The sound of a baby crying gets our attention — it's nearly impossible to ignore.
Research suggests men and women respond differently to the sound of a crying baby.
For women, hearing a baby cry usually triggers feelings of sympathy and care-giving. In men, the responses include irritation and anger.
The sound of your own baby crying goes much deeper. It reaches inside you and sets off all sorts of internal responses.
Infant crying needs to trigger an urgent response from mothers. In the context of a modern western family, it's hard to imagine the risks that a crying infant might expose her tribe to in our hunter-gatherer past, or even in more recent human history. A crying baby would attract lots of unwanted interest – from predators, enemies and others seeking a vulnerable point of attack.
For the protection of the whole community, the crying would need to be stopped quickly and effectively. Your primal responses to do this still kick in, even in the secure environment of your suburban home in broad daylight.
So, what causes babies to cry? And how can we learn to interpret these broad requests for help and the unique messages behind them?
Baby Crying – The Causes
Here are 10 reasons why your baby might be crying:
#1: Your Crying Baby Is Hungry
Babies are designed to efficiently process breastmilk. Even when your baby is formula-fed, he will still digest his feeds quickly and seek more fuel as soon as possible. The most likely reason for a baby to cry is hunger – and crying is a late hunger signal.
A breastfed baby cannot be over-fed – you can offer the breast as often as he seeks it and more milk will always be available. Cue-based feeding allows your baby and breasts to work together to sync supply and demand.
A formula fed baby needs his daily intake of milk regulated by an adult, however, you can be flexible in how often you offer feeds and the volume he takes at each. Bottle nursing is a technique which uses cue-based formula/EBM feeding – you can read more about it here: Bottle Nursing – 6 Steps to Better Bottle Feeding. Here is an article on baby hunger cues.
#2: Your Crying Baby Is Overwhelmed
Too much stimulation can lead to inconsolable crying in babies of all ages. Over-handling by visitors, sudden or ongoing loud noise, and other sensory overload can leave a baby distressed. Generally, falling asleep will help them but getting them relaxed enough to do so can take some effort.
Dim lighting, white noise, and gentle movement can all help and overstimulated baby settle. A breastfed baby may seek the breast for reassurance while a bottle-fed baby might need feeding sooner than usual.
#3: Your Crying Baby Is Bored
In her book The Discontented Little Baby Book, Dr Pamela Douglas suggests babies have a hunger for stimulation, similar to their hunger for food. While over-stimulation can lead to tears, boredom can also cause distress in babies whose rapidly-developing brains need a variety of sensory experiences throughout their day.
Rather than sleeping babies in separate rooms from the mother, Douglas recommends keeping the baby close to the mother while they sleep, as well as while awake.
Babywearing is a great way to keep the baby where the action is and allow a range of sights, sounds, smells, movement and touch as the adult goes about her tasks. These subtle stimulatory opportunities are unlikely to lead to the distress of over-stimulation, as the mother is able to see early feedback from the baby and adjust activity as needed.
#4: Your Crying Baby Needs Comfort
A rapidly changing body, growing in the first months of life at a rate never experienced again, can be a pretty uncomfortable thing. New systems, fresh from the womb where they did little to no work, suddenly have to kick into gear moments after birth. A digestive system needs to begin working, lungs need to begin the process that won’t stop until the day of their last breath. Brains which won’t be fully developed for 25 years need to start wiring up a network of cells that will eventually study at university, fly an aeroplane, create music or recall a lifetime of memories.
It’s not surprising then, that babies might experience “growing pains” along the way. The concept of the Wonder Weeks (discovered by Dutch paediatrician, Frans Plooj) helps parents understand the stages of key development. It's a challenging time for babies, and leads to the 3 C’s:
What these babies need is reassurance and parental presence, to comfort them through these demanding periods. The Wonder Weeks book comes highly recommended for new parents.
#5: Your Crying Baby Needs Sleep
Just because they need to sleep doesn’t always mean they can fall asleep. An over-tired baby is miserable because he has gone beyond the point where sleep occurs easily. Your role here is to support him with soothing strategies until he relaxes enough to fall asleep.
Rocking, white noise, a wearing him in a sling or carrier or putting him back to the breast are all tools which can induce sleep. Sometimes though, the only thing you can offer is your presence, as you hold him close and let his crying work towards the point of exhaustion.
Crying in arms, though distressing, is not the same as routinely leaving your baby to Cry It Out, as your touch, sound and smell help him know he isn’t alone and he won’t have the same sense of abandonment created by Extinction Methods of sleep training. If however, his crying reaches the stage where you fear you might harm your baby in frustration, then laying him in a safe sleep space and moving away from hearing range will allow you to calm down and reassess how to proceed.
#6: Your Crying Baby Feels Pain
Recent research suggests that babies experience pain much like adults. That is pretty confronting as a parent, when a lot of the pain is unfixable. Reflux and colic are commonly identified causes of pain but little is known about how either occurs or what physiological processes are behind them. Indeed, science can’t even clearly define what the term colic means. However, research has clarified that:
- Colic affects all babies, regardless of race or feeding method
- Crying tends to peak around six weeks. By around 3-5 months, colic disappears.
- Colic is rarely due to an underlying medical condition.
When it comes to reflux (gastroesophageal reflux disease or GERD) even less is known. Indeed, there is concern that doctors over-diagnose GERD and some babies are needlessly medicated. The Royal Children’s Hospital in Melbourne, Australia says:
“Clinical presentation of vomiting or regurgitation is very common in infants, and in the majority of cases self-resolving and does not need treatment. It may be associated with irritability but only very few ‘crying babies' will have significant GER as the cause for their irritability.”
- Peaks at 4 months of age when ~67% of healthy term infants have greater than 1 daily episode of regurgitation
- Between 6-7 months the prevalence of symptoms decreases from 61% to 21%
- At 12 months of age only 5% have symptoms
Regardless of what is actuall happening in babies who are said to have reflux or colic, the distress they are feeling is real and the impact of it on families is not to be undermined. Parents need advice and support, including respite occasionally to support their mental health. If your baby’s crying is beyond what you would consider to be normal, consult your doctor or maternal health nurse.
#7: Your Crying Baby Needs Touch
After the close confines of the womb in late pregnancy, life outside it comes as a shock to many babies. Especially during the fourth trimester, touch reassures infants and meets their sensory need for physical contact. Infant massage, babywearing and skin-to-skin all meet the baby’s needs and also help parents bond and connect with their child.
A distressed baby might enjoy sharing a bath with mum or dad, followed by a massage and finished off with a skin-to-skin feeding from breast or bottle.
#8: Your Crying Baby Is Lonely
Human infants are not designed to be alone. As social mammals, they expect to be around people. Traditional societies include babies in all aspects of daily life. In the typical Western environment, where mothers are isolated in the home with infants and young children, in houses where separate spaces are defined for sleep and activity, loneliness can become an issue for mothers and babies.
Keeping your baby around day-time activity, close to his mother and not reducing noise levels during sleep can all reassure a baby he is not alone. Learn more in our article Baby Has Night And Day Mixed Up? Here’s What to Do.
#9: Your Crying Baby Is Uncomfortable
Due to their limited mobility, babies rely on others to help when they feel discomfort. It might be a bunched up shirt under their onesie, a swaddling wrap digging in just a little, a nappy chaffing or an arm trapped awkwardly. It is always worth checking for these little discomforts. Keeping your baby close by will allow you to pick up on his cues before he turns to more extreme cries.
#10: Your Crying Baby Doesn’t Know Why They Are Crying
It's the most frustrating thing of all – no matter how many times we plead with them to tell us what’s wrong – babies don’t know. They don’t have the brain development to separate the physical from the emotional, the mild from the severe, the optional for the urgent. Babies cries do generally all sound the same (though with time and experience, you might start to discern small variations and their meanings) and the helplessness you feel in not knowing WHAT is wrong is normal.
If your baby could talk to you, here are 10 Things Your Crying Baby Wants You To Know.