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Responding To Your Baby's Cries

Crying serves several useful purposes for your baby. It gives her a way to call for help when she’s hungry or uncomfortable. It helps her shut out sights, sounds, and other sensations that are too intense to suit her. And it helps her release tension.

You may notice that your baby has fussy periods throughout the day, even though she’s not hungry, uncomfortable, or tired. Nothing you do at these times will console her, but right after these spells, she may seem more alert than before, and shortly thereafter she may sleep more deeply than usual. This kind of fussy crying seems to help babies get rid of excess energy so they can return to a more contented state.

Pay close attention to your baby’s different cries. You’ll soon be able to tell when she needs to be picked up, consoled, or tended to, and when she is better off left alone. You may even be able to identify her specific needs by the way she cries. For instance, a hungry cry is usually short and low-pitched, and it rises and falls. An angry cry tends to be more turbulent. A cry of pain or distress generally comes on suddenly and loudly with a long, high-pitched shriek followed by a long pause and then a flat wail. The “leave-me-alone” cry is usually similar to a hunger cry. It won’t take long before you have a pretty good idea of what your baby’s cries are trying to tell you.

Sometimes different types of cries overlap. For example, newborns generally wake up hungry and crying for food. If you’re not quick to respond, your baby’s hunger cry may give way to a wail of rage. You’ll hear the difference. As your baby matures, her cries will become stronger, louder, and more insistent. They’ll also begin to vary more, as if to convey different needs and desires. The best way to handle crying is to respond promptly to your infant whenever she cries during her first few months. You cannot spoil a young baby by giving her attention, and if you answer her calls for help, she’ll cry less overall.

When responding to your child’s cries, try to meet her most pressing need first. If she’s cold and hungry and her diaper is wet, warm her up, change her diaper, and then feed her. If there’s a shrieking or panicked quality to the cry, consider the possibility that a piece of clothing or something else is making her uncomfortable. Perhaps a strand of hair is caught around a finger or toe. If she’s warm, dry, and well fed but nothing is working to stop the crying, try the following consoling techniques to find the ones that work best for your baby:

  • Rocking, either in a rocking chair or in your arms as you sway from side to side
  • Gently stroking her head or patting her back or chest
  • Swaddling (wrapping her snugly in a receiving blanket)
  • Singing or talking
  • Playing soft music
  • Walking her in your arms, a stroller, or a carriage
  • Riding in the car (Be sure to properly secure her in her car safety seat.)
  • Rhythmic noise and vibration
  • Burping her to relieve any trapped gas bubbles
  • Warm baths (Most babies like this, but not all.)

Sometimes, if all else fails, the best approach is simply to leave the baby alone. Many babies cannot fall asleep without crying, and will go to sleep more quickly if left to cry for a while. The crying shouldn’t last long if the child is truly tired. If your baby is inconsolable no matter what you do, she may be sick. Check her temperature. If you take it rectally and it is over 100.4 degrees Fahrenheit (38 degrees Celsius), she could have an infection. Contact your pediatrician.

The more relaxed you remain, the easier it will be to console your child. Even very young babies are sensitive to tension around them and react to it by crying. Listening to a wailing newborn can be agonizing, but letting your frustration turn to anger or panic will only intensify your infant’s screams. If you start to feel that you can’t handle the situation, get help from another family member or a friend. Not only will this give you needed relief, but a new face sometimes can calm your baby when all your own tricks are spent. No matter how impatient or angry you feel, do not shake the baby. Shaking an infant hard can cause blindness, brain damage, or even death. Also, make sure to share this information on crying with other caretakers of your baby, including your spouse or partner.

Above all, don’t take your newborn’s crying personally. She’s not crying because you’re a bad parent or because she doesn’t like you. All babies cry, often without any apparent cause. Newborns routinely cry a total of one to four hours a day. It’s part of adjusting to this strange new life outside the womb.

No mother can console her child every time she cries, so don’t expect to be a miracle worker with your baby. Instead, take a realistic approach to the situation, line up some help, get plenty of rest, and enjoy all those wondrous moments with your child.


Last Updated
Caring for Your Baby and Young Child: Birth to Age 5 (Copyright © 2009 American Academy of Pediatrics)
The information contained on this Web site should not be used as a substitute for the medical care and advice of your pediatrician. There may be variations in treatment that your pediatrician may recommend based on individual facts and circumstances.
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