Newborn Crying: What It Means and How to Handle It

Looking for the reason behind your newborn baby's cries? Here's how to understand the tears and stop them from flowing.

baby lying on back crying
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01 of 09

Why Do Newborns Cry?

Incessant baby crying can induce panic in new parents, especially if you don't know the reason behind the tears. "It's a myth that you can tell what's wrong by the sound of the cry," says Harvey Karp, M.D., a pediatrician in Los Angeles and author of The Happiest Baby on the Block. "Babies are like smoke alarms: You can't tell if you burnt the toast or if the whole house is burning down."

Indeed, many experts believe crying is a state of being for a newborn, much like sleeping or napping. "Crying is a type of normal behavior in infants," states Marc Weissbluth, M.D., a renowned pediatrician in Chicago and author of Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Child. He even has a little "nursery rhyme" that explains this behavior: "Babies cry like birds fly: It's part of being the creature we are."

So how can you stop the waterworks? You might turn to context cues to take your best guess. Here's everything you need to know about decoding your newborn's crying.

02 of 09

Hunger Cries

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Sounds Like: Fairly desperate and unrelenting; usually high pitched.

Other Clues: Your baby was breastfed anywhere from one-and-a-half to three hours ago, or they had a bottle two to four hours earlier. They root around with their mouth, wiggle, or starts acting frantic.

Solution: When in doubt, assume your baby is crying because they're hungry and offer them a bottle or the breast. But don't feed bottle-fed babies too soon after their last meal: "If your child hasn't had at least two hours to digest their formula, giving them more may cause them to be unhappy and uncomfortable," says Deana Andersen-Tennant, a postpartum doula in Portland, Oregon, who specializes in families with multiples.

03 of 09

Tired Cries

Mother calming her crying baby girl
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Sounds Like: Breathy, helpless. This cry can be intermittent and is more easily soothed than others.

Other Clues: Your baby's eyes are closed but they're restless. Or their eyes are open and they're glassy, with redness or puffiness underneath. Baby may also rub their eyes.

Solution: Try swaddling your baby to help them sleep better. Doula Andersen-Tennant has found that nine out of 10 babies are comforted by swaddling. (She recommends waffle-weave blankets to all her clients.)

Also, if you are fairly convinced your baby is tired yet seems restless in your arms, put them down. "An overly tired baby sometimes just wants to be put down and allowed to sleep," says Andersen-Tennant.

04 of 09

Cries from Boredom or Overstimulation

crying baby over mom's shoulder
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Sounds Like: Usually not as loud as other cries, and often staccato. Boredom can easily transition to laughter; overstimulation can escalate to shrieking.

Other clues: An overstimulated baby might turn their head away from you or other stimuli. They may also bat angrily at objects.

Solution: In the case of a bored baby, delay your response by a few seconds or a minute, recommends Dr. Weissbluth. In the first several weeks of life, he says, your child needs lots of attention "but that doesn't mean you must respond promptly to every sound they make." Remind yourself you're not being cruel or unsympathetic by ignoring boredom-induced newborn cries; you're simply laying the foundation for self-soothing.

If your baby is overstimulated, try calming them with comforting noises, such as a white noise machine, vacuum cleaner, or whirring fan.

05 of 09

Cries from Annoyance or Discomfort

Letting a baby cry it out is not harmful.
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Sounds Like: Forced and whiny; has a pattern of short repetitions, like "uh-UH, uh-UH."

Other clues: Baby may bat with their hands or scrunch up their face.

Solution: Look for causes, whether it's a scratchy hat or irritating noise, and remedy the situation. Also consider that your infant might be cold, even if they're indoors. Your best defense is to dress them in layers. "If your baby's head or face doesn't feel warm, put a hat on them," suggests Andersen-Tennant.

06 of 09

Cries from Pain

Baby With Pacifier
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Sounds Like: Piercing and grating.

Other Clues: Baby may arch their back or thrash. With gas pain, infants ofren bring their knees up to their chest or grunt.

Solution: The sucking reflex calms a baby, so consider giving them a pacifier or letting them breastfeed. Andersen-Tennant swears that pacifiers help babies pass gas through their systems, but she notes that bottle-fed babies take to them better. If you're going to be in a situation you know will cause your baby pain—such as getting a vaccine or a heel-prick—then give the pacifier during the procedure. Concerned your baby's cries indicate something more serious? Go with your gut and visit the doctor.

07 of 09

Colic Cries

Colic 101: What It Is and What to Do
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Colic is a term that defines extended periods of crying that lasts for three or more hours for at least three nights of the week. About 20 percent of babies suffer from colic, which usually starts around 2 to 3 weeks of life and peaks around 6 to 8 weeks. "Parents who have never had a colicky baby can't realize how it can absolutely ruin you," says Dr. Karp. "It's very, very tough."

Sounds Like: High-pitched, screechy, and inconsolable.

Solution: There's no known cause of colic, so it's difficult to devise a treatment plan. But Dr. Karp outlines a calming method in his book The Happiest Baby on the Block. It's called the Five S's:

  • Swaddle: Swaddle your infant in a blanket to provide a sense of security.
  • Side/Stomach: Many babies aren't happy on their back, so hold your infant on her side or tummy-down.
  • Shushing: Dr. Karp believes shushing a baby calms them by reminding them of their time in the womb. Shush vigorously in your baby's ear "as loudly as your baby is crying," he says.
  • Swinging: Supporting your baby's head, swing them in your arms or in a mechanized device.
  • Sucking: Once your baby is calm, offer them your finger, breast, or a pacifier. It's "icing on the cake of soothing," says Dr. Karp.
08 of 09

My Newborn Won't Stop Crying—Now What?

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Finding it impossible to stop the tears? Experts say a small percentage of crying is inconsolable. "Even if you try everything that comes to mind to soothe your baby, don't assume you can stop all crying," says Dr. Ron Barr, PhD, a crying expert and professor in the department of pediatrics at the University of British Columbia. "Some crying is unsoothable and that's okay. Your baby is fine and you're doing a good job."

09 of 09

How Parents Can Handle a Newborn's Crying

Postpartum Depression Stressed Mother Holding Crying Baby
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As every new parent knows, your baby's cry prompts a physical reaction in you. It raises your blood pressure and pulse and can cause you to lose your temper. If you feel a parental breakdown is inevitable, place baby somewhere safe (like their crib) and remove yourself from the situation. "If the crying gets too frustrating, it's okay to walk away," says Dr. Barr. "You need to lower your temperature about the situation. Get yourself together and then come back. You're still being a good parent." Above all else, never, ever shake your baby; shaken baby syndrome comes with a host of dangerous side effects.

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