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You’re tired and awake in the wee hours of the morning, and your little one doesn’t seem to want to calm down anytime soon. Welcome to parenthood.
One of the first things that you’ll learn as you’re thrust into caring for a newborn is that they cry – and they cry a lot. Of course, it’s only normal for babies to cry especially because that’s all they really know. But it’s also possible to learn the why’s and what’s of crying so you can properly address your child in those seemingly endless episodes of bawling.
So if you’re interested in decoding your baby, learning about their cries, and figuring out how to soothe them at the soonest possible second, then keep on reading. Here we discuss everything you need to know about why babies cry and what you can do about it.
We created this in-depth, comprehensive guide to give new parents a more accurate perspective on their babies’ cries. If you’re looking for specific information, you can use this outline to navigate the article:
Communication – The Core Reason for Crying
To better understand the specifics of babies’ cries, it’s important that we first dive into language development. What a lot of people don’t know is that humans are capable of communication as early as birth, thanks to the mechanism of crying.
During the first 6 weeks of life, your baby won’t be able to communicate in ways other than crying. Up until 4 weeks of age, most of your baby’s cries will sound the same, making it difficult to figure out what he or she wants or needs.
This stage is the very first stage of language development. Experts call this initial state undifferentiated crying – cries that lack variety and are thus impossible to decode. For most first-time parents, these first 4 weeks can be the most stressful. In some cases, the stress can become so overwhelming that parents decide to ignore the baby all together.
While this might work in some cases, it’s worth pointing out the basic concept that crying is communication. So while it might be a challenge to truly pinpoint what a baby is crying about during the first few weeks of life, it’s imperative that you respond when they do.
Providing them stimulation with your touch, your voice, or even just the sight of your face can be more than enough to let them know that their cries have an effect on their environment. This is then processed in the baby’s brain, and they effectively learn to cry only when necessary.
This is what leads to the second stage of language development, called differentiated crying. Once your baby passes the 4-week mark, her cries will become varied and distinct. During this time, parents and close caregivers will be able to identify between cries and will be much more capable of determining what it is that’s causing the fuss.
At this stage, it’s possible to become accustomed to different crying sounds. For instance, a parent should be able to recognize if a crying baby feels uncomfortable, irritated, hungry, or sleepy simply based on the unique sound of each cry.
Keep in mind that understanding what your baby is trying to communicate won’t happen overnight. But maintaining close contact with your child and exerting effort to piece together the clues provide through their cries will help establish a more harmonious and dynamic relationship between you and your baby.
The 10 Most Common Reasons Why Babies Cry and How To Soothe Them Individually
According to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, man’s most basic motivation is physiological need. For babies, this remains to be true as most of the reasons for their cries stem from some sort of bodily function.
The most common reason why babies cry is hunger. Comparing a young infant to a grown adult, studies have found that babies metabolize nutrients differently. Despite having such small bodies, they go through calories much faster. So they feed much more frequently compared to adults.
Experts recommend that babies be fed at least once every 2 hours during the newborn stage. As they grow, feeding schedules can stretch out to once every 4 hours after the 2-month mark.
How Can You Tell if a Baby is Hungry?
A question that a lot of parents ask is “how can you tell if your baby is crying out of hunger?” There are a number of tell-tale signs of hunger in babies. The first and most prominent is the rooting reflex.
As one of the very first reflexes, rooting is a mechanism that helps the baby locate the mother’s teat for efficient feeding. To trigger the rooting reflex, you can try stimulating the sides of the lips.
If the baby is hungry, they will readily turn their head towards the stimulated side. If the baby isn’t hungry, it might take several attempts before they respond to the stimulation.
Another easy way to tell if your baby is hungry is by checking the soft spot. The baby’s fontanel, located on top of the head, will sink or depress if the baby is hungry. Make sure to take extra precaution when palpating the soft spot and avoid pressing on it too hard.
Keep in mind that crying is a late sign of hunger, which means your baby may have been hungry for a while before they even started crying. If you can establish an efficient feeding schedule for your little one, they might not have to reach the point of crying to signal hunger.
2. Positional Discomfort
After birth, your baby’s system will take some time to attune to the outside environment. As the synapses in the nervous system develop and learn, the child soon becomes capable of managing all the stimulation he encounters.
However, during the start, certain senses might cause your baby some discomfort. Proprioception is a sense that’s unknown to most parents, but it’s often a cause of distress for infants.
The proprioceptive sense is responsible for providing your brain information on your position in space. So even with your eyes closed, you’ll know whether you’re sitting upright, or if you’ve been moved from your center of gravity. This is also why rollercoasters can be scary even when you occlude your vision throughout the entire ride.
What Are the Markers of Positional Discomfort?
You’ll notice that your baby is experiencing proprioceptive insecurity when the arms suddenly stretch out, the hands clench, and the limbs and torso stiffen when you move their body through space. This is usually followed by loud cries as if the baby had been hurt.
To prevent this type of crying, it’s always recommended that parents take extra care when handling an infant. Gentle, slow movements can minimize proprioceptive input, so make sure to take extra precaution when lifting your baby. You might also want to try swaddling your child to reduce overstimulation of the proprioceptive sense.
3. Soiled Nappies
Another common reason why babies tend to cry is soiled nappies. The wet, mushy texture inside a diaper might not seem like a lot to fuss about. But for babies, this can cause significant discomfort and unease.
Diapers that have been left unchanged for too long can pool with urine and stool. Over time, this mixture of excrement can make the bum and genitals feel cold – a sensation that’s often unpleasant for small babies. When left to soak for too long, soiled diapers can also cause rashes.
In some cases, a baby’s stool can cake on their skin and cause their bum to adhere to their diapers, causing pain when pulled away.
How to Address the Nappy Issue
Make sure to regularly check your baby’s nappies and avoid leaving them soiled for too long. You might also want to try using cloth diapers which have been said to be more comfortable because of their softer material.
4. Over or Under Stimulation
Imagine being suspended in fluid for 9 months, encased in a safe, small, dark space with low, monotonous, rhythmic sounds surrounding you at all times. Then imagine suddenly being ripped out of this calmness to be confronted by bright lights, sharp noises, and different sensations running across your skin.
This is precisely what happens to a baby during birth. With such abrupt changes forced on their bodies, infants don’t have the time to learn about their new environment. So they end up rolling with the changes, often crying along the way when sensations become unpleasant.
Moments of over and under stimulation can make a baby feel uneasy and uncomfortable. That’s why you’ll notice that some infants will cry when there’s too much light, noise, or even wind.
But because the environment of the womb is not completely noise, light, or sensation-free, leaving your baby in a motionless, quiet state might also frustrate them. That’s why babies cry when they’re left lying down without stimulation for too long.
Normalizing Stimulation for Your Baby
If your baby cries as a result of over stimulation, try to minimize the stimulus or move to a calmer space. For moments of under stimulation, simply carry your baby and sway or hum to provide just enough proprioceptive input to satisfy his senses.
5. Maternal Diet
If your baby is exclusively breastfed, then whatever you eat could affect his disposition. This is because anything that a mother eats will be turned to milk, and can thus cause stomach upset, gassiness, bloating, or behavioral changes in breastfeeding infants.
Studies suggest that certain foods consumed by the mother can cause a baby to cry more often and become fussy. These include garlic, coffee, spices like curry and chili, citrus fruits, and green, leafy vegetables.
When Can You Consider the Maternal Diet as a Cause for Crying?
It can be complicated to figure out whether a baby is crying as a result of the mother’s diet because different foods can cause different reasons for discomfort. For instance, garlic can cause gassiness and bloating, while coffee is known to be the reason for general fussiness and sleeplessness.
If your baby presents these problems on a regular basis, try inspecting your own diet. Avoid any food that could be causing negative changes in your breast milk and assess whether your abstinence has a positive effect on your child. If your baby stops episodic crying after your dietary changes, then your food intake may have been the problem.
How can you tell if an infant in sick? In younger babies, it can be a challenge to determine the presence of illness especially if they cry often. As parents get used to the reality that babies just tend to cry a lot, they forget to consider sickness as one of the reasons for the fuss.
Unlike older children, infants present signs of illness in different ways. An example of this would be their temperature. In older kids, you can declare a fever once your child reaches 37˚C or higher. In babies though, this temperature is considered within normal limits.
It’s only when your infant reaches 38˚C or higher that you can provide medication for fever management. It’s important to keep in mind though that not all temperature taking methods are accurate. The best way to determine if your baby actually has a fever would be to take the temperature rectally.
Detecting Illness in Infants
Some other signs of illness in babies include rashes, limp or weak, and a swollen soft spot. In some cases, babies will also produce mucus or phlegm which they won’t be able to expectorate. So they might sound like they’re wheezing when they breathe.
At the first signs of illness, be sure to consult your pediatrician. Sickness in children is no light matter, and parents should never attempt to medicate or treat illness without first seeking the advice of a professional.
This should be a no-brainer, but pain registers differently in infants than it does in adults. That’s why parents aren’t always as well aware of stimulation that could be causing their babies pain. For example, adults might be able to brush off a bug bite and ignore its itchiness, but for infants, the sensation could be more than their little systems can bear.
Many new stories have also shed light on sources of pain that aren’t always immediately apparent. One mother reported that her child had been crying ceaselessly for hours when she decided to inspect her to see if there was anything causing her pain.
To her surprise, she found the infant’s toe coiled in a piece of hair which had impeded blood flow and caused the skin to turn purple. But the hair was so fine and so deeply embedded into the skin that it was impossible to remove by herself. So she quickly rushed her child to the nearest emergency facility to have the tangled hair removed.
The Tell-Tale Signs of Pain in Babies
Some signs that indicate your baby is feeling pain include loud, screaming cries, bending limbs towards the abdomen, clenching fists, and arching of the back. Your baby might also appear red in the face as a result of effortful crying.
Because your baby’s reason for crying out in pain might not be immediately apparent, experts suggest that you completely undress the child to find the source of discomfort and pain. Keep in mind that babies are much more sensitive, so things like bug bites, small cuts, and tangled threads or hairs can be more than enough to be the reason for inconsolable crying.
8. Wonder Week
Research has been able to identify a phenomenon in babies that may cause inconsolable crying for some time during the first few months. This is what experts have come to call the Wonder Weeks.
With ever-changing patterns, newfound knowledge, and a rapidly developing body, babies go through episodes of adjustment. During each Wonder Week, your baby might become fussier, restless, and might even cry more than usual. This is all normal as he learns to navigate the world better and understand the changes occurring in his body.
The Wonder Weeks are said to occur at 5 weeks, 8-9 weeks, 12 weeks of age during the first two years of life. Children also tend to experience Wonder Weeks up to the 4th year of life, but those instances don’t necessarily cause crying as children tend to be better adjusted.
The Very First Bout of Wonder Week
During the first episode of Wonder Week at 5 weeks, your baby is becoming more alert to his environment. So with new sensations being processed and recognized by his body, he might feel a little uneasy which could result in episodes of crying. This is also when experts say that the “witching hour” occurs, during which your baby will stay awake, fussy, and possibly crying from 5 PM – 11 PM.
The best way to calm your little one down during this time would simply be to hug and cradle him. You can also swaddle your child to provide a more safe and secure feeling that often soothes fussy babies.
Another Episode of Wonder Week
The second Wonder Week occurs between 8 and 9 weeks and happens as a result of curiosity. At this age, your baby becomes better aware of his surroundings and learns that he has an effect on objects outside of his body. So he might look for more stimulation, and will thus cry as a result of under stimulation.
Making sure he’s not left alone and idle for too long will help prevent bouts of crying. Some parents also like to indulge their baby’s curiosity by providing stimulation in the form of baby mobiles or pictures.
The Final Wonder Week at 12 Weeks of Age
The last episode of Wonder Week during the first year of life that might cause crying occurs at 12 weeks of age. As your baby learns more about his body, he will become much more active. These squirmy babies will keep moving about and might even try rolling over to their tummies.
Because of the heightened energy, babies at this age won’t be able to sleep too well at night. For some infants, the difficulty of balancing between the urge to move and the need for sleep can cause distress, and thus result in crying.
There isn’t a lot that parents can do during this third Wonder Week. So it might be one of the hardest episodes you’ll have to deal with. Experts suggest that you simply reinforce patterns to help your baby attune his activity level to the appropriate time of day. Establish a nighttime routine to help your baby distinguish between the time for play and time for sleep.
9. Infant Reflux
With their immature digestive system, babies struggle to metabolize and digest their milk properly. This can result in infant reflux or episodes during which your baby will spit up milk.
A normal baby will experience reflux several times in a day. More often, infant reflux isn’t anything to worry about, as your baby will learn to keep consumed milk and food down without the need to vomit.
During the first few months, however, frequent reflux might be the reason for crying. Partially digested milk might taste foul, and may leave a burning sensation in your baby’s throat as its regurgitated back into the oral cavity.
When your baby cries as a result of reflux, make sure to prop them up against a pillow and elevate the nose and mouth. This will prevent them from swallowing or inhaling the spit up milk. You might also want to aspirate your baby’s nose in case the milk spills into their nostrils.
It’s also worth mentioning that babies who spit up more are much more prone to ear infections. This happens when regurgitated milk spills from the mouth and into the ear as the baby is lying down. Make sure to inspect your baby’s ears after they’ve spit up to prevent an ear infection.
Another way to prevent reflux altogether would be to burp your baby after each feeding. Taking the time to hold your baby upright against your chest and pat their back will assist gas out of the system and give milk more space in the stomach to prevent reflux.
There are some cases though when reflux might point to a more complicated problem. If your baby’s reflux takes the form of projectile vomiting, he starts losing his appetite, there’s blood, greenish, or yellowish fluid in his spit up, then it’s highly recommended that you seek the advice of a health professional.
There’s a lot to know about infant reflux as there are lots of details to this seemingly harmless condition. We’ve discussed this particular cause of crying in depth, which you can read about through this comprehensive article.
Read more: Ultimate Guide to Infant Reflux
Soothing a baby from an episode of crying is often a trial-and-error effort. So if none of the above reasons seem to explain your baby’s episode, then you can consider colic.
Colic is not a diagnosis – rather, it’s a behavioral observation that specialists provide parents who have babies with frequent, regular episodes of unexplained crying.
Strictly speaking, colic is defined as intense, inconsolable crying in well-fed, healthy babies. Pediatricians use the term to put a label on such behavior, however not a lot is known about colic and why it happens.
Some specialists suggest that it’s the baby’s natural reaction to the new environment outside of the mother’s womb. Others say that colic is the result of gassiness and bloating which creates sharp, shooting pain in the baby’s abdomen. Then there are those who say colic is simply a behavioral disposition that occurs during a certain age and gradually normalizes on its own.
How to Identify Colic in Babies
The signs of colic include:
- Inconsolable crying for an accumulated 3 hours every day.
- Crying occurs at a specific time every day, most commonly during sundown.
- Baby is well-fed and burped.
- No evident source of pain, however, baby tends to squirm and constrict his muscles as if in great pain or discomfort.
- Persists for at least 3 months after birth.
- The intensity of the baby’s cries is particularly heightened compared to crying as a result of hunger.
Unfortunately, there’s not a lot that experts know about colic. However, some pediatricians strongly suggest that parents focus on abdominal pain as the triggering factor for this type of behavior.
Some remedies you can perform include placing your baby against your chest as if to burp to encourage him to pass gas. You can also try massaging his abdomen with aceite manzanilla – a special type of oil that’s said to relieve gassiness and bloating.
It’s also ideal that you consider the time when colic occurs. By studying your baby’s patterns, you can better prepare yourself for the upcoming crying episode. As colic happens at predictable times throughout the day, it would be in your best interest to prepare the environment to best deal with your baby’s crying.
Dimly lit rooms, slow swaying movements, and swaddling are said to help reduce the effects of colic. So when that time of day comes rolling around the corner, be sure you’re ready with the right stuff to help minimize the fuss.
When Does Colic End?
Recent studies have observed that babies with colic tend to wear out the behavior by the time they reach three months of age. However, as a parent, you shouldn’t expect an abrupt change, as colic is something that tends to wear off gradually.
So when your baby reaches three months, you may want to observe and see whether he or she is gradually starting to grow out of the unexplainable crying behavior. This means your baby might cry for a shorter amount of time every day, until such time that crying is limited only to the instances when he or she actually needs something.
When to Seek Professional Help
In some cases, colic might persist to the point that requires medical attention. So if you suspect that your baby might be going through more than just colic, it’s important that you seek urgent professional advice to figure out what’s making your baby cry.
Now the question is – when is the right time to see a doctor for this type of crying? These tell-tale signs should let you know when you should visit your pediatrician:
- Episodes last for more than 3 accumulated hours in a day.
- Baby cries for a third of his waking hours or more.
- Symptoms of colic persist over 3 months of age.
- Baby’s cries are accompanied by wheezing, whirring, or other abnormal noises.
- Crying interferes with regular functioning, putting your baby’s health at risk. For instance, your baby doesn’t get to feed as often as he should because of crying episodes.
- The parent or caregiver is experiencing particular stress, frustration, or anxiety as a result of the baby’s colic.
If you’ve noticed any one of these signs, make sure to schedule an appointment with your pediatrician at the soonest possible time. By staying alert and being aware of these problematic markers, you can hopefully prevent any complications.
4 Unconventional Home Remedies for Crying Babies
We’ve all heard of swaddling, singing, and swaying as easy, effective remedies to soothe a crying baby. But did you know there are a handful of other solutions that aren’t quite as popular? These unconventional home remedies for crying babies might sound outlandish, but they have been said to work just as well or even better than any other method you might have been trying up to this point.
1. White Noise
Inside the womb, the environment isn’t as quiet as you might think. The sound of the mother’s heartbeat, her voice, and other noises around her are muffled yet audible from inside the womb. Being surrounded by these noises for 9 months, your baby will be used to constant, rhythmic sounds and might even find them calming.
That’s why white noise works so well to soothe crying infants. Studies have shown that babies are much more relaxed when there are low, monotonous noises around them. These work even better when combined with slow, rhythmic movements like swaying and rocking.
With that, lots of manufacturers have come out with products and devices that are designed to provide your baby the right ambient noise to keep them calm. In the absence of these devices, you can try generating white noise by other means in order to satisfy your baby’s senses.
The steady hum of a fan, the low whirring of a spin dryer, or even videos that play nothing but monotonous noise can be more than good enough to help soothe a crying baby. It’s also easy to find videos online that provide hours of white noise specifically designed to help calm an infant.
Spotify user? Here is the Ultimate White Noise Playlist for you.
2. Water Immersion
During the 9 months it takes for your baby to form in your womb fully, he’s completely suspended in your amniotic fluid. The purpose of this fluid is to cushion him and protect his body from any impact or movements that could potentially cause injury in his vulnerable state.
Despite being completely unaware of his surroundings, your baby’s body will remember this calm, floating sensation long after he’s been born. So you’ll notice bath time is a particularly enjoyable event for any newborn. Babies are often much calmer when suspended in water because it’s a feeling that numbs out all others, and it’s something that’s familiar to his body.
With that, experts have found immersing your baby’s body in water can be a great way to help calm him and soothe his crying. Simply keep his head above water and submerge his body from the neck down to make the most of this unconventional technique.
If you’re not keen on holding your baby in this position for extended periods of time, there are special floaters you can purchase that are specifically designed for this purpose. These can help keep your baby safe during the immersion experience until he’s calmed down from his episode.
3. The Hold
When soothing a crying baby, the first thing parents do is hold the infant flat while swaying from side to side. While this might be effective in most cases, a doctor has recently been able to identify a special hold that’s said to be much faster acting than any other we commonly use.
Dr. Robert Hamilton, a doctor specializing in pediatrics, developed a unique technique for calming babies which he simply dubbed “the Hold.” Since he discovered the Hold, numerous videos of the technique have surfaced on the web, making both the doctor and his discovery something of a viral success.
To initiate the Hold, it’s imperative that you follow these steps:
- Fold the baby’s arms snugly across his chest.
- With one hand, secure the arms and make sure the baby won’t be able to move them.
- Using the same hand that’s holding down the arms, cradle the baby’s chin between your pointing finger and your thumb.
- With your dominant hand, support the baby’s weight from his bottom. Make sure to engage as much surface area of your hand as possible to ensure a stable and safe hold.
- Position the baby at a 45-degree angle, inclined forwards and gently rock him up and down while swaying him simultaneously back and forth.
- As much as possible, avoid any sudden jerky movements and maintain the same rhythm for several seconds until your baby calms down.
The technique has been observed to work almost immediately, even calming down hysterical babies that have just gotten a shot. Keep in mind though that safety is of utmost importance during the Hold. Because this is usually performed on crying infants, it’s ideal that you guarantee a safe space prior to initiating the technique so as to prevent injury.
Dr. Hamilton recommends that parents use the Hold on babies not older than 3 months. Any infant 4 months and beyond might be too large or too heavy to securely and safely calm down with the Hold technique.
4. Ride It Out
There have been some studies that suggest that it’s okay to let your baby cry. However, the parameters for this technique are numerous and complicated because it can have negative psychological and emotional effects on your child.
According to Dr. Richard Ferber, author of the 1985 publication Solve Your Child’s Sleep Problems, allowing your baby to ‘cry it out’ is best performed when they’re at least 4 months of age. This is when your baby will learn the beginnings of self-regulation, and will thus be more capable of managing his disposition when left alone long enough.
Dr. Ferber’s technique entails putting your baby down in his bed, cot, or crib, and kissing or telling him ‘goodnight.’ This simple, short routine will soon turn into a predictable pattern for your child, giving him the cue that tells him it’s time to sleep.
At the start of sleep training, babies might not like the lack of movement, noise, or stimulation. So they will cry. However, Dr. Ferber suggests that letting your baby cry during this crucial step in sleep training isn’t unhealthy. Just make sure you’re not letting your baby cry for too long by responding to him at a maximum of ten minutes after he starts.
Gradually, your baby will get used to the routine and will either shorten the time he spends crying or won’t cry at all. Just be sure to stay on guard to respond to your child, and to stay at a reasonable distance from him to guarantee his safety.
In the same way, babies can be trained to lie down without stimulation for longer periods of time with the same technique. You can do this by letting him cry it out first before you respond to pick him up. As he gets used to being left alone, he will grow out of crying especially once he establishes that his caregiver will return not long after he’s been put down.
The Bottom Line
Sometimes, that blissful feeling of caring for a new baby might easily fade when crying gets out of hand. It’s only normal for parents to feel exhausted and frustrated when these episodes happen. What you need to realize is that your baby will outgrow it – all you need to do is be patient, responsive, and aware of your little one.
Take this guide as a reference the next time your baby starts getting fussy and uneasy and try to learn more about his special way of communication to better address his needs and wants. Remember – it’s okay to put him down for a second to calm and collect yourself. Simply keep in mind that babies grow, and they grow fast! Those sleepless nights and tired mornings are some of the memories you’ll miss most dearly once your baby enters toddlerhood.