We all benefit from a good cry. It releases stress, eases anxiety, and sometimes it just feels exhilarating. Babies, toddlers, and young children all cry for a variety of reasons. And while it may feel frustrating, there is a purpose to it.
There are four primary and universal emotions that we all share (even our toddlers!). “Anger, happiness, sadness, and fear — and crying can be an expression of all those emotions and the feelings associated with them,” explains Donna Housman, EdD, a clinical psychologist and founder of the Boston-based Housman Institute.
Most commonly, Housman says we cry with sadness, but it’s not uncommon for adults or children to cry when experiencing any of these emotions.
That said, if it seems like your kid is crying for no reason or is inconsolable, it’s worth considering why they might be crying, so that you can find a reasonable and effective solution.
Before we get into why your child might be crying, it’s important to point out that from birth, crying is a primary means for communication. In other words, crying is normal.
In fact, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) says 2 to 3 hours of crying a day in the first 3 months of life is considered normal.
As children get older, they begin to learn other ways to show their needs and feelings, but crying remains an effective way for them to get attention and communicate with their caregivers.
Dr. Ashanti Woods, a pediatrician at Baltimore’s Mercy Medical Center, says children cry for just about anything and everything, especially since it is their first form of communication. As they get older, their cry is often more specific or an emotional reaction to what they’re feeling.
To help decipher your child’s reason for crying, consider these age-appropriate reasons from Woods.
- Toddler (1–3 years): Emotions and tantrums tend to rule at this age, and they’re likely triggered by being tired, frustrated, embarrassed, or confused.
- Preschool (4–5 years): Hurt feelings or injury are often to blame.
- School-age (5+ years): Physical injury or loss of something special are key triggers for crying in this age group.
With that in mind, here are seven reasons that may explain why your kid is crying.
If you’re approaching mealtime and your little one is starting to fuss, hunger is the first thing to consider. In babies, this is the most common reason for crying, according to the experts at Seattle Children’s Hospital.
Keep in mind that as your little one grows, mealtime schedules and needs may change. There is nothing wrong with a baby or child wanting to be fed earlier or eating more as they grow, so be open to altering schedules and amounts as needed.
They’re feeling pain or discomfort
If your child is older, they’ll likely tell you if something hurts. That said, it may help to take some time to run through a few questions to see if they can identify what’s wrong more specifically. This will help you rule out anything internal that you cannot see.
Discomfort can also result from being too hot or too cold. Scan what they’re wearing, compare it to the temperature, and adjust as needed.
Whether it’s the midday meltdown or the before bed tantrum, kids of all ages can find themselves in a puddle of tears if they are overly tired. In fact, needing sleep takes second place after hunger for the top reasons babies cry.
That’s why infants and toddlers, especially, need to maintain a sleep and nap schedule. And if they’re too young to use words to indicate that sleep is what they need, you’re going to have to look for physical cues that point to fatigue.
If your little one is breaking eye contact, rubbing their eyes, losing interest in activities, yawning, or irritable, it’s probably time to get some rest. Crying is a late indicator that they’re overly tired.
Older children are able to tell you if they’re tired, but that doesn’t always mean that they will. Some preschool and school-age kids still need naps, so you may continue to see crying during the day if they need to sleep.
Overstimulation is a trigger for kids of all ages. In infants and preschool-age kids, too much noise, visual effects, or people can cause crying. You may notice your child looking around or trying to take shelter behind your leg or in a corner before they start crying.
For school-age kids, a packed schedule, being on the go too much, and even a full school day can result in a crying spell. This can lead to anger, frustration, and fatigue.
They’re stressed or frustrated
Stress and frustration can look different depending on the situation.
Maybe your little one wants something that you won’t give them, like your phone, or they’re frustrated because their toy isn’t working the way they’d like. Maybe things in your household are tense due to changes or challenges, and they’re picking up on the mood.
Regardless of the cause, little ones struggle with managing these emotions. Consider what they were doing right before they started crying. That could be a clue as to why they are stressed or frustrated.
They need attention
Sometimes kids just need our attention, and they can’t or don’t know how to ask for it. If you’ve ruled out all other causes of crying, such as hunger, fatigue, overstimulation, and frustration, it might be time to ask yourself if they just need some time with you.
Just be cautious of this reason and try to address the issue before the tears begin. If your kid uses crying as a way to gain your attention too often, it can turn into a cycle that is difficult to break.
They’re feeling separation anxiety
Separation anxiety can happen at any point in your child’s life, but Dr. Becky Dixon, a pediatrician at Riley Children’s Health in Indianapolis, says 12 to 20 months is a common age for it to occur.
Understanding the reason for crying is always a good first step. “Trying to address the reason — if you can determine what the reason is — and if you think the reason needs to be addressed, is often an efficient way to make the crying stop, which is the goal of many parents,” says Woods.
Once you know the reason for the tears, you can help your child identify, understand, and manage the emotion behind the expression. But before you can do this, it’s important to check your own emotional temperature.
Make sure you’re calm
If you’re running hot, it might be time to step away, take a deep breath, and collect yourself before you address your child — especially if the crying is too much for you.
With young kids, the AAP recommends placing your baby in a safe place such as their crib without blankets or other items and leave the room for 10 to 15 minutes while they cry. If they are still crying after this brief break, check on your baby, but do not pick them up until you are calm.
If your children are older, it’s still perfectly OK to take a time-out for both you and them, by sending them to their room or stepping outside for a moment while they’re in a safe place in the home.
Pay attention to your words
After checking your emotional temperature, the next step is to avoid making blanket statements or judging their behavior. Saying things like “only babies cry” or “stop crying” is not going to help them calm down, and it may make the situation worse.
Rather than escalating the situation, you could say “I can see by your crying that you’re sad because [xyz]. After you take some deep breaths, let’s talk about it.”
Other helpful phrases to say, include, “I can see this is hard for you,” and for older kids, “I can hear you crying, but I don’t know what you need. Can you help me understand?”
Help your child learn
Housman says by helping your child — no matter the age — identify, understand, and manage their emotions, you are helping them to develop what are known as the four underlying components of emotional intelligence.
“These are emotional identification, expression, understanding, and regulation, and they are foundational to lifelong learning, mental, well-being, and success,” Housman notes.
Use schedules and routines
If the crying stems from being overtired, ensure that you are sticking to a regular nap schedule and regular bedtime that includes a consistent routine. For all kids, eliminate screens before bed and use the 30 to 60 minutes prior to lights out as reading time.
Maintaining a schedule also applies to feeding time. If you find that your child is extra fussy, keep a record of what and how often they’re eating. Keep in mind that stress or conflict about what or how much they’re eating can also cause emotional reactions.
With younger kids, if separation anxiety is causing tears, Dixon says to try the following:
- Start with brief times away from the child.
- Kiss, hug, and step away.
- Come back, but only after a period of time away (after the child’s crying has subsided, and they see they will not perish without you).
- When you return, tell them they did a great job while you were away. Reassure, give praise, and show affection.
- Lengthen the time away as they continue to get used to you being gone.
Accept that you can’t fix everything
No matter how well you know your child, there’s going to be a time when you have no idea why they’re crying, especially with younger kids. And when that happens, Woods says distracting your young child by changing the scenery (going from indoors to outdoors) or by singing a song sometimes helps.
There will also be times that you can’t fix the reason they’re crying. For older kids, just allowing them to work through the tears and offering cuddles or silent support may be enough.
If you’ve tried everything in your toolbox, and you’re still struggling with the crying, consider making an appointment to see the doctor. Some red flags that it’s time to call a pediatrician, according to Woods, include:
- When crying is unexplained, or frequent, or prolonged.
- When crying is accompanied by patterned behavior (rocking, fidgeting, etc.) or if there is a history of developmental delay.
- When persistent crying is accompanied by fever or other signs of illness.
Additionally, Housman says if your child is crying more than usual or, conversely, not expressing emotion at all, talk to your child about how they are feeling.
“If they suggest that the feeling doesn’t go away, is much more frequent, or they can’t seem to manage it, talk to your pediatrician about whether your child may need the support of a mental health professional,” she explains.
Crying is a normal part of development. It’s important to understand why your kid is upset and then teach them appropriate ways to manage their feelings.
As they get older, having them identify the triggers — whether that’s hunger, stress, overstimulation, or they just need a hug from you — will help them feel more in control of their emotions.