Newborn Crying: What It Means and How to Handle It
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.
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 she had a bottle two to four hours earlier. She roots around with her mouth, wiggles, or starts acting frantic.
Solution: When in doubt, assume your baby is crying because he's hungry and offer him the breast or a bottle. But don’t feed bottle-fed babies too soon after their last meal: "If he hasn't had at least two hours to digest the formula, giving him more may cause him to be unhappy and uncomfortable," says Deana Andersen-Tennant, a postpartum doula in Portland, Oregon, who specializes in families with multiples.
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 she's restless. Or her eyes may be open and glassy, with redness or puffiness underneath them. Baby may also rub her eyes.
Solution: Try swaddling your baby to help her sleep better at night. 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 him down. "An overly tired baby sometimes just wants to be put down and allowed to sleep," says Andersen-Tennant.
Cries from Boredom or Overstimulation
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 his head away from you or other stimuli. He may angrily bat at an object.
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 he makes." Remind yourself you're not being cruel or unsympathetic by ignoring boredom-induced newborn baby cries; you're simply laying the foundation for self-soothing.
If your baby is overstimulated, try calming him with comforting noises, such as a white noise machine, vacuum cleaner, or whirring fan.
Cries from Annoyance or Discomfort
Sounds Like: Forced and whiny; has a pattern of short repetitions, like "uh-UH, uh-UH."
Other clues: He may bat with his hands or scrunch up his 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 she’s indoors. Your best defense is to dress her in layers. "If her head or face doesn't feel warm, then put a hat on your baby," suggests Andersen-Tennant.
Cries from Pain
Sounds Like: Piercing and grating.
Other Clues: She may arch her back or thrash. With gas pain, an infant brings her knees up to her chest or grunts.
Solution: The sucking reflex calms a baby, so consider giving her a pacifier or letting her 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? Ultimately, go with your gut, and visit a doctor if you think it’s necessary.
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 2-3 weeks of life and peaks around 6-8 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 her by reminding her of being 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 her in your arms or in a mechanized device.
- Sucking: Once your baby is calm, offer him your finger, breast, or a pacifier to suck. It's "icing on the cake of soothing," says Dr. Karp.
My Newborn Won’t Stop Crying—Now What?
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."
How Parents Can Handle a Newborn’s Crying
As every new parent knows, your baby's cry prompts a physical reaction in you. It raises your blood pressure and pulse, and it can cause you to lose your temper. If you feel a parental breakdown is inevitable, place Baby somewhere safe (like in her 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.