What to Do When Baby Won’t Stop Crying
There’s nothing as heartbreaking as hearing baby cry. After all, you always want your child to be happy and healthy. But babies are going to cry—a lot! It’s part of their hardwiring, and wanting to ease their discomfort is part of yours. As you start to figure out what causes baby to cry—and what to do when baby won’t stop crying—it will get easier to manage (we promise!). Until then, though, the non-stop crying can be overwhelming and, at times, incredibly frustrating. Keep reading to learn from the experts some common reasons why babies cry, how much crying is normal and what to do when baby won’t stop crying.
Listing to your little one wail is never pleasant, but crying isn’t always a bad thing—after all, it’s baby’s primary method of communication, says Ruth Castillo, LCCE, a full-spectrum doula in San Antonio. It just may take a little time to learn to decode baby’s cries and figure out how to stop baby from crying. “You won’t be able to identify baby’s different cries on the first day—maybe not even in the first month,” says Mia B. Finkelston, MD, medical director of the online care group Amwell. But as you and baby navigate the learning process, you’ll start to figure out which sounds mean what, and how to recognize the body language clues that can tip you off to the problem.
There are a handful of common reasons babies cry. While some will be more obvious, like getting immunizations, others may take a little more guesswork. The good news? You can more or less go down a checklist to find out why your child is in tears. Below, some common reasons baby might be crying:
Baby’s hungry. Infants start growing rapidly from day one and are, understandably, hungry a lot of the time. If baby’s crying due to hunger, their body language will tell you before their cries will. First, they’ll move their head back and forth, looking for your nipples or their bottle, Castillo says. They may also bring their hands to their mouth and smack their lips. If those cues don’t prompt a feeding, they’ll start to cry.
Baby needs to be changed. Babies don’t like the feeling of dirty diapers and will let you know when they’re uncomfortable. If baby has just eaten, they’ll probably need to be changed pretty soon. When they’re sitting in a soiled nappy, baby’s cries will be constant and build in intensity. The solution? Peek into their diaper and check things out. Change baby into a fresh one and see if the crying stops.
Baby’s overstimulated. Babies tend to have a witching hour in the evening, right around dinner time, when everything just gets to be too much for them. If baby is overstimulated, their body will be more tense, Castillo says. You’ll see their eyes close and then open, followed by a decisive cry or scream. This is a good time to lie baby down in a dark room and get them ready for a nap.
Baby’s tired. Babies need a lot of sleep, and if they’re tired, you’ll notice their body becoming more relaxed and their eyes starting to close—then they’ll let out a cranky wail. You can swaddle baby and put them to bed. But sometimes babies get overtired, making it harder for them to fall asleep. “If they’re extremely fatigued they may become inconsolable—screaming, arching back, or refusing to be fed,” says Whitney Casares, MD, author of The New Baby Blueprint: Winning at Parenting Without Losing Yourself. To help soothe them to sleep, “lie baby down safely on their back, put your hand on their chest and offer a ‘Sssshhh,’” Castillo adds.
Baby wants to be held. When they were in utero, baby basically got to be held 24 hours a day. Now that they’ve entered the world, “They still want to feel safe and cuddled and comforted—pretty much all the time,” says Beth Salerno, a certified postpartum doula based in New Jersey. Babies can get themselves pretty worked up over their desire to be held. If comfort is what your little one craves, they might start with a whimper and build up to a full-on scream. To calm baby, you can cradle them in your arms or cuddle them in a sling or a baby carrier.
Baby’s sick. If baby’s sick, there’s a good chance you’ll know right away, as they might feel warmer than usual. Check to see if baby has a fever. If they do and they’re less than 2 months old, call the doctor immediately. If they’re older, or it’s only a case of the sniffles, check in with your pediatrician about possible medicine you can give and how to best comfort baby. One way to anticipate baby’s needs when they’re sick is to pay attention to their discomfort and distress signals, Casares says.
Baby’s in pain. Things that cause baby pain are usually straightforward. Casares cites some examples: a strand of your hair is wrapped tightly around their finger or toe, or they have a diaper rash or their car seat is fastened too tight. They might also be teething. You can often remedy the situation with some quick soothing and by tending to the issue. Of course, if something more serious happens, consult your pediatrician.
If you’ve run through everything on the list and baby won’t stop crying, take a deep breath and try to account for everything baby could be experiencing, says Ronald Goldman, PhD, a psychological counselor in Boston. Maybe they don’t like the temperature in the room or a clothing tag is bothering them. Or, Goldman adds, it could just mean they have more feelings to express, not that you’re doing anything wrong.
Yes, all babies cry, but is it normal for babies to cry all the time? The truth is every baby is different, and what’s “normal” will vary from child to child. During those first few months together, you’ll get to know baby’s baseline. “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, adding, “I’ve met other babies who just never seem to cry.”
Keep in mind that 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.
Most babies will calm down after 15 to 20 minutes once you’ve tried a few things to soothe them, Salerno says. But if baby is crying for extended periods of time and can’t be calmed, something else may be going on, like 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.
When babies under 3 months old cry for three or more hours at a time, for more than three days a week, for more than three weeks in a row for no apparent reason, it’s considered a case of colic. But if you don’t need to hit that threshold before you reach out for help. “If your young infant is crying inconsolably for over an hour, go ahead and ask your doctor some questions,” says Judith Hoffman, MD, a pediatrician at Manhattan Valley Pediatrics in New York City.
Every baby is different, of course, but the good news is that most babies will start to cry less after the fourth trimester, about 12 weeks after birth, Casares says.
If you’ve run through your checklist and baby won’t stop crying, try the following expert-recommended tips and tricks for how to get baby to stop crying.
Replicate the safety of the womb
When baby won’t stop crying, try certain techniques that mimic the coziness and darkness of your womb, Casares suggests. Try:
- Swaddling baby
- Giving baby something to suck
- Swaying baby in your arms (You can also try a baby swing that offers a gentle rocking motion to help baby stop crying)
- Gently shushing baby
- Holding baby on their side facing outward (“This can reduce overstimulation and help lull a baby to sleep,” Casares says)
Other ways to replicate baby’s experiences in the womb? Playing white noise and talking quietly to baby so they hear your voice. (While talking to baby, you can also say affirmations, like, “I’m going to be calm,” to help you get through those tough moments.)
Let baby be close to you
When baby won’t stop crying, sometimes the best solution is to simply hold them close. Try doing skin-to-skin contact by holding baby against your bare chest. Breastfeeding can help with this too (especially if baby is showing hunger cues), as it helps baby stay close to you and gives them something to suck. However, in some situations baby may be too upset or stimulated to feed, Casares notes. In that case, try offering them a pacifier to suck on instead.
Take them out of their environment
Sometimes we all just need a minute to get our bearings—babies included! If they’re fussy due to overstimulation, reduce the light, noise and activity they’re exposed to. Find a calm, dark environment for baby to rest in until they feel better.
Even if they’re not overstimulated, taking them out of their environment can still be a great way to distract them. Put baby in a carrier and go for a walk, or put them in their car seat and go for a drive. Or, if you’re at home, try giving baby a warm (not hot!) bath or running warm water on their feet to see if it relaxes them. Music can also be a great way to soothe baby (as long as they’re not already overstimulated). Try all types of music. As you start to better understand baby’s cues, you’ll recognize what does and doesn’t soothe them. Babies, like their parents, have quirks and preferences—and whatever floats baby’s boat will also make you much happier.
If you’ve tried everything and baby won’t stop crying, it’s time to reevaluate and reach out to your child’s pediatrician for guidance.
In the meantime, focus on your own well-being as well as your child’s. Stress is a normal part of parenthood, but an inconsolable infant can significantly add to your anxiety. If you’re frustrated in the moment, try counting slowly or taking deep calming breaths, Casares says. Plus, pay attention to sleep-deprivation, mounting frustration and negativity you may feel. “If you’re not getting enough rest, then there’s no way you can respond the way you want to respond to your baby,” Salerno adds.
It may not be easy, but a parent needs to get four to six hours of sleep. Whenever baby gets their biggest chunk of sleep, take advantage and do the same. Consider asking your partner, a loved one or a hired nanny to give baby a bottle during the night so you can get some extra sleep. It can seem incredibly hard to take care of yourself while taking care of a new baby, but it’s important. “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 them.” Find ways to prioritize your mental health and do something for yourself, whether that’s meditating, taking a walk outside, doing yoga or something else. “Practicing mindfulness and self-care during non-stressful times can prepare parents for more challenging moments,” Casares adds.
If you don’t, your growing feelings could result in tragedies like shaken baby syndrome, which happens when parents deliberately shake baby to get them to quiet down. It most commonly occurs between 2 to 4 months, when babies cry the most. While shaken baby syndrome is scary, it’s preventable—as long as you pay attention to your mental health. “It’s normal to feel overwhelmed when your baby is crying, and especially when the crying is prolonged,” Casares says. “If you need to take a break to keep yourself well and your baby safe, that’s perfectly okay. In fact, it’s better for you and your little one in the long-term.” Place them down in a safe area, such as a crib or playard, and take a minute to compose yourself.
If you ever feel like you’re unable to cope or respond to baby in a gentle way, or if you suspect you’re experiencing postpartum depression, reach out to your doctor and get help. New parents are trying to take care of baby, themselves and are still recovering from childbirth—and it’s a lot, Salerno says. Don’t be afraid to lean on your support system for help and a sympathetic ear. Find other parents with young babies who can relate. As Castillo says, you need people who know what you’re going through.
While these are physically and emotionally challenging times, take heart in knowing it’s a phase baby will grow out of. Pretty soon you’ll have an energetic toddler on your hands and tons of parenting experience under your belt. 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.
About the experts:
Whitney Casares, MD, MPH, FAAP, is a pediatrician based in Portland, Oregon, and the founder and CEO of the Modern Mamas Club. She is also the author of The New Baby Blueprint: Winning at Parenting Without Losing Yourself. Casares obtained her medical degree from the University of Vermont and completed her pediatrics residency at Stanford University. She also holds a Master of Public Health in maternal and child health from the University of California, Berkeley.
Judith Hoffman, MD, is a pediatrician based in New York City. She has over 13 years of experience and worked with Mount Sinai Doctors prior to joining Manhattan Valley Pediatrics. She earned her medical degree from New York University and completed her residency training in pediatrics at NewYork Presbyterian’s Columbia University Irving Medical Center.
Mia Finkelston, MD, is the medical director of the online care platform Amwell Medical Group. With over 20 years of experience, she previously worked as a physician based in Pennsylvania and Maryland. She received her medical degree from the University of Pennsylvania.
Ronald Goldman, PhD, is a psychological counselor and the director of the Early Trauma Prevention Center based in Boston. He completed his bachelor of science at Columbia University, earned his master of arts at Vermont College and received his doctor of philosophy and psychology from Union Institute and University.
Beth Salerno, CPD, is a certified postpartum doula based in New Jersey with close to 20 years of experience. She is also the founder of Doula-Care, a platform that offers doula services to new parents and growing families.
Ruth Castillo, LCCE, is a full-spectrum doula based in San Antonio. She completed her doula training with DONA International and later completed her training as an infant care specialist with ProDoula. She also has training as a Lamaze Childbirth Education and Infant Massage Instructor.
Please note: The Bump and the materials and information it contains are not intended to, and do not constitute, medical or other health advice or diagnosis and should not be used as such. You should always consult with a qualified physician or health professional about your specific circumstances.