Why do babies cry?
All babies cry sometimes. They have to. Even entirely healthy newborns will cry for somewhere between one and three hours each day. Unable to do anything for themselves, babies rely on someone else to provide them with the food, warmth, and comfort that they need. Crying is a baby’s way of communicating one of those needs. As a new parent, it can sometimes be difficult to work out what your baby is telling you — is he/she hungry, cold, thirsty, bored, looking for a cuddle? In the early days, when you have not yet learned to work out what your baby needs, this crying can be upsetting. However, you will gradually begin to recognize your baby’s different crying patterns and, as you get to know him/her better, will be able to anticipate his/her needs.
As babies grow, they gradually learn other ways of communicating with us, too. They get better at eye contact, making noises, and even smiling, all of which reduce the need for crying. The most common reasons babies cry are listed below. If you have a baby who is difficult to soothe, try working your way down the list. That way, you can reassure yourself that you have tried to meet his/her needs as well as you possibly can.
I need food
Hunger is the most common reason a new baby will cry. The younger your baby is, the more likely it is that he/she is crying because he/she is hungry. The exception to this is in the first day or two after birth, when some babies feed very little. If you are breastfeeding, you may well be aware of this, as the very early milk, colostrum, is produced in small amounts and you notice when the milk “comes in” around the third day. A baby’s small stomach cannot hold very much, so if your baby cries, try offering him/her some milk, as it may well be that he/she is hungry. He/she might not stop crying immediately, but let him/her keep feeding if he/she wants to, and he/she will gradually be soothed as his/her stomach fills up. If your baby has been fed and is still crying, however, perhaps he/she is expressing the next need.
I need to be comfortable
Babies will very sensibly protest if their clothes are too tight or if a soiled diaper is bothering them. Some babies don’t seem to mind if their diapers are full — it just feels warm and comfortable to them — while others will call out to be changed immediately, especially if some tender skin is being irritated. Checking your baby’s diaper and changing it may meet his/her needs, so this is always worth trying. It also gives you an opportunity to check that a diaper tab isn’t too tight or that there isn’t something else about his/her clothing making him/her uncomfortable.
I need to be warm — and not too hot or too cold
Some newborns hate having their diaper changed or being bathed — they are not used to the feel of the air on their skin and much prefer to be bundled up and warm. If your baby is like this, you will soon learn how to perform a diaper change quickly so that you can calm him/her down again. Take care not to overdress your baby, though, so that he/she gets too hot. A good rule to follow is that he/she needs to wear one more layer of clothing than you do in order to be comfortable.
Keep your baby’s room at a temperature of around 18 degrees C / 64 degrees F, and put him/her down to sleep on his/her back with his/her feet at the end of the cot so that he/she can’t wriggle too far down under the blankets and get too hot that way.
I need to be held
Some babies need a great deal of cuddling and reassurance. An older child may be soothed by seeing you in the room or hearing your voice, but new babies often need close physical contact for comfort. If you’ve fed your baby and changed his/her diaper, you may find that he/she now simply wants to be held. Some parents worry that they will “spoil” their baby if they hold him/her too much, but during the first few months of life that’s impossible. While some babies don’t seem to need that much physical contact, others want to be held almost all the time. If your baby needs a lot of holding, you might like to try a baby sling or wrap, which allows you to keep your baby close while leaving your hands free for other tasks; this may be a solution that keeps you both happy.
I need a rest
It is easy to assume that babies will fall asleep whenever they need to, wherever they are, simply because so many of them do. However, if your baby has been receiving a lot of attention — perhaps you’ve had a busy day with many visitors – he/she may become over stimulated and then find it hard to “switch off” and settle. Newborns can find it difficult to cope with too much stimulation at once — the lights, the noise, being passed from one adoring relative to the next — and can become overwhelmed by it all. Many parents have found that their baby cries more than usual when relatives come to stay, or sometimes just towards the end of each day. If there seems to be no specific reason for your baby’s crying, she may just be saying, “I’ve had enough.” If you can take him/her somewhere calm and quiet, gradually withdrawing the stimulation, he/she may express his/her feelings by crying for a while and then eventually settling to sleep.
I need something to make me feel better
If you’ve fed your baby and checked that he/she is comfortable, but he/she is still continuing to cry, you may wonder if he/she is ill or in pain. First-time parents often find it difficult to tell whether their baby is crying purely because he/she is an unhappy baby by nature (and some are, as it takes them a long time to adjust to being in the world) or whether there’s something genuinely wrong. A baby who is ill often cries in a different tone to her usual cry — it may be more urgent or high-pitched. Equally, for a baby who normally cries frequently, an unusual quietness may be a sign that she’s not well. The most important thing to remember is that nobody knows your baby as well as you do. If you feel that there may be something wrong, give your pediatrician a call. Always call your doctor if your baby has difficulty breathing through the crying, or if the crying is accompanied by vomiting, diarrhoea, or constipation.
I need something … but I don’t know what
Sometimes you might not be able to figure out what’s wrong when your baby cries. Many newborns go through patches of fretfulness and are not easily comforted. The unhappiness can range from a few minutes of hard-to-console crying to several hours at a stretch, an almost constant state of crying that is sometimes called colic. Colic is defined as inconsolable crying for at least three hours a day, for at least three days a week. Many parents find it very difficult to cope with a baby who has colic, and it can put a strain on the whole family. There is no magic cure for colic, but it rarely lasts for more than three months. If you can hold onto the fact that your baby will grow out of it, that may help.