Decoding your baby’s cry

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Why is my baby crying?

Babies don’t communicate with words, so parents must rely on other signals to discern their babies’ needs. When babies are happy, they relax, coo, and giggle. When they’re unhappy, they tense and cry.

Your baby’s cry can be difficult to interpret in the beginning. You know your baby needs something; you’re just not sure what that something is. The following slides help you identify some of the usual suspects and offer tips for satisfying your baby’s needs.

“I’m hungry!”

Crying can be a sign of hunger—but it’s usually a late sign. If you wait for your baby to cry before feeding her, it also makes it more difficult for her to latch on.

What to do: Watch for and respond to your baby’s initial hunger cues, such as stretching or squirming, making sucking sounds or motions, sucking on fingers or fists, or nuzzling (rooting) against your breast.

“I need to burp!”

Crying after a feeding can be a sign that your baby needs to burp. Some babies swallow air when they feed, whether breastfeeding or bottle-feeding.

What to do: Burp your baby before, during, and after feeding (assuming your baby is still awake). Be mindful of his position during breastfeeding. If you hold your baby in a sitting or semi-upright position, he’s unlikely to swallow as much air; alternatively, a tummy-to-tummy reclined position may keep the air out and the food in (see above image). 

“I’m dirty!”

Crying often signals a wet or poopy diaper. New babies go through a lot of diapers, usually a minimum of eight diapers a day!

What to do: You can reduce your baby’s crying by changing her diaper regularly—for example, shortly after every feeding, or every 2 to 3 hours—rather than waiting for a poopy smell or a heavy diaper to signal that she needs a change. 

“I’m tired!”

Crying (especially when accompanied by eye-rubbing) can mean your baby needs sleep.

What to do: New babies need a lot of sleep; some estimates say 16 hours a day! Sticking to your usual bedtime routine gives your baby a sense of security and calm.

“I’m sick!”

Crying is a typical response to illness. Your baby can’t tell you what hurts, but crying can be an indication that something does.

What to doCheck for a fever. Then watch your baby’s body language: Aside from crying, what else is going on? Is she pulling her legs up to her tummy (an indication of a bellyache)? Is she tugging at her ear (a possible sign of an earache)? 

“I’m constipated!”

Crying and constipation go hand-in-hand. Your baby’s cry may signal that his digestive system is acting sluggish.

What to doTips for easing the discomfort of constipation include gentle massage(particularly the “I Love You” abdominal stroke), a warm (not hot) compress or bath, and a change of positions (especially putting his knees up to his belly while he’s on his back). Consult with your child’s pediatrician about whether to give a laxative or stool softener, especially during the first 6 months.

“I’m teething!”

Sharp tiny teeth breaking through sensitive gums can be painful for your baby. Your baby’s teeth can cause her mouth to be tender and sore even before the tips of the teeth break through the gum line.

What to do: Try giving your baby something to chew on to ease her discomfort. A clean, wet washcloth that’s been in the freezer for a few minutes is a good option. Or offer her a firm rubber teething ring. Rubbing a clean finger across her gums may help too. If your baby is older than 6 months and has started complementary foods, she may appreciate something cold like applesauce or yogurt.

“I’m cold!”

Crying can mean that your baby isn’t “just right.” You may notice your baby cries when you remove his clothes to bathe him or change his diaper. Your baby may also cry if you’ve dressed him too warmly and he’s overheating, but it’s far less common for a “too hot” baby to cry than a “too cold” one.

What to do: Many experts recommend that the temperature in the room where a baby sleeps be kept between 68°F and 72°F (20°C to 22.2°C). Be aware of changes in the environment—such as going from an air-conditioned interior to the hot outdoors—and change your baby’s attire as needed. 

“I’m colicky!”

Crying can be a sign of colic, especially if the episodes last for hours and there’s no obvious sign of pain, discomfort, or urgent need.

What to do: The causes of colic are unclear, but dietary issues may play a role. Since overfeeding can be related to colic, try feeding your baby smaller portions more frequently. To identify food intolerance in your breastfed baby, keep a log of foods you eat. There’s no reason to stop breastfeeding if your baby has colicky symptoms; infant formula often makes the symptoms worse. Gas, poor positioning, and environmental causes have also been implicated in setting off colicky cries. When colic strikes, try to soothe your baby and wait it out. Babywearing, the “colic hold” (positioning her so that her stomach rests on your forearm and her head is supported in the palm of your hand or the crook of your arm), and gentle massage may ease your baby’s distress. Some babies respond well to “white noise.” A walk or a car ride may also help.

“I’m not comfortable!”

Crying can signal discomfort.

What to do: Check your baby all over for not-so-obvious problems, such as a hair tangled around a tiny body part (like a finger, a toe, or—for a baby boy—a penis). These so-called hair tourniquets pose the risk of serious injury. Also look for redness on the baby’s skin, and consider possible sources of irritation.

“I need you!”

Crying can be a sign that your baby just needs to be held. Your loving touch and attentiveness will foster his development.

What to doWearing your baby in a sling or infant carrier can help him get the comfort he desires while you go about your usual activities. Don’t worry about holding him “too much.” You really cannot spoil a baby. Responding to his cry for tender loving care is good for him because it helps him gain confidence that you’ll be there to meet his needs.