November 2, 2023/Children's Health

Why Is Your Baby Crying?

They could be hungry, gassy, colicky or sleepy, or even too hot or too cold

baby crying

Few things are as joyful — and stressful — as having a newborn. Their smiles and cooing can melt your heart. But a wailing baby in the middle of the night, when you haven’t slept in days, can make you start crying as well.

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“The most important thing is to stay calm,” says pediatrician Noah Schwartz, MD. “It’s OK to put your baby down in a safe place and take a few minutes to catch your breath. With a cooler head, you’ll be better able to figure out what they’re trying to tell you.”

Why do babies cry so much?

Crying is your little one’s main way of telling you they need something. But what they need isn’t always obvious.

As your baby grows, you’ll get to know their specific sounds and what they mean. But those first three to four months can be challenging.

Dr. Schwartz recommends parents of newborns use a checklist to help find out what’s wrong. That checklist includes these seven common scenarios:

1. Hunger

During the first few months, newborns eat every one to three hours. These feedings will space out as they get older and can take in larger amounts of food.

Besides crying, babies have other ways of showing hunger, too. They may:

  • Chew on their hand.
  • Smack their lips.
  • Move their head toward a touch on their cheek (rooting).

These are all helpful behaviors to look out for as signs your baby could benefit from a feeding.

2. Dirty diaper

Life with a newborn is a constant cycle of feeding and changing diapers. A full diaper can irritate their skin and lead to crying, says Dr. Schwartz. Changing your baby’s diaper whenever it’s wet or soiled can keep your baby comfortable and prevent a painful diaper rash.

3. Too hot or too cold

Feeling hot or cold can be uncomfortable for anyone, including babies. If your newborn won’t stop crying, look for signs they’re cold or overheated:

  • Check for warmer-than-normal skin on their chest or the back of their neck.
  • Touch their nose or ears to feel if they’re cold.

Adding an extra layer or putting on a lighter outfit are easy fixes. For safe sleep, avoid loose blankets or sheets in their crib. The best sleeping temperature for babies is 65 to 70 degrees Fahrenheit (18 to 21 degrees Celsius).

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If your baby’s temperature is greater than 100.4 F (38 C) or lower than 95 F (35 C), call your healthcare provider or seek medical care right away.

4. Fatigue

Babies are often fussy because they’re tired. Newborns sleep up to 20 hours a day, but they may need help falling asleep. During the first few months, it’s OK to soothe your baby to sleep whenever they need it. Try swaddling, rocking or holding them skin-to-skin to ease them into dreamland, then place them on their back in their crib.

As your baby adjusts to the world around them and the routine of day and night, their sleep will become more regular. At about four months, Dr. Schwartz recommends thinking about sleep training.

“Sleep training helps teach your baby to self-soothe and put themselves to sleep,” he explains. “It includes several different techniques, including the ‘cry it out’ approach or the preferred ‘check and console’ method. The result is a step toward independence for your baby and more sleep for you.”

5. Gas

Gas can build up in your baby’s tummy, causing pain, bloating and, you guessed it, crying. In addition to being extra fussy, gassy babies may:

  • Make a face.
  • Pull their legs to their chest.
  • Squirm their body.
  • Strain as though they’re having a bowel movement.

Some babies make more gas than others. If your baby is showing signs of discomfort, you can help them out. One of the best gas-relieving strategies is to place them on their back and bicycle their legs gently. You can also try a warm bath or over-the-counter simethicone gas drops, although the effectiveness of gas drops varies.

6. Food sensitivities

Food allergies are reactions of your immune system to certain foods. They’re rare in babies and typically don’t show up until they start eating solid food.

But food sensitivities or intolerance can happen in babies. A food intolerance is a digestive problem. It occurs when your baby can’t break down molecules that get into your breast milk from the food you eat. Symptoms of food intolerance in babies include:

  • Bloody stools (poop).
  • Diarrhea.
  • Gas.
  • Poor weight gain.

Cow’s milk and soy are the most common causes of food intolerance.

“If you suspect a food intolerance, talk to your baby’s provider before making any dietary changes,” advises Dr. Schwartz.

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7. Colic

Colic causes excessive crying for no apparent reason. If your baby meets these three criteria, they may have colic:

  • Crying more than three hours (nonstop) per day.
  • Crying for at least three days per week.
  • Crying for more than three weeks.

Colicky crying usually occurs in the late afternoon and evening and doesn’t respond to soothing. It often starts at about three weeks and usually stops by three months. This period of crying can be difficult for parents and increases the risk of shaken baby syndrome.

It’s normal to feel frustrated by your baby’s crying. If it becomes overwhelming:

  • Put your baby in a safe place.
  • Walk away and calm down.
  • Remind yourself that this phase will end.
  • Ask a family member or friend to give you a break.
  • Talk to your healthcare provider.

How to get your baby to stop crying

Is there a surefire way to calm a crying baby? Unfortunately, no. Every baby is different, and what works for one may not work for another. But you can always try these strategies to see which ones are helpful in getting your baby to calm down:

  • Check if they’re hungry, tired, hot, cold or need a diaper change.
  • Give them a warm bath.
  • Take them for a walk or ride in the car.
  • Offer a pacifier (for breastfed or chestfed babies, wait until after breastfeeding is well established to introduce a pacifier).
  • Reduce overstimulation by moving your baby to a quiet area, placing them in their crib or putting on white noise.
  • Soothe them with skin-to-skin contact, swaddling, rocking, walking or singing.

My baby won’t stop crying, and I’ve tried everything

If you’ve tried everything and your baby is still fussy, Dr. Schwartz recommends a head-to-toe check. Look for areas of redness, irritation, injury or a piece of hair wrapped around a finger, toe or other appendage. When in doubt, call your healthcare provider.

“I always encourage families to make an appointment whenever something seems off,” says Dr. Schwartz. “Your provider can check your baby. If nothing is wrong, you can go home reassured that their crying is not due to a health concern.”

Other reasons to call your doctor right away include:

  • Bloody stools or stool changes (diarrhea or constipation).
  • Excessive spitting up or vomiting.
  • Fever of 100.4 F or higher (38 C or higher).
  • Not eating or drinking.

If your baby cries a lot, know that it will get better as they get older. And the reasons why your baby is crying will become clearer. So, try to take a breath, give yourself a break when you need to and rest assured that you can do this given a little time and familiarity.

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