There’s nothing as heartbreaking (or groan inducing) as hearing baby cry—after all, you always want your child to be happy and healthy. But when it comes to babies, they’re going to cry—a lot! It’s just part of their hardwiring, and wanting to ease their discomfort is part of yours. The crying can be overwhelming at first, but as you start to figure out what causes baby to cry—and what to do about it—it gets easier to manage (we promise!).
Luckily, babies are sort of predictable. They cry because they can’t talk, says Ruth Castillo, LCCE, a postpartum doula in San Antonio, Texas. “It’s their first way of communicating with their parents.” Crying creates a language that’s all their own—admittedly, one that most parents can’t understand (at least at first!). So really, crying isn’t always a bad thing, and what baby is trying to tell you is almost always something you can easily handle.
Why do babies cry?
Without any verbal hints, baby’s cries can be confounding, especially in the beginning. “You won’t be able to identify baby’s different cries on the first day,” says Mia Finkelston, MD, medical director of the online care group Amwell. “Maybe not even in the first month.” But as you and baby navigate the learning process, you’ll start to figure out which crying sounds mean what, and how to recognize the body language clues that can tip you off to the problem. The truth is, there are only a handful of common reasons babies cry—and you can more or less go down a checklist to find not only why your child is in tears but how to stop baby from crying:
Is baby hungry?
Infants start growing up a storm from day one and are (understandably) hungry all the time.
Here’s how to tell: If baby’s hungry, her body language will tell you before her cries will. First, she’ll move her head back and forth, looking for your nipples or her bottle, Castillo says. She may also bring her hands to her mouth and smack her lips. If those cues don’t prompt a feeding, she’ll start to cry.
Does baby need to be changed?
Babies don’t like the feeling of dirty diapers and will let you know when they’re uncomfortable.
Here’s how to tell: If baby has just eaten, he probably needs to be changed pretty soon. When his diaper needs a change, baby’s cries will be constant and build in intensity. The solution? Reach into his onesie and check things out. Change baby into a fresh diaper, and see if the crying stops.
Does baby want to be held?
When you were pregnant, you held baby 24 hours a day, says Beth Salerno, CPD, certified postpartum doula in Farmingdale, New Jersey. “She still wants to feel safe and cuddled and comforted—pretty much all the time.”
Here’s how to tell: Babies can get themselves pretty worked up over their desire to be held. If comfort is what baby is craving, she might start with a whimper and build up to a full-on scream. To calm baby, you can cradle her in your arms or cuddle her in a sling or a baby carrier.
Is baby tired?
Sleep is just as important as food, and babies need lots of it.
Here’s how to tell: If baby is tired, you’ll notice his body becoming more relaxed and his eyes looking tired and starting to close. Then cue a cranky “Wahhhh!” You can swaddle baby and put him to bed—but sometimes babies get overtired, and that’s when things get tricky. To help soothe him to sleep, “lie baby down safely on his back, put your hand on his chest and offer a ‘Sssshhh,” Castillo says.
Is baby overstimulated?
Later in the day, babies get cranky just like we do. They have a witching hour in the evening, right around dinner time, when everything just gets to be too much for them.
Here’s how to tell: If baby is overstimulated, her body will be more tense. “She’ll make movements like a prizefighter,” Castillo says. You’ll see her eyes close and then open, followed by a decisive “Wahhhh!” This is a good time to lie baby down in a dark room and get her ready for a nap.
Is baby sick?
This one is easier to figure out than you might think—check to see if baby has a temperature. If she does, and she’s less than 2 months old, call the doctor immediately. If it’s only a case of the sniffles, just give her a hug.
Here’s how to tell: If baby is sick, he’ll have a different cry—it’ll be more of a whine that’s longer and lower than usual. Babies spend so much of their energy fighting the infection that they won’t have much juice left to belt out their cries.
If baby is actually in pain, the cry tends to be sharp and high-pitched, with baby’s eyes wide open. Things that cause him pain are usually straightforward (say a strand of your hair is wrapped tightly around his finger, or he fell off the couch—hey, it happens), so you can remedy the situation with some quick soothing. Of course, if something more serious happens, consult your pediatrician.
Sometimes, you run through everything on the list—twice—and baby still cries. Maybe she doesn’t like the temperature in the room or a clothing tag is bothering her. “Different cries will communicate different needs. Paying attention to the sounds, your feelings and your experience will help you learn what baby needs,” says Ronald Goldman, PhD, a psychological counselor in Boston, Massachusetts. “If baby doesn’t stop crying, it may be that she has more feelings to express. And you are not doing anything wrong!”
How much crying is normal?
Yes, all babies cry—but is it normal for babies to cry all the time? Honestly, every baby is different, so what’s normal will vary from child to child. You’ll get to know baby’s baseline during those first few months. “I’ve met babies who cried so much. They were loud, attention-commanding babies. If they weren’t on the breast or bottle, they were crying,” Castillo says. Then again, “I’ve met other babies who just never seem to cry.”
During the first two weeks of life, babies don’t cry as much as they do later—they’re too busy eating and sleeping and figuring out their new world. After two weeks, you may see a change. “Baby is developing more awareness, and they’re starting to get an opinion,” Salerno says.
Go through your checklist of baby needs. “Most babies will be soothed within 15 to 20 minutes after you’ve tried a few things,” Salerno says. If baby is crying for extended periods of time and can’t be calmed, something else may be going on. It could be colic, which means baby (under 3 months old) cries for three or more hours at a time, for more than three days a week, for more than three weeks in a row. But it could also be a food allergy. “Sometimes, babies are allergic to cow’s milk or other things you’re eating,” Salerno says. You can talk to your doctor about eliminating common culprits.
“In a young infant, we consider it abnormal if she’s crying for more than six hours a day,” says Judith Hoffman, MD, a pediatrician at West Care Pediatrics in New York City. “But if your young infant is crying inconsolably for over an hour, go ahead and ask your doctor some questions.”
The good news: By 3 or 4 months, and often sooner, most babies cry a lot less.
How do you make baby stop crying?
So you’ve run through the checklist, tried your best soothing techniques—and baby is still crying. You want her to feel better. (And let’s be honest, all that crying makes you feel bad too.) This is when the wisdom of those more experienced comes in handy. Here are some top doctor-recommended tips and tricks for calming a crying baby:
- Shush baby loudly, making your voice heard over baby’s cries.
- Sway baby in your arms.
- Babies can be soothed by different types of music. Try it all. Just turning the TV on might help.
- Put baby in a carrier and go for a walk. Sometimes a change of scenery does the trick.
- Try a baby swing that offers a gentle rocking motion.
- Put baby in the car seat and go for a drive.
- White noise can be great. Use a noise machine or an app on your phone.
- Give baby a warm bath—or just run warm water on baby’s feet. It’s relaxing. Try a pacifiers. The act of sucking soothes baby.
- Talk to baby quietly, saying “I’m going to be calm with you.”
- Go for skin-to-skin contact, as in holding baby against your bare chest.
Don’t be afraid to ask other moms what works for them. As long as the tip is safe, and you feel comfortable with it, by all means, try it. Babies, like their mothers, have quirks and preferences—and whatever floats baby’s boat will also make you much happier.
When to get help if baby won’t stop crying
Okay. You’ve tried everything. You’ve been to the doctor and baby got a clean bill of health—but baby is still crying and you’re kind of at your wit’s end. Stress is a normal part of parenthood, but it’s important to know when you might need some help.
First question to ask yourself: Are you getting enough sleep? “If you are not getting enough rest, then there’s no way you can respond the way you want to respond to your baby,” Salerno says. A mom needs to get four to six hours of sleep—which may not be easy, but you’ve got to find a way. Whenever baby gets her biggest chunk of sleep, take advantage and do the same. Consider asking your partner, a friend or a babysitter to give baby a bottle during the night so you can get some extra ZZZ’s.
The point here is to make sure you’re taking care of yourself. “I really believe that you need time away from your child,” Finkelston says. “If you don’t take it, you may start to resent your baby or not want to be with her. You need breaks.”
If you can’t get a sitter, even a neighbor’s older child can be a mother’s helper. That could be enough to give you time to do something for yourself. Listen to a podcast, do yoga, or try meditation. Maybe you like to cook. Whatever it is, carve out a little time and do it.
Also, be sure to connect with friends and family. You need someone to call when you’re starting to come undone (it’s okay, we all lose it every now and again). You just need someone to listen, make you laugh and assure you that it’s all okay.
Often, we think we need to parent alone. But we don’t! Find other moms with young babies who are in the same boat. Look up some local mom Facebook groups. Call La Leche League and attend meetings. Join a prenatal yoga class. “You need people who will be like, ‘I’ve been there,’” Castillo says.
And when you feel like you can’t take it, or if you’re so stressed you can’t respond to baby in a gentle way, get help. “You’re trying to do too much. And you’re in postnatal recovery. It’s a lot,” Salerno says. Call your doctor if you think you have postpartum depression, which is a common issue for new moms.
Your feelings will change as quickly as baby grows. You will get through these physically and emotionally challenging times. And next thing you know, you’ll be picking out preschools. Baby will mature, and you’ll gain more experience. Give baby—and yourself—time to figure things out. And remember, there’s nothing wrong with having a good cry—for baby and for you.