For new parents, figuring out the cause of a baby’s cries can be a daunting challenge, especially since one sob can sound quite different from the next.
Still, this is hardly an impossible task. You just need to keep in mind that babies don’t cry only because they’re hungry. Each of these outbursts offers an opportunity to learn more about your child’s needs.
For starters, once you bring your baby home from the hospital, don’t be surprised if crying increases for the first six to eight weeks, particularly in the late afternoons and early evenings, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. During the first three months, crying two to three hours a day is normal -- albeit tiring for parents, siblings and other caregivers.
Your challenge then is to figure out what different types of cries mean, and how they can help you care for your child.
Tips for understanding cries
When an outburst begins, take a little time to analyze it. Here are some common types of crying and what your baby may be trying to tell you:
- Hunger cries are often short and low-pitched. They tend to rise and fall. This is a late sign of hunger, so look for cues before the wailing starts (lip smacking, sucking on hands/fingers, looking for the breast).
- Painful/angry cries generally sound like high-pitched shrieks that occur suddenly with long pauses in between, followed by a flat wail. If accompanied by an arching back, this may be a sign of reflux or colic.
- Cries of discomfort/irritation are usually short, repetitive, whiny and forced. Check to see if your baby is too cold or too hot.
- Boredom/overstimulation may trigger similar cries that are faltering, and possibly lead to shrieks of laughter, or the baby turning away. White noise may work to soothe.
- Tired cries are often intermittent, gasping and feeble. Tired babies may rub their eyes. Try putting them down or swaddling.
- Cries can overlap. For example, an infant may start with a hunger cry, but then progress to an angry cry if needs aren’t met.
- The best way to handle crying is to respond to the most urgent need first. For example, if you think the baby is cold/wet and needs to be changed, take care of that before feeding.
Along with developing a better understanding of what various cries mean, you’d probably like some tips for consoling your little one. Try these techniques:
- Gentle singing/talking
- Playing soft music
- Taking a walk
- Taking a short car ride
- Warm baths
- Avoid overstimulation
- Avoid overfeeding
It’s not your fault
Keep in mind that excessive crying is not your fault. The situation may be stressful for you and your family, but that doesn’t mean you’re doing something wrong. It also helps for you to remain relaxed, because infants can feel your tension.
It’s never OK to take out your frustrations on a baby with slapping, shaking or any kind of physical abuse. More than 1,300 cases of Shaken Baby Syndrome are reported every year, usually occurring when a parent or caregiver becomes frustrated with unrelenting cries.
If you feel overwhelmed, remember you’re not alone. Reach out for help from a family member, friend or medical professional.
Persistent crying can signal other problems, including acid reflux, gas or digestion issues. Colic is defined by extended crying -- specifically an inconsolable, high-pitched shrieking for two to three hours a night, for a minimum of three nights a week. If you think your baby may be colicky, consult with your pediatrician.
Your doctor may suggest:
- Changing to a formula that’s easier to digest
- Maternal diet changes if the infant is exclusively breastfed
- Guidance on over-the-counter “gas” or “colic” drops
- Safe use of pacifiers