10 ways to understand your baby’s crying

Identify why your baby is crying and you’ll find it so much easier to soothe him

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Your baby can cry for different reasons at different times of the day and night. If you can understand what he’s asking for, it will be easier to get him settled once more

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Crying in the daytime

Is your baby hungry?

“If your baby hasn’t fed for a couple of hours, or has just had a dirty nappy, he may be hungry,” says Elizabeth Pantley, author of Gentle Baby Care: No-Cry, No-Fuss, No-Worry.

Catharine Parker-Littler, midwife from First Response, adds, “A hungry cry starts as a murmur, becoming more forceful as your baby’s need becomes more urgent. But after the first few weeks, hungry cries reduce because you learn to recognise when your baby needs to feed.”

Is your baby tired?

Newborns can only stay awake for an hour or two before fatigue sets in. Even by 9 months of age, a two- to four-hour period of ‘awake time’ is enough to make a baby tired and fussy.

Dr Wendy Dean, author of The Baby Sleep System, says, “It’s important to learn the signs of tiredness your baby displays, such as yawning, wandering attention and ear-pulling.”

“James can get so excited he forgets to sleep and cries inconsolably. So I draw the curtains to calm him down and gently stroke his forehead,” says Lisa, 30, mum to James, 12 weeks.

Is your baby overstimulated?

Babies take everything in, and it’s all new and exciting. But too much stimulation and your baby may cry short, sharp cries to ask for a break.

Jacquie Coulton, health visitor, says: “Even relatives passing the baby around for cuddles can unwittingly wind your baby up.”

“At family get-togethers, Louisa spends the day getting attention from all our relatives, then whinges the next day; short, sharp cries mixed in with a constant whine. I think it’s overstimulation,” says Katie, 38, mum to Louisa, 9 months.

Is your baby bored?

“A baby’s job is to learn, and he takes the task seriously. An infant without anyone to play with or something new to see may cry,” says Elizabeth Pantley.

It starts around the 3-month mark, explains Jacquie Coulton. “Your baby is more physically able by then and may start to get bored, with his boredom peaking at the 6- to 7-month mark. Try simple, developmentally appropriate toys that give him a sense of independence.”

Is your baby in discomfort or pain?

Babies don’t know how to solve their own problems, so they have to rely on you. If your little one is too hot, too cold, or has nappy rash or teething pain, then his cries are a request for you to do something about it.
“If you have any concerns at all about your baby’s health, always talk to your midwife, health visitor or GP,” says Catharine Parker-Littler. “If your baby is crying and the tears are accompanied by fever, breathing difficulties, a rash, diarrhoea, projectile vomiting or shivering, then don’t hesitate to seek medical attention.”

Does your baby want some company?

Babies thrive when they’re engaged with the people they love. If your baby’s not tired, hungry or in pain, perhaps he just wants your company.

“Small babies need cuddles and interaction,” says Dr Pat Spungin, author of Silent Nights (Prentice Hall). “Let him interact with whoever’s around. If a baby is fretful, avoid more stimulation, just hold him.”

Crying in the late afternoon/early evening

Is your baby overtired?

“The most common reason for crying in the late afternoon or early evening is a build-up of fatigue from a lack of good daytime naps, or a poor previous night’s sleep,” says Elizabeth Pantley, author of Gentle Baby Care: No-Cry, No-Fuss, No-Worry.

“All babies need the appropriate amount of naps for their age or the day ends in tears,” agrees Dr Wendy Dean. “Babies should nap in the morning and have a long nap after lunch, and young babies need a catnap at around 4pm to get them through the bedtime routine.”

“Zack isn’t generally a crier, but the early-evening ‘witching hour’ is his speciality. As soon as he was old enough, I let him play with pots and pans from the kitchen cupboards as it buys me enough time to make tea if he’s tired and grizzly,” saysHeidi, mum to Edan, 2, and Zack, 12 months.

Does your baby have colic?

Colic can affect babies aged between 3 to 16 weeks, but researchers are still unsure of its cause. Some experts believe it’s related to the baby’s immature digestive system, others say it’s the nervous system and inability to handle constant sensory stimulation around him that causes a breakdown by the end of the day. But how do you identify it? Catharine Parker-Littler has this advice, “The true signs of colic are redness and an angry face, flexing limbs, knees held up, a tense abdomen, constipation and a baby who isn’t easily soothed.” If you think your baby has colic, talk to your health visitor.

Crying in the night

Does your baby need a feed?

Newborn babies have tiny tummies. It would be nice to lay him down and not hear from him until morning, but this is not realistic for a tiny baby, says Dr Pat Spungin. “If a baby under 3 months cries at night, he’s likely to be hungry and needs to be fed. Until he’s ready for a sleep routine, respond to his hungry cry as quickly and efficiently as you can to cut down tears.”

Does your baby have a waking-up habit?

“If a baby is helped to fall asleep by a parent,” explains Elizabeth Pantley, “he can be startled to find himself alone if he wakes up naturally during his sleep cycle – and then he cries.”

Laverne Antrobus, author of Ain’t Misbehavin’, has this advice for recognising and stopping such cries. “Early hours crying is very stressful for parents. It’s a high-pitched, piercing cry,” she says.

“But parents need to resist the urge to pick their baby up. Just gently reassure him and he’ll soon learn to settle himself.”

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What else could the crying mean?

  • Teething – offer a drink of cold water, a teething ring or cold flannel to bite on
  • Nappy trouble – check regularly to see if his nappy is wet or dirty and give him some nappy-off time whenever possible, putting a clean towel underneath him in case of accidents. The fresh air helps prevent nappy rash
  • Early tantrums – babies want their own way from an early age! If yours is already becoming defiant, distract him with the next game, story or meal to ease the tears

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