Why is my baby crying? 14 reasons why and how to cope
A new survey reveals ‘Why is my baby crying?’ is one of the most commonly Googled question amongst parents. Here are the most likely reasons your baby’s blue, and the top tips you need to keep everyone happy.
1. Could it be good old-fashioned hunger?
Tiny babies have tiny stomachs, and although it may feel as though you only just fed them, newborn babies are most likely to be crying out of hunger. Breast milk only takes an hour or so to digest, so needs replacing frequently. Formula is more substantial and takes longer to break down, so you may find frequent hunger is less of an issue with bottle- or combination-fed babies.
Lactation specialists advise nursing mothers to feed on demand, breastfeeding baby whenever they signal they’re hungry. Bottle-feeding mums are generally advised to wait around two to three hours between feeds. Signs your crying baby may be hungry include making sucking motions or puckering their their lips, opening and closing their mouth, sticking out their tongue, rooting for your breast and sucking on their hands. If your baby cries, sucks, then leaves your breast, chances are they’re not hungry. Likewise, if your little one repeatedly struggles to finish an entire bottle, try feeding them smaller amounts more often instead.
TIP: Health visitors advise that if your baby is crying less than an hour after feeding, there’s a strong chance hunger isn’t the issue; while a full nappy is a good indicator that another feed may be imminent.
2. Have you checked their nappy recently?
Babies’ thresholds for tolerating a dirty nappy vary enormously – some are unbothered, yet scream the house down when said nappy is changed. Remember, changing your baby is a learnt skill and you’ll get better and quicker as you both get used to it. To limit the chance of painful nappy rash, slather plenty of barrier cream on at every change. Try Weleda Calendula Nappy Change Cream, £6.95 (weleda.co.uk) and Metanium Everyday Barrier Ointment, £3.19 (boots.com).
The number of soiled nappies baby produces varies widely too – anything from one a day to ten! On average, a newborn will have four poos a day, but once feeding is established this number should settle down, and it’s pretty normal to have at least six wet nappies every 24 hours. But all babies are different, and you’ll soon work out what’s normal for them. Always remember to wipe girls from front to back.
TIP: Get into the habit of changing your baby after every feed or at two- to three-hourly intervals. This approach lessens your little one’s chances of sitting in a soiled nappy that will irritate their skin. Also aim for a little nappy-free time every day, and let them kick and wriggle around in the open air to their heart’s content.
3. Are they over-tired or ready to nap?
Babies exhibit two different types of behaviour that signal they need to sleep. Voluntary signs include rubbing their eyes or ears and turning away from sources of stimulation, as well as searching for their dummy or sucking their thumb. Involuntary signals include hiccups, sneezing, sweaty palms and quick breaths. Bear in mind that newborns can only cope with 45 minutes of stimulation before getting tired. This increases to two hours at six months, then four or five hours by the time they reach toddlerhood.
Try to resist the temptation to rock or nurse them to sleep – experts agree babies should be put down in their cot whilst still awake. It’ll be four or five months before they’re capable of soothing themselves completely to sleep, but get into good habits now by establishing a regular bedtime routine that leaves them drowsy, not nodded off.
TIP: If you often find your baby is overtired and strung out at nap or bedtime then bring the whole routine forward by half an hour. Try to time their sleep to maximise their body’s natural peaks and troughs of cortisol (a stress hormone) and melatonin (which controls sleep cycles). Also avoid any loud noises or hyper stimulation in the 15 minutes before sleeping – taking them to a darkened room during this time lets the melatonin kick in.
4. Would a cuddle help?
Newborns need lots of physical reassurance as they adapt to life outside of the womb. Cuddling delivers comfort via your heartbeat and smell, and also provides them with warmth and a certain amount of pressure. Tiffany Field Ph.D explains, ‘When you hold your child it stimulates pressure receptors that help their body to relax.’ Using a sling is a great way to comfort your baby for longer periods (while leaving your hands free to get on with other things). If your baby is a natural snuggler, their crying may reach a peak at about six months, when separation anxiety kicks in. Worried about spoiling them with too much cuddling? Experts agree that infants can’t be over-indulged before they’re four months old, so cuddle up as often as you can.
TIP: If your older baby cries every time they’re put down, try to gently reduce their co-dependency by putting them down somewhere safe and leaving them for a couple of minutes. Always tell them, ‘Mummy’s coming back,’ then make sure to return and pick them up again BEFORE they cry so they can learn that you picking them up isn’t dependent upon their crying.
5. Is it tummy trouble?
It’s thought babies’ immature digestive systems play a part in their susceptibility to gas. Crying, nursing and bottle-feeding all introduce even more air into their gastrointestinal tracts, making them more uncomfortable and setting in motion an endless round of fussy behaviour that leads to babies to swallow even more air. Although distressing to watch, this is a normal phase in every baby’s development that unfortunately tends to get worse between six and eight weeks. It does get better, though!
Some health visitors recommend laying a distressed, gassy baby down on their back and either bicycling their legs or bending them gently up towards their chest. Another effective strategy is to give a mid-feed burp to release as much ingested air as possible. About a third of all babies suffer from reflux – a condition where the valve that closes the stomach off from the oesophagus is unable to prevent food from resurfacing. Keeping your baby upright for at least 20 minutes after each feed will aid digestion.
TIP: Watch out for signs of gastroesophageal reflux disease (GORD), such as crying out in terrible pain during and after feeding, and coughing, wheezing, gagging or choking sounds. However, GORD should resolve itself without the need for any medical treatment, as the ring of muscle at the bottom of their oesophagus fully develops at about 12-14 months. Babies with GORD should be placed on their backs on a firm, flat mattress that is not elevated, as this protects their airways.
6. Are they too hot or too cold?
If you suspect a change in temperature might be behind your child’s tears, be sure to check their torso rather than their extremities – it’s not unusual for young babies to have cold hands and feet even if their core temperature is spot on. Keep your baby’s room somewhere between 16 and 20ºC, and use cotton blankets or sleep pods (a 2.5 tog is ideal for most of the year), not a duvet, in their cot, which should be placed away from heat sources such as a fire or radiator, and kept out of direct sunlight. Never, ever, put your baby to bed with a hot water bottle or electric blanket.
Babies lose most of their heat from their head so pop on a hat when heading out on cold days. And if you are snuggling them up in their car seat be sure to put blankets over their safety straps, rather then between them and their restraints as this can compromise their safety.
TIP: Sheepskin buggy liners will keep your little one toasty during trips to the park, but make sure to unzip and remove all excess layers, hats etc when you go back inside – even if this risks waking a sleeping baby. Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS) is linked to overheating.
7. Is it something small you could have missed?
If you’ve ticked off the usual suspects, consider checking their fingers and toes (and for little boys, also their genitals) for a hair tourniquet – when a strand of your (or their) hair has become tightly wrapped around them and is cutting off their circulation. They’re often disguised in a crease or fold of skin, so look for swollen digits, and be vigilant at night when tourniquets can be especially difficult to spot. Figures reveal 60 cases last year in the UK – 43% were found on toes, 24% on fingers and 33% on genitalia. Key culprits when it comes to items of clothing harbouring potential hair tourniquets are mittens and footed sleepsuits.
TIP: Babies are most at risk during the period when new mums start to shed their pregnancy hair (when baby is around three to six months), so pay particular attention during this time.
8. How about those pesky first teeth?
When it comes to teething, some babies are in agony while others seem to barely notice. If your baby is in pain and you’re at a loss as to why, try feeling around in their mouth with a clean finger – you may discover the nub of a tooth breaking through. Typically, most infants get their first tooth aged between four and seven months, but it can happen sooner. Teeth tend to erupt in a set pattern, with the bottom middle two sprouting first, followed by the top middle two, then the ones flanking at the sides, and finally the second molars at the back, the top ones coming last. Signs (apart from crying) that your baby may be teething include irritability, drooling, swollen or sensitive gums, gnawing or chewing on things, refusing food and repeatedly pushing their fists into their mouth.
TIP: Some paediatricians doubt that symptoms such as fussiness or diarrhoea are linked to teething but are simply the result of a teething child putting more objects into their mouth in a bid to find relief, and in so doing picking up more germs and bacteria. Try to limit their exposure by offering them a Bickiepeg teething biscuit (£2, boots.com) or a teether that has been chilled (in the fridge not the freezer).
9. Is there just too much going on?
Adapting to life on the outside can be traumatic, and sometimes a little quiet time out is just what your infant needs. Sure-fire signs that your baby is feeling overwhelmed include being fretful, hyperactive, withdrawn or super-clingy – older babies may even lash out. Always try to respect their routine, and schedule guests and trips around their nap time. Crying can be your baby’s way of saying, ‘I’ve had enough!’ so try taking them away from any hustle and bustle and think about swaddling them. Most newborns love being physically cosseted as it makes them feel safe and relaxed. The Ergobaby Swaddler (£24.90, ergobaby.co.uk) or the Grobag Gro-Snug Swaddling Blanket (£22.95, johnlewis.com) both make swaddling a doddle.
TIP: Latest research shows that many apps are far too stimulating for toddlers, and official guidelines say to avoid any such entertainment until your child is at least three, sticking instead with traditional toys and types of play. So put away the iPad!
10. Or not enough?
It’s also possible that your baby may be crying due to boredom and feeling under-stimulated. Lots of one-to-one play including eye contact, singing, reading and describing the world around them will pique but not overwhelm your baby’s interest. Black-and-white mobiles or pram toys and friezes are designed with your newborn’s developing eyesight in mind. Check out the selections at Lamaze (lamazetoys.co.uk) and Amazing Baby (amazingbaby.net).
Slings come into their own with a baby who demands to be constantly entertained, especially once they have strong enough head control (around four months) to face outwards. Being carried offers your baby the perfect vantage point to see everything.
TIP: Try to set aside a portion of every day when you turn off your phone or at least put it out of sight. Technology can make it hard to switch off and focus solely on your baby, but this kind of concentrated adult attention is the best way to bond with and simultaneously stimulate your newborn.
11. Could they be coming down with something?
Many parents report that, in hindsight, their baby’s tearful state was the first sign of illness. If you suspect your child may be sickening for something, check their temperature. A normal reading should come out at around 36.4ºC – for the greatest accuracy medics recommend a digital in-ear thermometer. If your baby has a temperature of 37.5ºC or higher, it’s important to monitor them closely and look for other signs of illness, including any changes inappetite or bowel movements, being unusually sleepy, or having a rash that doesn’t fade when a glass is pressed firmly against the skin. Over time you’ll become attuned to your child’s individual personality and it will be easier to spot if they’re feeling unwell sooner. Keep a well-stocked medical kit at home complete with Calpol, Nurofen for Children, Bonjela Teething Gel and Nelsons Teetha Teething Granules.
TIP: The cry of a sick baby tends to differ significantly from the noise they make when they’re tired or hungry. If they cry for long periods of time or out of the blue, or if their cry is weak or unusually high-pitched, it could be a sign that they’re seriously ill. If something doesn’t feel right, get medical help right away.
12. Have they lost their comforter?
Dummies present many new parents with a double-edged sword: on the one hand they offer instant relief, but on the other they can be the cause of much angst (yours as well as your baby’s) when they’re repeatedly lost during nap time or at night. (Plus there’s that battle further down the line to wean them off.) Babies who suckle themselves to sleep will inevitably drop their dummy as they nod off, and be distressed when they stir during their sleep to find their soother gone. Incapable of finding and replacing it themselves, parents are the obvious facilitators. Cue repeated crying throughout the night and broken sleep for the whole family. To encourage them to self-manage, try placing plenty of dummies in the cot to increase their chances of finding one unaided, and if you do go to them, always give the dummy to them in their hand instead of putting it back into their mouth.
TIP: Experts agree babies should only use a dummy for the first six months, after which the disadvantages greatly outweigh the benefits, putting your baby at an increased risk of ear infections and orthodontic issues, and a possible delay in speech development.
13. Are they frustrated?
It can be agonising to watch your baby struggling to make physical and emotional sense of the world. While temper tantrums don’t officially kick in until they reach around 12 to 18 months, babies exhibit clear frustration and annoyance at tricky tasks like learning to roll or grabbing that just-out-of-reach toy. Hard as they are on both of you, these developmental growing pains are a necessary evil.
According to T Berry Brazelton, doctor and author of Touchpoints: Your Child’s Emotional and Behavioral Development (£10.99, Da Capo Press), ‘Parents need to give children the chance to stretch themselves. It gives them a sense of ‘I did it… I did it myself.’ He reasons that they need to experience triumph alone and not share it with anyone else. The message is: resist the urge to step in and rescue them too early.
TIP:Empathy and understanding hold the key. Don’t try to hurry your baby along or ‘spare’ them these experiences: instead, stay close by and acknowledge their efforts whilst all the time encouraging them to keep trying.
14. Is it just ‘one of those days’?
Leading paediatric experts stress that there’s always a cause of crying even if there doesn’t seem to be – they may be trying to communicate something that isn’t visible to the naked eye. Issues such as an undiagnosed food sensitivity could be to blame, and breastfeeding mums are routinely encouraged to eliminate known allergens from their diet that could be inadvertently passed on to their baby. La Leche League GB (laleche.org.uk) recommends avoiding cow’s milk, eggs, wheat, corn, pork, fish and shellfish, as well as tomatoes, onions, cabbage, berries, nuts, spices, citrus fruit and chocolate if your baby is unhappy or unsettled after nursing. Likewise, growing pains or growth spurts could also explain a baby’s need to cry periodically. As parents we want and expect to understand and respond appropriately to our baby’s every cry, and when we fail to do this we feel guilty and inadequate. But psychologists agree that a parent who responds, irrelevant of whether they can successfully stop their baby’s crying, limits the release of stress hormones in their child’s body. In fact, studies have shown that children of responsive parents notably cry less as time passes.
TIP: We may not know what’s wrong or be able to stop it, but it doesn’t mean we can’t help our baby. The most important thing we can do is simply be there for them.
How to cope with a crying baby
Keeping your cool when your baby won’t stop crying can be a big ask. Throw in feelings of guilt, inadequacy, frustration and several months of sleepless nights, and prolonged periods of upset can push even the most patient parent to breaking point. Caroline Deacon, author of Babycalming: Simple Solutions for a Happy Baby (£9.99, Thorsons), advocates always responding promptly to your child’s cries. Far from ‘giving in’ or ‘creating future problems’ as some parents worry about, swift action helps reassure, soothe and can even curtail your baby’s crying.
Try the NCT’s advice with one of these techniques:
- Gently rock your baby in your arms (playing soothing music might help you get into the swing). The rhythm can help snap them out of a screaming fit.
- Try a little white noise courtesy of YouTube or iTunes App Store. Fretful babies often still to the sound of static or a hairdryer on a loop.
- Take them out in the fresh air, in a sling or in their pram. A total change of environment can work wonders.
- Try passing the baby to someone else. Many mums report dads and grandparents have the Midas touch when it comes to calming things down.
Most importantly, know when you’re on the edge. Babies can often tell when a caregiver is stressed or impatient, and will ramp up their crying in response. If you’re worried you may shake or harm your baby, place your baby somewhere safe, such as their cot, and take a break in another room. If you can, ask a trusted friend or family member to sit with your child so you can take time out from the house to calm down. If this happens regularly, seek specialist help from the charity Cry-Sis (cry-sis.org.uk or call 08451 228669).
How much crying is ‘normal’?
How much your baby cries is no reflection on your ability as a parent, and no two infants are the same. On average, a newborn will cry for around an hour and a half a day. They’ll sleep a lot in the first few weeks of life, but will cry loudly and often during their wakeful periods. By six weeks, a healthy baby cries for up to three hours a day, but by six months this should have reduced to just one or two hours a day.
REMEMBER: Even 15 minutes of crying can seem like an eternity when you’re tired and strung out. But babies do not wail because they are spoiled or to annoy you; they cry to ensure their basic survival needs are met – it’s their only communication tool at this early age.
Controlled crying – yes or no?
Controlled crying (CC) is definitely the Marmite of parenting. Advocates won’t hear a bad word against its ability to settle a restless baby into a sleep routine. Others believe it may have unintended negative psychological and emotional consequences. So what exactly it? Well, CC involves leaving a healthy, clean, well-fed baby to cry for varying amounts of time until they fall asleep on their own. There are different approaches; at one end of the spectrum there is ‘crying it out’ – whereby parents close their baby’s door at bedtime and come back in the morning. The more middle ground involves parents returning to briefly comfort their crying baby, then leaving again for ever-increasing periods of time. Finally, ‘entry-level’ CC requires parents to remain in the baby’s room moving at a glacial pace over several nights, weeks even, towards the door. Never easy, parents need a cast-iron resolve to resist running to comfort their baby’s wails – indeed, one survey found that of more than 200 parents who tried CC, 59% gave up after just one week.
Dr Howard Chilton, paediatrician and author of Your Cherished Baby (around £18, Macmillan Australia), prefers what he calls ‘reassurology’. ‘I don’t like this idea that babies have a ‘sensitive window’,’ he explains. ‘Whereby, if you don’t ‘teach’ them to sleep by a certain point then they’ll never learn and continue to wake up. It’s simply not true.’ He believes babies are born developmentally premature and so need a lot of high-intensity, contact-based-care for a long time after birth. Factor in their tiny stomachs and need for frequent nourishment, plus the accepted understanding that babies have no idea of permanence (if something is out of sight to an infant it no longer exists), and the likelihood of getting a tiny baby to lie peacefully in their room for 12 hours without panicking seems absurd. He argues that it’s a basic survival instinct. ‘After all, a baby abandoned in the wild would only attract unwanted attention to itself if it continued to cry so, sooner or later, its primal brain tells it to stop.’ Put simply: how we are comforted in our first 12 months could have a huge impact on our ability to cope with stress in later life – so much so that the Australian Association for Infant Mental Health Inc (AAIMHI) advises against controlled crying for any child under the age of three. Enough said.