August 10, 2011: There is a cry indicator! …of sorts.
by Dana Dubinsky
Reviewed by the BabyCenter Medical Advisory Board
Last updated: January 2011
There’s no getting around it: Babies cry. It’s how they communicate hunger, pain, fear, a need for sleep, and more.
Here are the most common reasons babies cry. If your little one is wailing and you don’t know why, work your way down the list. Chances are you’ll find something that helps.
This is probably the first thing you think of when your baby cries.
Learning to recognize the signs of hunger will help you start your baby’s feedings before the crying stage. Some signs to watch for in newborns: fussing, smacking of lips, rooting (a newborn reflex that causes babies to turn their head toward your hand when you stroke their cheek), and putting their hands to their mouth.
2. 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.
3. Needs sleep
Aren’t babies lucky? When they’re tired they can simply go to sleep – anytime, anywhere. Or so adults like to think.
In reality, it’s harder for them than you might think. Instead of nodding off, babies may fuss and cry, especially if they’re overly tired.
We thought our daughter was colicky for the first five weeks of life, until we read about how babies get really cranky if they’re exhausted. After we started putting her to sleep as soon as she yawned the first time at any time of the day, she cried a lot less and had fewer problems with gas.
I’ve noticed that if my baby starts crying after being played with, fed, and changed, and she’s been up for a while, she is overtired! I just hold her close, talk to her in a soft voice, and let her cry. She doesn’t cry hard when I hold her like that. She makes funny fussy noises with her eyes closed. Before long, she’s sound asleep.
My 2 ½-month-old is so interested in everything that she doesn’t want to stop being part of it by falling asleep. Yet she’s tired and cranky at the same time. Minimizing sensory input sometimes helps her feel like she’s not “missing something” by settling down. (And then there are the times when she’s just going to cry no matter what I do.)
4. 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.
I like to lightly wrap my daughter in a soft blanket, hold her in a nursing position and lightly stroke her face and head. She loves feeling my hands in her hair and calms down pretty quickly.
My son loves to hear my voice, so when he cries uncontrollably, I hold him close to my chest and tell him that Mommy is here and will protect him. Within minutes, he is sleeping in my arms!
5. Tummy troubles (gas, colic, and more)
Tummy troubles associated with gas or colic can lead to lots of crying. In fact, the rather mysterious condition called colic is defined as inconsolable crying for at least three hours a day, at least three days a week, at least three weeks in a row.
If your baby often fusses and cries right after being fed, he may be feeling 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). Get your doctor’s okay before using either of these.
For more help, discover more than 20 strategies for soothing a colicky baby.
Even if your baby isn’t colicky and has never been fussy after eating, an occasional bout of gas pain can make him miserable until he works it out. If you suspect gas, try something simple to eliminate it such as putting him on his back, holding his feet, and moving his legs in a gentle bicycling motion.
Discover other possible causes of babies abdominal pain, including reflux, stomach flu, milk allergy, lactose intolerance, constipation, and intestinal blockage.
One time when my daughter was 9 months old she cried inconsolably for two hours. She had never done that before (nursing was always the answer to everything, but this time she wouldn’t even nurse) and we had to catch a cross-country flight. The doctor told me to take her to a nearby clinic. While we waited in the exam room, she let out a big fart, and after that she was fine. It was just gas.
When my daughter was a baby she was gassy a lot, and would scream and cry in pain. I would give her some infant gas drops, lay her on my bed on her back, and gently push her knees up to her belly in a rocking motion and sing a little song. Soon she would let out some farts and be fine.
— Wife & mommy of two
If your baby is wearing any kind of pants, especially with a somewhat snug elastic waist, try pulling the waistband away from the belly to see if it helps. Sometimes that little bit of pressure hurts their tummy.
— Mom of 2
Just found out why my baby has been crying badly for the last day and a half – he was constipated! He finally passed a 4-inch poop that was very, very hard. Suppositories work wonders.
6. 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 if the air isn’t released it may cause some discomfort. 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.
My little one often cries because he has a difficult time burping after a feed, even with back rubbing and patting. What I found helps is some “tummy time.” He’ll often let out a great big burp after a few minutes on his tummy.
I can’t count how many times I’ve burped (or tried unsuccessfully to burp) my little one when she’s fussy after a feeding. Some more walking around and patting on the back will sometimes let loose a HUGE belch – no wonder she was crying!
7. Too cold or too hot
When your baby feels chilly, such as when you remove his clothes to change a diaper or clean his bottom with a cold wipe, he 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.
8. Something small
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.
It helps me to think, “What could be making me uncomfortable if I were her?” These are some weird ones I’ve come up with: Is my finger or foot stuck/cramped? Do I need to sit/lie differently? The pacifier tastes gross and needs washing. This tag or outfit is itchy. It’s colder near the floor. The light is too bright and the TV is annoying – I want soft music instead.
Something I’ve found that irritates my son is a hair wrapped around his penis. If you have a baby boy, be sure to check for hair in his diaper, since it is very sensitive down there.
My 2-month-old cried whenever we fed him. But sometimes he’d drink ravenously, so he was obviously hungry. The problem vanished when we switched to a different brand of nipple.
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 at some point along the way.
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 a baby tooth on its way in.
On average, the first tooth breaks through between 4 and 7 months, but it can happen earlier. Find out more about teething and how to ease the pain.
10. Wants less stimulation
Babies learn from the stimulation of the world around them, but sometimes they have ahard 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 serene spot and letting your baby vent for a while to manage a meltdown.
Swaddling is a huge help, especially to infants. Being tightly wrapped mimics being in the womb and my daughter loved it.
My 6-month-old gets very excited (overexcited would be the right word) after we have fun together. He starts laughing at the most ridiculous sounds and when everything is quiet he starts to cry. That’s when we sit on the bed with propped pillows and I read to him in a very low and soothing tone. He calms down in no time and goes to sleep!
11. 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 in a sling, front carrier, or backpack. (Watch our video on baby carriers.) Plan plenty of activities. Hang out with other parents with babies. Go on regular outings to kid-friendly places, whether that’s your local playground, a children’s museum, or the zoo.
My 7-month-old wants constant activity going on around him. If I put him on the floor with his toys while I work on the computer, he fusses. He’s happiest when I pop him in a baby carrier while I wash dishes, do laundry, and other housework. He’s also especially peaceful in stores and other public places because he’s so interested in and curious about the world.
12. Not feeling well
If you’ve met your baby’s basic needs and comforted him and he’s still crying, he could be coming down with something. You may want to check his 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. Fever-free? Check.
So why is your baby crying? Babies have their own good reasons. But even the wisest parents can’t read their babies’ mind – and babies don’t have the words to tell us what’s wrong.
Fortunately, you can offer comfort without knowing the cause of distress. You’ll find lots of tried-and-true methods in our article on what to do when your baby cries for “no reason.”