How to Understand and Calm a Crying Baby

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Calming a crying baby can be challenging for parents and caregivers. Whether you’re seasoned or new to inconsolable cries, it’s natural to feel flustered when your little one is upset. Understanding the reasons why your baby is fussy and using gentle, comforting techniques can help. Amy Lindgren, ARNP and Brittney Haskins, Childbirth Education Coordinator, UnityPoint Health, tackle some tried-and-tested methods for soothing a fussy infant.

Why Do Babies Cry?

Babies cry to communicate with you. To help parents better understand what their baby is trying to tell them, Lindgren offers the acronym HALT.

  • Hungry: Babies give cues when they’re hungry, like turning their head to search for the breast or bottle, sucking on fists or fingers or smacking their lips. If you’ve missed these cues, your baby will cry to get your attention.
  • Angry: Babies might feel angry because they have a wet or poopy diaper, or they want to be placed in a different position and can’t move themselves. Babies also cry when they’re overstimulated or something in their body doesn’t feel good.
  • Lonely: Babies cry to seek comfort and connection from their parents. Feeling alone can be distressing for little ones.
  • Tired: Babies show signs they’re tired before they get fussy. This looks like yawning, rubbing their eyes or ears, decreased eye contact or having a glazed-over look.

Haskins adds, “When your baby cries, they know you’ll comfort them. This is part of a healthy baby and parent relationship. By no means is your little one trying to be manipulative or train you to pick them up. In fact, the sound of a baby crying is supposed to be something their parent or caregiver can’t ignore. It’s how babies survive.”

What Do Different Baby Cries Mean?

Baby cries mean different things depending on the baby. As the parent or caregiver, you’re going to learn your baby’s cries and start to understand what they want.

Haskins says, “It won’t be during week one, because you’re still getting to know each other, but three to eight months down the road, you’ll recognize the difference between a hungry cry and a cry that tells you, ‘I’m in pain.’”

Why Do Babies Cry When They’re Put Down?

Babies cry for several reasons when they’re put down after being held. The transition itself can be unsettling for babies. They may feel a change in temperature after moving away from your body heat, movement (no longer swaying, for example) or comfort level, which can bring on tears.

Additionally, your baby might cry after they’ve left your arms because:

  • Their Moro reflex kicked in. If they’re asleep and not swaddled, it’s easier for babies to suddenly flail their arms and wake themselves up.
  • They’re used to being held when they fall asleep. If babies are put down for a nap while they’re still awake, they may cry because they’re used to dozing off in your arms.
  • They want comfort. Babies seek comfort and security from being snuggly with their caregivers. When put down, they may feel insecure or anxious. Similarly, your baby can experience separation anxiety as well.
  • Their environment is overstimulating. Your baby may cry when transitioning from a noisy, bright environment to a quiet one as a way to release tension.
  • They want your attention. Your baby may simply want to cuddle or playfully engage with you.

Why Do Babies Cry While Eating?

If your baby is eating and stops to cry, it’s likely because they’re uncomfortable.

“The first thing I think of is a formula intolerance, or if the baby is breastfeeding, baby’s tummy may not agree with something mom ate or drank,” Lindgren says.

If formula upsets your baby’s tummy, they’ll put two and two together and may start to push their tongue out to reject the bottle. In this case, it’s a good idea to have your baby’s doctor do an evaluation. It’s likely they’ll suggest a formula change, although you shouldn’t make too many formula changes for your baby.

Lindgren adds, “There’s a common misconception babies can be lactose intolerant, but that’s uncommon. They can have a milk or soy protein intolerance — which causes vomiting — especially of curdled formula, or small, hard stools. These babies also spit up more than a baby who’s a happy spitter.”

Haskins lists a few other reasons your baby might cry while eating, including:

  • They’re hungry and can’t latch. Try burping or holding your baby upright to release any gas.
  • They’re in an awkward position. Your baby’s whole body should be aligned toward the breast while breastfeeding.
  • They’re cold. Sometimes we strip babies down, so they’ll stay awake while eating, but babies don’t like to be cold.

Why Do Babies Cry While Pooping?

There’s a condition called infant dyschezia, which makes it difficult for your baby to have a bowel movement. It’s most common among infants younger than nine months.

It happens when your baby’s body has trouble learning how to coordinate muscles to poop.

“You might look at their diaper and think, ‘Why was that such a big deal?’ because their stool looks normal. However, your baby is having difficulty, because the pelvic floor and abdominal muscles need to do different things at the same time, and that can be challenging for some infants,” Lindgren says.

To help your baby effectively poop, try the following:

  • A warm bath.
  • Gentle rectal stimulation using the tip of a rectal thermometer or Q-tip with KY jelly.

“Sometimes, I show parents how to do it in my office, so they can see how easy it is. Their baby usually poops after that, too. They just need to relax the sphincter,” Lindgren adds.

Why Do Babies Cry in Their Sleep?

The reason babies wake and cry in the middle of the night is as simple as — they need you. Your baby is likely trying to tell you.

  • They’re hungry.
  • They want comfort.
  • They’re cold.
  • Their Moro reflex startled them
  • They had an upsetting dream.

Haskins assures parents, “Getting your baby to sleep through the night isn’t a milestone to race toward. There are parents whose babies sleep through the night at four weeks then don’t do it again until they’re two years old. Your baby is still a good baby if it takes them longer to sleep through the night than other babies.”

How Often Babies Cry (First Few Months)

Newborns: Haskins says babies who are only days old don’t cry as much as people think. They’ll cue the tears in a few weeks.

Two Weeks – Four Months Old: This timeframe is called the purple crying period, a program taught in childbirth classes. It’s meant to set realistic expectations with parents about this peak period of infant crying, which can be triggering for sleep-deprived caregivers. Understanding these normal, yet frustrating, crying characteristics helps keep baby safe.

  • In the first six weeks, a baby cries 225-250 minutes, which is on the high end of normal.
  • Between weeks eight and nine, that number drops to 210 minutes a day.
  • By nearly 12 weeks, the average amount a baby cries per day is about 145 minutes.

“You might try all the things to soothe your baby, and it just doesn’t work. That’s expected at this age. Your baby’s brain is exploding with activity, and crying is how their body lets out energy,” Haskins says.

“However, if your baby is crying more intensely and longer than normal, call your doctor,” she adds.

How Long Should You Let a Baby Cry it Out?

If you’re considering sleep training, the earliest you should let your baby cry it out at bedtime is four months old. How long you let your baby cry depends on what you can tolerate. Some caregivers prefer an interval approach. This is where you increase the amount of time between check-ins on your little one.

Haskins says, “Consult your pediatrician if you’re considering sleep training. There aren’t enough studies to show if this is an effective way for your child to self-soothe at bedtime. While most babies will fall asleep within a few minutes, some turn themselves red crying for hours on end.”

How Long Can a Baby Cry Without Stopping?

If your baby cries for longer than a three-hour stretch and can’t be consoled, it’s a good idea to contact your doctor.

“As the parent, you may not be able to handle crying for that long. If you’re feeling frustrated, we tell parents to put their baby in their safe sleep space, so you can gather yourself. Then, call your baby’s doctor. Hopefully, their crying presents with another symptom that helps their provider determine what’s upsetting your baby,” Haskins says.

She also recommends, if you have a partner, to switch turns with baby or call a neighbor or grandparent for help, if possible. This is safest for you and baby.

Lindgren assures crying won’t hurt your baby.

“It’s probably harder for you than it is for your baby,” she says.

Can Letting a Baby Cry it Out Harm Their Brain?

Letting your baby cry it out won’t cause physical damage to their brain.

However, Haskins says a healthy attachment style is created when parents respond quickly to their baby’s cries.

How Can You Calm a Crying Baby Fast?

Haskins recommends using the “5 Ss,” a technique made famous by pediatrician Dr. Harvey Karp. Each of the five suggestions is thought to recreate the comfort of the womb, which can help soothe infants.

  • Swaddling: Wrap your baby tightly. This helps them feel secure and prevents their arms from flailing, which can startle your little one.
  • Shushing: The womb creates a calming white noise. Making a “shh, shh, shh, shh” sound for baby can help them settle.
  • Swaying: Moving in a rhythmic pattern can help babies relax.
  • Sucking: Offering baby a pacifier or clean finger can help them self-soothe.
  • Side or stomach position: Depending on the size of your baby, holding them with their tummy against your forearm is comforting.

How Long Does Colic Last?

Colic, a condition in which babies cry intensely and uncontrollably for long periods of time, can start when your baby is just a few weeks old. There’s no obvious reason your baby is crying, either.

Remembering a “3-3-3-3” rule can help you determine if you have a colicky baby on your hands. Colicky babies are less than three months old, cry at least three hours at a time, three days a week for three consecutive weeks.

Lindgren says, “Generally, colic occurs at a predictable time of day. There’s a definite start and stop. It’s usually in the evening when parents want to go to bed.”

Colic gets better in babies around three months, if not sooner. Although, there are cases where it lasts longer.

When to Call a Doctor for a Crying Baby

While most parents naturally call their doctor if they’re concerned about their baby’s crying, Lindgren mentions a few definite times when baby’s cries are worrisome:

  • Your baby has cried, without stopping, for three hours.
  • Your baby is pulling their legs up into a fetal position while crying. This can indicate an obstruction in your baby’s intestines. Your baby likely looks ill and may be throwing up, as well.
  • Your baby’s cry is high-pitched and sounds different from what’s normal.
  • Your baby is constipated.

Your doctor will help you figure out what’s upsetting your baby. Parents should never feel bad about reaching out to their care team when they think something’s abnormal. Trust your gut and get your little one checked out.