Infants cry for any number of reasons -- and sometimes for no reason at all. "Crying is babies' only means of communicating until about 9 to 12 weeks of age, when they begin to coo and babble. Then crying decreases," says Amy Salisbury, PhD, clinical researcher in the Infant Development Center of Women and Infants' Hospital in Providence, Rhode Island.
The tricky part for new parents is figuring out what your baby is trying to tell you. If you're lucky, after a while, you'll be able to decipher your child's cries and skip the guessing game.
Whether or not you can distinguish among your child's wails, fortunately, most cries have a simple cause and solution. Here are the most common causes:
Hunger: Remember, a baby's belly doesn't hold much. And if you're breastfeeding, it's impossible to know just how much milk he's getting. So try feeding him as a first response to crying. Of course, if he's just eaten, you shouldn't immediately respond with more food.
Discomfort: A dirty diaper is enough to set many babies off. Or your baby might be too hot or too cold, or have gas. He could even have a tiny hair wrapped around his finger. Do a quick "discomfort check" before moving on to the next possible cause.
Fatigue: Although babies need to learn to fall asleep on their own, sometimes your child may be ready to sleep but will cry because something is distracting her. If you suspect that's the case, try rocking her, or put her in the crib, dim the lights, and sing a sweet tune.
"I'm wound up and cranky": This is related to the fatigue cry. Your baby may be suffering from overstimulation -- perhaps visits with well-wishers have pushed him to distraction. He may also have picked up on your tension over juggling new parenthood, chores, birth announcements, and more, says Sara Viessman, MD, a professor of pediatrics at the University of Missouri at Columbia. Babies will often let out their built-up frustration in the late afternoon or early evening. To unwind, they may simply need quiet time.
Boredom: On the other hand, your baby's cries could indicate that he's bored and needs more excitement. While some babies are happy to watch the world go by, others need a little extra stimulation. "The quickest thing to try is changing the baby's environment," says Dr. Viessman. If your child is sitting, walk around with him. If he's inside, try turning his bouncer seat around for a different view, or take him outside.
Of course, crying can also signal a more serious problem. If your usually quiet baby suddenly has a sustained bout of crying for no apparent reason, check with your doctor to rule out an illness. Also, if his cries sound different than usual (at a higher pitch or more shrill, for example) and are accompanied by a fever, vomiting, lack of appetite, diarrhea, or other signs of illness, seek medical attention. But keep in mind that even perfectly healthy babies can have extended bouts of crying on a regular basis with no apparent cause.