If this is your first go-around with parenting (or you conveniently forgot this phase), you’re probably wondering where to find the handbook on decoding baby cries.
We know, wishful thinking — but the reality is, your newborn does not come with a manual, so it’s up to you to decipher all of the whimpers, wails, screams, and other desperate attempts to get your attention.
To help you decipher all this fuss, we asked two pediatricians to share their tips and tricks for interpreting the sound of six common newborn cries.
If there’s one thing a newborn fusses about the most, it’s food. And it doesn’t matter if their drink of choice is breastmilk or formula — the “I’m hungry” plea for help sounds exactly the same.
According to Robert Hamilton, MD, FAAP, a pediatrician at Providence Saint John’s Health Center, the hungry cry has a demanding, sharp, “I WANT IT NOW!” kind of tone.
“This cry is constant and unrelenting, and only abates when you sit down and either give them a breast or a bottle,” he says. You may also notice baby chewing on their hands and wrists, pecking (rooting) at your chest, or sucking a pacifier more strongly when they are hungry.
What you can do: When baby hurls a hunger cry, try to respond right away. Their pleas for food will only intensify if ignored. If it seems too soon since the last feeding, first try another tactic (like cuddling or playing) to see if their cry is related to something else. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), most newborns will eat every 2 to 3 hours. So also consider looking for hunger signs — opening and closing mouth, clenching fists — before crying begins!
Other than eating, babies do a whole lot of sleeping. If the cries induce a sense of annoyance when heard, Hamilton says they might be tired cries.
Clues to listen for include a cry that is repetitive and constant, which often builds in strength and volume. Hamilton also says to be on the lookout for other signs of sleepiness like eye and nose rubbing.
What you can do: Before putting your baby to bed, hold and comfort them to minimize the crying. You can also try swaddling if they are not sleeping well. If it’s close to nap or bedtime, put your little one to sleep and walk away.
The “I’ve had enough” battle cry often sounds fussy or whiny, according to Katherine Williamson, MD, a pediatrician with Mission Hospital in southern California. You may also notice that your baby tries to move their body away from the stimulation.
You might not think your baby is capable of losing interest in anything — until you hear a boredom cry.
Williamson says the “I’m bored” cry is intermittent, but begins with cooing and then turns into a whining cry, which indicates that they aren’t getting enough attention. “Their cry can then build in volume and can alternate with whimpers,” she explains.
What you can do: Let baby cry for a few minutes before picking them up. Walk around the room, pointing and talking about objects. If weather permits, go outside and get some fresh air. Sometimes a change of scenery with new things to look at is all your baby needs.
Babies experience all kinds of pain, but you may not know something hurts until they cry out for help.
Hamilton says the “I’m in pain” cry is high-pitched and very loud. “These cries are different from all other cries and the intensity calls for immediate attention,” he explains.
Often, the crying will not subside until you pick baby up. An example of a painful cry is after a vaccination. “The cry is a piercing scream that occurs suddenly, but resolves within a minute or two as the initial pain is diminished,” he says.
If you missed out on colic with a previous child, consider yourself lucky because the cries that come from deep within a baby dealing with colic are frequent and often unbearable.
Hamilton says these cries are impassioned and intense and may sound high-pitched. You’ll also notice your baby arching their back, bringing their legs to their tummy, or fidgeting uncomfortably.
“By definition, colic means your child is incredibly fussy, loudly crying, and upset for 3 hours a night for 3 nights a week for 3 weeks,” he explains.
What you can do: This is a tricky one since experts don’t know exactly what causes colic, although Hamilton says it might be linked to gastrointestinal upset. To soothe a colicky baby, the AAP recommends swaddling, walking with baby in a carrier, rocking, and laying baby tummy-down across your knee and gently rubbing their back.
Even on our best days, handling newborn cries can be a challenge. That said, Williamson points out that establishing a repetitive routine consisting of feeding, a period of alert play, and then sleep can help you know what your baby needs.
“For example, if your baby has a full belly and clean diaper, they may just need to be held and rocked,” she says. Keep in mind that your baby may also cry if they are hot or cold.
Here are some other tips to help you manage when the tears are at their worst.
- Walk and rock your baby. This gentle, repetitive swaying motion can help calm them down.
- Try skin-to-skin contact.
- Swaddle and cuddle baby.
- Try a warm bath with soft toys.
- Check for a dirty diaper, and change if needed.
- Push your baby’s knees up to their stomach if you think they might have gas.
- Lay your baby across your stomach or forearm (while supporting their head) and rub their back.
- Go outside and get some fresh air.
- Try the 5 S’s (swaddle, side or stomach position, shush, swing, and suck a pacifier).
- Continue to pay attention to their cues and check for signs of hunger, discomfort, or illness.
- If you’ve reached your limit, hand baby off to another caretaker who is calm. If you are alone, and need a break, place your newborn in their crib and walk away.
Deciphering your little one’s cries takes a lot of trial and error. But with time, guidance, and a lot of patience, you can figure out what your baby is trying to say.
Most experts agree that attending to a crying baby right away can reduce the episode’s length and intensity. It also helps your baby feel safe and shows them that you’re listening.
And remember, crying is normal and healthy for a baby. But if you have any questions or concerns about your newborn’s cries, contact your doctor. They can determine if something more serious is going on.