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Your baby’s cries and how to respond to them

Last Updated November 2018

When you bring your newborn home from the hospital, nothing gets your attention faster than his first little cry. Then the guessing game begins. Is he hungry, tired, wet, or hot? Babies have a way of letting us know that they’re in need, but the question is, what is baby in need of?

If you were to add up all of the minutes that a newborn babies cry throughout the day, the sum would equal two to three hours. As any new parent knows, that can be a long few hours. It’s helpful to have some tricks up your sleeve to dry those tears. (Incidentally, babies typically don’t produce tears until close to one month of age.)

Eventually, your crying child will be able to make his needs known in other ways. Remember to talk, read, and sing to your baby as often as possible to teach him the words and language he needs to make his feelings known.

Deciphering the cry

If you listen very closely to your baby’s type of cry, pitch, frequency and context, chances are pretty good you will be able to interpret his needs and give him exactly what he is asking for. When attempting to decipher the reason for his crying, consider the entire day — and even the previous day — not just the moment. Did he have a nap earlier? Has he been eating regularly? Has he had the appropriate number of wet and dirty diapers for the day? Was he overstimulated earlier in the day? Some babies save up their distress and let it all out in the evening.

Let’s take a closer look at the types of cries babies produce, as well as some possible solutions for parents.

Hungry cries

If your baby is crying a low-pitch, rhythmic cry that builds in intensity while also rooting and sucking on his hands, he is likely telling you that he’s hungry. You may be thinking, this is crazy, he just ate! But breastfed babies often digest milk very quickly, and it can be hard to know for sure how much they are getting at each feed. Furthermore, your baby could be going through a growth spurt. Early growth spurts typically occur around one week, three weeks, four to six weeks, three months, four months, six months, and nine months.

During growth spurts, your baby will want to eat more often than usual. This could throw off his sleep schedule as well. Babies are often more fussy in general during a growth spurt. The good news is, growth spurts typically last only two or three days, so your baby should be back on schedule pretty quickly. If your baby is very sensitive to growth spurts, try to plan ahead and bring in some help so you can get a nap. It might also be a good idea to not plan outings or company during these times.

Try to respond to your child’s hunger cry as soon as you can. A hungry baby has a tendency to get worked up very quickly, gulping air and causing additional distress.

Tired cries

Another type of cry to be aware of is the tired cry. This cry is usually a whiny and more sustained, and it escalate if your baby’s needs are not met quickly. Your baby will likely rub his eyes during this time. Respond to his cries by swaddling him so he feels contained and secure. Swaddling is calming for babies because it reminds them of being in the womb.

It may also help your baby relax if you give him a pacifier to suck on. Sucking releases a calming hormone and helps your baby fall asleep. Rocking and singing or playing white noise may help, too.

Believe it or not, your newborn baby communicates with you in ways besides crying. Even preterm babies who weigh only two or three pounds use non-verbal communication. For example, a baby will show signs of stress or overstimulation by extending his arms and legs away from his body, splaying his fingers, and turning his head away from you.

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Sick cries

If your baby is feeling under the weather, you may hear his sick cry. This is a weak, nasal, whimpering cry that is usually low in pitch. Give your baby immediate attention when you hear this cry, and check him for fever. Anything over 100.4°F (38°C) for a rectal thermometer and 99°F (37.2°C) for an oral thermometer is considered a fever for a baby. Also check your baby for diarrhea, and make sure he is eating appropriately. If you have any concerns, call your baby’s healthcare provider.

Bored cries

Your baby might also have a bored cry. This cry usually starts out as coos, then turns into an attempt to get your attention by quick bursts of crying. You should respond to this simply by giving your baby attention. Don’t worry; you cannot spoil a baby. They are too young to understand cause and effect. Your baby is not crying to manipulate you; he just wants your attention.

If your baby wants to be held often, try holding him in a wrap or carrier. These products are great because your baby can be close to you, which helps with bonding, and you can have your hands free. Babywearing is a great way to provide your baby with sensory stimulation all day long.

You can also give your baby tummy time if he appears to be bored. Put him on the floor, bed, crib, or changing table on his tummy, and get down with him so you’re face to face. Tummy time is great for developing neck and trunk strength, and it will entertain your baby at the same time.

Colic cries

You may experience inconsolable, high-pitched baby cries that usually start in the evening and last several hours. This may be a colic cry. Babies who experience colic are usually highly sensitive and may be responding to something in the breastmilk or formula that is causing them to have excess gas. Or, the child may simply be overstimulated from his day.

If you suspect that your baby has colic, talk to his healthcare provider to make sure nothing more serious is going on. If your baby is crying inconsolably for more than two hours a day, you can try massage to help relax him. You can also try to pre-empt the crying by doing the massage earlier in the day. Massage helps relax both baby and parent, so it is great for both of you. There are several strokes specifically for the abdominal area which can help move the baby’s bowels and encourage gas relief.

You can also practice the calming techniques of swaddling, shushing, singing, rocking your baby, and allowing him to suck on a pacifier.

Taking care of yourself

No matter the reason, a crying baby can be very stressful. Remember to care for yourself first. Care for the caregiver is just as important as care for the baby because if you don’t care for yourself, you will not be able to adequately care for your baby.

Try to sleep or at least lie down and read a book when your baby sleeps. Do something calming every day, especially if you have a baby who tends to be more fussy. Don’t be afraid to ask for help from family and friends. If you’re getting frustrated by your baby’s cries and you don’t have help, it is perfectly fine to place your baby in his crib for a few minutes while you step out and take some deep breaths to calm down.

Written by:
  • Aimee
    Aimee
    Writer