You probably know that your crying baby is trying to tell you something.
However, deciphering your baby’s cries can occasionally feel like an anxiety-producing game of 20 questions. Are you hungry? Tired? Bored? Wet? Overstimulated? What? What? What?
Decades ago, researchers tried to help parents break free from this guessing game. Using specialized equipment to track a cry’s pitch and duration, the scientists attempted to match specific crying sounds to human language. Alas, the experiments never led to an infant cry decoder device.
As a result, learning what your infant wants remains a typical and inevitable stage in the parenting journey, says Jay H. Homme, M.D., a pediatrician at the Mayo Clinic Children’s Center.
A father of six children, Dr. Homme has soothed his share of crying babies — and he’s taught countless parents to do the same. Below he shares research-supported do’s and don’ts.
Why babies cry
The short answer: Babies can’t talk.
“Newborns don’t have any other way to communicate,” says Dr. Homme. “Crying is it. It’s typical and common.”
It’s so typical that during the first 12 weeks of life, a baby will usually cry between one and two hours a day, according to research published in The Journal of Pediatrics.
Those cries might mean:
- I’m hungry.
- I’m wet.
- I’m awake, and I don’t know what else to do.
- Something hurts.
- I’m tired and don’t know what to do about it.
- I have a fever.
“Early on, we don’t always know what babies are saying,” says Dr. Homme. “As parents or caregivers, one of the things we have to do is learn what the crying means.”
How to help your baby stop crying
To soothe your baby, it helps to think like a detective. What might your baby be trying to tell you?
Investigate to see if your baby is wet, soiled, hungry, feverish or hurt.
If you’ve already checked these boxes, it’s likely your baby is feeling fussy and overstimulated. Try calming your baby by using one or more of the following research-supported methods.
Add warmth. From your baby’s perspective, the womb was like being in a warm bath, says Dr. Homme. To mimic that sensation, swaddle your baby with a blanket or gently snuggle your baby against your body.
Use motion. If you’ve ever seen an adult dog carry a puppy, you might have marveled at how quickly the puppy went limp. It’s thought that many mammals, including humans, have this built-in “transport response” that slows the heart rate. To activate it, try holding your baby while you walk, sway or rock.
Reassure your baby. Repeat soft, single-syllable sounds like “shh, shh, shh” or “biss, biss, biss.” It’s thought that these simple sounds mimic the sound of the heartbeat in the womb, says Dr. Homme.
Consider using a pacifier. Babies soothe themselves through feeding and sucking, says Dr. Homme. Introduce a pacifier after you’ve established breastfeeding. Then wean your baby from it around age 1 to prevent misaligned teeth later in life. (To learn more about the pros and cons of pacifiers, see “Pacifiers: Are they good for your baby?“)
What if your baby won’t stop crying?
Let’s say you’ve done everything above, and your baby is still fussy. There are two likely explanations.
Your baby is in the fussy phase
“Between 3 weeks and 3 months of age is a peak crying time for babies,” says Dr. Homme. “It’s developmentally typical and common.”
During this time, some babies develop colic, defined as intense crying that lasts more than three hours a day, happens more than three times a week and occurs for more than three weeks.
The restlessness and fussiness may stem from two additional factors as well, says Dr. Homme. Babies are awake more often than when they were younger. And they’re still getting used to the world’s sensory cacophony.
In addition to giving warmth, motion and reassurance as mentioned earlier, you might find baby products like swings, rocking bassinets and vibrating seats especially helpful during this stage, as they can give you a much-needed parenting break.
“Parents neglect themselves so much,” says Dr. Homme. “Sometimes they just need to take a shower or eat something, and it’d be nice if the food were actually hot.”
Your baby is uncomfortable
If the crying seems new or different, it’s worth consulting your pediatrician to see if your baby has an infection or an injury.
For example, sometimes babies scratch their eyes, causing what is called a corneal abrasion. Tiny hairs or threads also can become wrapped around their fingers or toes, dig into their skin and impede blood flow.
“One of the nice things about babies is that they are small,” says Dr. Homme. “So it doesn’t take long to look them over. If you are concerned about your baby’s crying, I want to talk to you or see you and sort it out.”
What to do if you’re at your breaking point
Incessant crying can be stressful, especially for folks who are sleep deprived.
“If you’re feeling angry, it’s best to put your child somewhere safe so you can take five or 10 minutes to collect yourself,” says Dr. Homme.
Consider securing your child in a bassinet or crib. Or ask another adult to take over for a while.
When to let babies cry it out
Always respond to your baby’s cries during the first three or four months of life. “The first task for new parents or caregivers and their babies is bonding,” says Dr. Homme. “Early on, holding them makes them feel safe and loved. It allows them to be more independent later on.”
After 4 months of age, however, babies can go longer between feedings, and bonding is well established, says Dr. Homme. Babies also are developmentally able to learn how to self-soothe. It’s at this point — if your baby is growing well and you desire to do so — that you might sleep-train your baby. “You’re helping your baby learn a new skill — how to transition alone from wakefulness to sleep,” Dr. Homme says.
To do it:
1. Create a short, predictable bedtime routine that soothes your baby. For example, you might feed, rock, or sing or read to your baby. Keep the routine consistent from one night to the next.
2. Transition your baby to the sleep space when the baby is sleepy but notfully asleep.
3. If your baby cries at bedtime or during the night, wait five or so minutes to see if your baby settles down alone.
If your baby doesn’t settle, reassure your baby — perhaps with a “shh, shh, shh,” sound, a few pats or an “I love you.” Then walk away.
If your baby doesn’t settle down, give more reassurance. Then leave again.
Wait five minutes and repeat as needed until your baby settles down.
4. During the night, when your baby wakes, check on your baby and provide reassurance, but wait longer and longer intervals before feeding or changing your baby.
Read more: Helping a baby to sleep through the night.
Why does my baby cry when put down?
When babies consistently fall asleep while nursing or being held, they associate sleep with being fed and held. Because they don’t know how to sleep on their own, they’ll cry whenever you put them down, says Dr. Homme.
Similarly, the vibrations of a car will often soothe crying babies to sleep. However, if the vehicle becomes your only sleep solution, your baby won’t learn how to fall asleep somewhere else.
Baby wakes up crying
It’s the same with babies who wake up crying after 4 months of age. If they haven’t learned how to fall asleep independently, they’ll cry for your help in the middle of the night, even when they’re not hungry. Around 3 or 4 months of age, limit feeding and changing them at night, says Dr. Homme. Instead, gently reassure them with some “shushing” sounds and a few pats — and follow the four sleep training steps above.
There’s hope ahead
Though incessant crying can feel interminable, the good news is that all babies eventually grow out of it. As they learn how to soothe themselves and talk, they’re better able to deal with and express their needs on their own.
“It will eventually stop,” says Dr. Homme. “I can’t tell you exactly when, but it always does.”
Mayo Clinic Guide to Your Baby’s First Years, Second EditionShop Now
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