Babies cry to communicate needs like hunger, tiredness, or a diaper change. If you’ve ruled out the possibilities and your baby is still crying, call your pediatrician, as it could be a sign of illness or colic.
Chances are, the first sign you received that your newborn had arrived was a cry. No matter whether it was a full-throated wail, a gentle bleat, or a series of urgent screams — it was a joy to hear, and you welcomed it with open ears.
Now, days or weeks (or months) later, you’re reaching for the earplugs. Will your baby ever stop crying?
Parents-to-be expect that their baby will fuss and cry, but nothing prepares you for what seems like endless, inconsolable wailing. Let’s dive into what your infant’s shrieks and squalls mean — and how to lessen them so everyone can enjoy some much-deserved peace.
If you’re reading this, you’re likely dealing with a bawling baby — and wondering if contacting your pediatrician is in order. Let’s review upfront when an immediate call or visit is warranted.
Call your doctor right away if your baby:
- is younger than 3 months of age and has a fever (even a low-grade one)
- suddenly screams inconsolably after generally being quiet for the first month(s) of life, with only a few bouts of daily crying (this could be teething, but it could be something more serious)
- is crying and has a bulging soft spot, vomiting, weakness, or lack of movement.
- won’t drink or drinks very little for more than 8 hours
- can’t be calmed in spite of you trying everything — feeding, rocking, not rocking, singing, silence, changing a dirty diaper, etc.
Seemingly endless crying may be colic, but it’s best to know for sure that nothing’s wrong.
What is colic?
Colic is defined as high-pitched crying that occurs in the “rule of 3’s” — 3 or more hours of crying a day, 3 or more days a week, for 3 or more weeks — and generally has a pattern, such as every day in the late afternoon or early evening.
Even if the crying matches the pattern of colic, contacting your pediatrician is wise, as they’ll be able to tell you if colic is the culprit.
In infants 3 months and younger
Babies have little in the way of tools to get us to respond to their needs, says Dr. David L. Hill, FAAP, associate medical editor of “Caring for Your Baby and Young Child, 7thEdition, Birth to Age 5.” “One is looking cute, and the other is crying. These tools are limited in scope, but they’re not limited in power. We are wired to respond to babies crying.”
Your infant has many important things to tell you. In the first several months of life, they may be crying because they:
- are hungry
- have a wet or dirty diaper
- are sleepy or overtired
- are lonely or bored
- have been overfed (causing a bloated stomach)
- need to burp
- are too cold or too hot
- need comfort or love
- are overstimulated from noise or activity
- are irritated by scratchy clothing or a tag
- need to be rocked or swaddled
- are in pain or are ill
Surprised that intestinal gas is absent from the list? According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, gas passing through the baby’s lower digestive system isn’t painful. You may think that’s the reason for their distress because they’re releasing lots of gas during crying jags, but it’s a myth that gas gets trapped in the intestines and causes pain.
Since there are quite a few reasons for crying, it can be overwhelming to pinpoint the problem. Hill recommends having a checklist, especially in the middle of the night. When you’re stumbling around sleep-deprived, it’s a good way to be sure you consider every possibility for the cause of the squalls, and get your baby — and yourself — some relief.
In babies over 3 months
Newborn crying has a physiological basis, such as hunger, and infants this young rely on a parent to soothe them, explains Patti Ideran, OTR/L CEIM, a pediatric occupational therapist who focuses on treating infants with colic, crying, and sleeping or feeding difficulties.
Babies older than about 3 or 4 months of age have likely mastered self-soothing, by using a thumb, fist, or pacifier. But that doesn’t mean they don’t have their vocal moments. They may be frustrated, sad, angry, or have separation anxiety (especially during the night) and use crying as a way to communicate those feelings.
Teething pain is also a big reason for crying in older babies. Most babies sprout a first tooth between 6 and 12 months. In addition to fussiness and crying, your baby’s gums may be swollen and tender, and they may drool more than usual.
To relieve the discomfort of teething, offer your baby a clean frozen or wet washcloth or a solid teething ring. If the crying continues, talk to your pediatrician about giving an appropriate dose of acetaminophen (Tylenol). You can also give ibuprofen (Advil) if your baby is older than 6 months.
Here are the things to try if you have an inconsolable little one:
Feed your baby
You’ll want to be a little preemptive with this one. When your baby started wailing, this is probably the first thing you did, but it may not have gotten the results you expected. Offering the breast or bottle after crying escalates sometimes results in frantic and disorganized sucking.
“If a newborn gets to the point that she’s crying because she’s hungry, you’re already late,” says Hill.
Look for clues that your little one’s beginning to get hungry: One sign is when they suck on their hands or vigorously root around for the nipple. To prevent inconsolable crying — and the agitated, often unsuccessful, feeding that follows — offer the breast or bottle while they’re still calm.
Identify your baby’s cries
Generally, a sudden, long, high-pitched shriek means pain, while a short, low-pitched cry that rises and falls indicates hunger. But to say a particular cry means one thing for all babies isn’t possible.
Crying is individual from baby to baby, and has much to do with temperament. If your first child was super chill, and this newborn is, well, not so much, you may wonder if there’s something wrong with them.
There’s probably nothing wrong, says Hill. Some babies just have a more sensitive temperament and, therefore, are more dramatic in their crying.
If you observe and listen to your infant every day, you’ll start to distinguish the different sounds of their cries. If your baby screams when they’re hungry, listen to that cry and how it’s different from the others.
It helps to imagine you’re learning a foreign language. (Trust us.) If you really pay attention to those cries, over time, you and your baby will develop your own vocabulary.
Notice your baby’s ‘tells’
There are other, subtler, cues that offer a peek into what your baby needs, and reading these can prevent crying spells.
A few are clear, like rubbing their eyes or yawning when they’re tired.
Others are less obvious, such as averting their gaze when they’ve had enough stimulation. Watch your baby closely — their body movements, positions, facial expressions, and vocal sounds (such as whimpering) — at various times of day to learn these cues.
Remember, every baby is unique. Just because your first baby sucked on their hand when they were hungry doesn’t mean your second one will. Instead, this action may say, “I need to calm down.”
Put yourself in their place
If your baby’s cry or cues hold no insight to what is troubling her, think about what would bother you if you were them. Is the TV too loud? Is the overhead light too bright? Would you be bored? Then take the appropriate action.
If you suspect your baby is bored, carrying them around in a front-facing carrier or taking them outside in a stroller offers a welcome change of scenery.
To mask ambient sounds in the household and recreate the shushing your newborn heard in the womb, provide calming white noise, such as turning on a fan or the clothes dryer.
Consider other relief strategies
If the cause of crying is still a mystery, try:
- rocking baby in a chair or in your arms (rapid tiny movements generally are best for calming)
- swaddling your baby (ask your pediatrician or nurse how or check out our how-to)
- placing them in a windup swing
- giving them a warm bath
- singing to them
If you suspect your baby’s in pain, check hands, feet, and genitalia for a “hair tourniquet” (a hair wrapped tightly around a finger, toe, or penis), which can certainly set your baby off.
Do one thing at a time
To stop the crying pronto, parents will often pile one strategy upon another, in quick succession.
“Parents often hold, bounce, shush, sing, pat, change positions — all at once! They also will try to change the diaper, feed, and finally pass off to the other parent for a turn. Oftentimes all these happen within a couple of minutes. The only thing this does is overstimulate the baby,” says Ideran.
Instead, carry out one action at a time — such as just rocking, just patting, or just singing — and stick with it for about 5 minutes to see if your baby settles. If not, try another relief method.
Address the colic
If your doctor confirms your baby has colic, first remember it has absolutely nothing to do with your parenting skills.
To help ease the crying, Ideran recommends you try a specific infant massage developed for colicky babies. It helps with calming, sleeping, and digestion, and also helps form a bond between you and your infant.
There are YouTube videos for on-the-spot colic massages. Or you can locate an infant massage instructor to teach you how to help your colicky baby.
Just let them cry (within reason)
Your baby is fed and changed. They’ve been rocked, patted, sung to, and bounced. You’re exhausted, frustrated, and overwhelmed. All parents of a newborn have been there.
When you’re approaching the breaking point, it’s perfectly OK to put your baby in a safe place, such as their crib, and leave the room.
Calling upon your partner or a trusted family member or friend to take over may be an option. If it’s not, realize that leaving your baby to “cry it out” for a short period of time won’t do any lasting harm.
“We know that letting babies cry some does not damage them emotionally. This has been studied many times. How much? It probably depends on you and your baby, but over the long term, you can feel OK about letting your baby cry if she needs to cry to transition from a waking state to a sleeping state, and even more so if you’re hitting your own emotional limit,” says Hill.
On the other hand, continuing to try to comfort your inconsolable infant when you’re at your wit’s end may do lasting harm. Shaken baby syndrome often occurs when a sleep-deprived, frustrated parent can’t take the crying anymore.
When you feel at your limit, take a deep breath, step away for a few minutes, and know that this parenting gig is hard.
It may seem impossible to you now, but the crying spells will eventually slow down.
According to a 2017 study, in the first weeks after birth, newborns cry about 2 hours a day. The crying increases and peaks at 2 to 3 hours daily by 6 weeks, after which it decreases (hallelujah!) gradually. By the time a baby is 4 months old, their crying will probably only add up to a bit more than 1 hour a day.
Even more reassuring: By then you will have gained much experience in learning to read your baby’s cues and cries, so tending to their needs should prevent the inconsolable crying that was a hallmark of their early weeks. You got this.