of illness.
The cry of a sick baby tends to be distinct from one caused by hunger or frustration. If your baby’s crying just doesn’t sound “right,” trust your instincts and call or see a doctor.
What to do if your baby’s still crying
Full tummy? Check. Clean diaper? Check. No fever? Check. So why is your baby crying?
Babies have their own good reasons. But they don’t have the words to tell us what’s wrong, and even the wisest parents can’t read their baby’s mind.