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How to comfort your baby's crying (and your own)

Nikki Stevenson

Nikki Stevenson

Nikki is a parenting writer and a mom to three wild boys who keep her on her toes (and occasionally make her question her sanity). With over 15 years of experience in the parenting industry, she has more tips and tricks than Mary Poppins on speed dial. When she's not typing away at her keyboard, you can find her sipping on coffee, hiding in the bathroom for five minutes of...
Created on Apr 12, 2024 · 12 mins read
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The world of baby cries - where every whimper and wail can feel like a puzzle begging to be solved.


As a parent, you quickly learn that a baby crying is your little one’s way of sending you an SOS, a chat message without the words. From “I’m hungry” to “Please change me!” and the ever-mysterious “I just need a cuddle,” decoding these cries becomes part of your new, very important job description. And let’s be honest, while it’s amazing how a simple cuddle can sometimes do the trick, there are days when you wish babies came with their own troubleshooting manual.

So, let’s dive into understanding the world of baby crying, why it’s perfectly normal, and how you can become a pro at understanding what your little one is trying to tell you.

The reasons behind the tears


Every cry from your little one is a conversation starter, even if we’re sometimes scrambling to understand the language. Babies cry for all sorts of reasons, and it’s their premier way to say, “Hey, I need something over here!”

  • Hunger: It tops the chart as the most common reason in young babies. It’s like their first lesson in cause and effect: “I cry, I get fed.” But the reasons extend beyond the tummy rumbles. They might be feeling a bit under the weather with a soggy nappy or simply need a good burp.
  • Discomfort: A broad category that includes everything from being too hot or too cold to the need for a fresh nappy. And let’s not forget the power of simple human touch; sometimes, they just need to feel close to you, hear your heartbeat, and be assured that their favourite person in the world is right there with them.
  • Sensory overloads. The world is a big, bright, noisy place for someone who’s just started their journey in it. Overstimulation can lead to those end-of-the-day, late-afternoon meltdowns where nothing but a quiet, dark room where you gently rock them will do the trick.

Remember, while you’re learning to interpret your baby’s types of cries, most babies are also learning how to communicate with you. It’s a learning curve for both of you, so give yourself a pat on the back for every little victory in understanding your baby’s unique way of expressing themselves.


The age-related changes


As your baby grows, so does their repertoire of cries, each phase introducing a new variation to their vocal expressions. The cries of a newborn baby are more about basic needs – hunger, discomfort, and the need for sleep. These cries are typically high-pitched, with a sense of urgency that’s hard to ignore and sound like a baby’s excessive crying.

  • 3-4 months: At this point, you might start noticing a shift. Your baby’s cries become more sophisticated, nuanced even. They might develop a specific cry for different needs, allowing you to differentiate between a call for food, a request for cuddles or fussy crying. This is also when babies start to discover their voices, experimenting with sounds, which can sometimes lead to crying bouts as they explore their vocal chords.
  • 6 months: Their cries could now be accompanied by gestures or facial expressions, making it a bit easier to interpret their needs. It’s as if they’re starting to piece together their first words, using cries and coos as building blocks to a universal baby language.
  • 12 months: Babies are becoming little communicators, using a combination of babble, cries, and gestures to make their needs known. It’s a fascinating journey, watching how their cries evolve from those early newborn days to more complex forms of communication, reflecting their growth and development at each stage.

Understanding your baby’s cries is a bit like tuning into a new channel – it takes time to get the frequency right. But with patience and a bit of detective work, you’ll become fluent in understanding your baby’s unique language as they grow into older babies.


Common triggers for baby crying


Each cry is your baby’s cue to their immediate needs or discomforts. Here are common reasons behind why young babies cry a lot:

Hunger: Often the main character in the tale of cries. Newborns, especially, signal their need for nourishment through tears. Look for hunger cues like lip smacking or sucking on their hands.

A dirty nappy: For some babies, a dirty nappy is a distress call for immediate action, while others might not be as bothered. A quick check can confirm whether it’s time for a change.

Needs sleep: Counterintuitively, tired babies don’t always drift off to dreamland and fall asleep without a fuss. Recognising the early signs of sleepiness can help prevent the overtired, cranky cries especially in the early evening.

Wants to be held: The need for physical contact is strong. Being held close, hearing your heartbeat, and seeing your face can be incredibly soothing for them.

Tummy troubles: Gas, colic, and reflux are common culprits of discomfort, leading to tears. Gentle rocking or trying different feeding positions can help ease their pain – try out a baby carrier to keep baby close. If your baby has colic, try colic drops to ease the discomfort.

Needs to burp: Burping can become an unexpected adventure, with many babies needing a little help to release that trapped air, both during and after feeding.

Too cold or too hot: Young babies communicate their discomfort if they’re not dressed right for the weather, usually needing just one more layer than adults to be cozy.

Overstimulated – After a day of being passed from arm to arm and cooed over by visitors, babies can become overstimulated. In a quieter space, they can calm down and relax. Using soft material like a muslin wraps will help your baby from becoming overstimulated.

Teething pain – When most babies start teething, it can be a painful process for them. Chilled teething toys or a gentle gum massage can provide some relief.

Effective strategies to soothe a crying baby


Finding the right technique to calm a crying baby can sometimes feel like a trial-and-error mission. Yet, there are tried-and-tested methods that have soothed generations of babies. Here are a few strategies that might just be the comfort your baby is seeking:

Swaddling: Wrapping your baby snugly in a blanket can mimic the coziness of the womb, providing a sense of security that calms many newborns.

White noise: A constant, soothing sound can help drown out other overwhelming noises. Machines that simulate the sound of rain, a heartbeat, or even a gentle shush can be incredibly comforting. Trying to speak softly also goes a long way.

Gentle rocking: The rhythmic motion of rocking in your arms, a baby swing, or a rocking chair can lull a baby into a state of calm, leveraging their innate love for movement.

Pacifier: For some babies, sucking on a pacifier can be instantly soothing. It taps into their natural suckling reflex, which is not only for feeding but for comfort too.

Fresh air: Sometimes, a change of scenery and a bit of fresh air can work wonders. A stroll in the pram or a carrier for a few hours a day can provide new sights and sounds that distract and help your baby calm.

Warm bath: The gentle, enveloping warmth of a bath can soothe a fussy baby, especially if it becomes part of a calming pre-bedtime routine.

Massage: Gently massaging your baby’s back or tummy can relieve discomfort and create a comforting physical connection between you and your baby.

Singing or humming: Never underestimate the power of your voice. A soft lullaby or even just humming can reassure your baby that you are near and everything is okay.

What not to do


When the tears just won’t stop, and you’ve tried all the soothing techniques in your parenting toolkit, it might be time to consider what not to do. Navigating the waters of parenthood means learning from both successes and missteps. Here are some common pitfalls to avoid when your baby is crying:

Avoid overfeeding

It’s natural to think a crying baby must be hungry, but overfeeding can lead to discomfort from being too full, potentially exacerbating the tears.

Steer clear of excessive stimulation

In a bid to distract or entertain, too much noise or activity can overwhelm your baby further. Opt for calm and quiet.

Don’t ignore the crying

While it’s true that babies cry, consistently ignoring their cries can lead to increased stress for both you and your baby. It’s about finding a balance between responding to needs and teaching self-soothing.

Never shake your baby

Out of frustration, you might be tempted to shake your baby gently to stop the crying. But don’t go this path; in extreme cases, it can cause permanent brain damage or even death. If you’re feeling overwhelmed, it’s okay to put your baby down safely and take a moment for yourself.

When to seek professional help


Hearing your baby cry can tug at your heartstrings like nothing else. Most times, you’ve got the magic touch – a snuggle, a snack, or a swift nappy change sorts it out. But every now and then, a cry doesn’t just mean “I’m fussy” or “I want cuddles.” It’s your little one’s way of waving a red flag, saying, “Hey, I’m not feeling too great here.”

So, when do you switch from detective mom mode to dialling the doctor? Here are some clear signals:

The cry sounds different

You know how to distinguish your baby’s crying from “I’m hungry” to the “I’m tired” sob. But if their cry sounds more like a painful scream or just off, trust your gut – something might be up.

Fever town

A fever in an infant, especially if they’re under 3 months, needs checking out. Babies can’t tell us they feel hot and bothered, but a temperature check doesn’t lie. See a health professional.

Sleeping more or less

If your baby’s catching more Zs than usual or can’t seem to settle down for their usual nap, it might be a sign they’re not feeling 100% and may be a medical reason behind it.

Eating less

Turning down the boob or bottle isn’t typical baby behaviour. A sudden change in appetite could be their way of saying they’re not okay.

Just not themselves

You’re with your baby day in and day out, so you’ll notice when they’re not their usual self. Maybe they’re more clingy, or perhaps they don’t light up with a smile as quickly. If your parent-sense is tingling, it’s worth a check.

If your little one’s cries are making you uneasy, or if you spot any signs that worry you, reaching out to a healthcare provider is a wise step. It’s all about ensuring your baby’s well-being, and there’s never any harm in seeking advice or reassurance. You’ve got this!

Self-care for parents


In the midst of deciphering baby cries and trying every trick in the book to soothe your little one, it’s easy for parents to forget about their own well-being. Yet, caring for yourself isn’t just beneficial – it’s essential. Managing the stress and emotional toll that comes with a crying baby can help you stay calm and collected, ultimately making you a more effective and compassionate caregiver. 

Take turns

Sharing the responsibility with a partner or another caregiver can offer you a much-needed break. Even a short period of respite can recharge your batteries when a baby is crying.

Lean on your support network

Don’t hesitate to reach out to family, friends, or parent groups. Sometimes, just talking about your experiences with a crying baby can provide relief and helpful insights.

Practice mindfulness or meditation

These practices can significantly reduce stress levels, helping you to maintain your equilibrium amidst the chaos of parenting and baby crying.

Stay active

Exercise isn’t just good for your body; it’s a fantastic stress-buster. A brisk walk with your baby in a stroller or a quick at-home workout during nap time can work wonders.

Prioritise sleep

Easier said than done with a newborn and when babies cry, but try to sleep when your baby sleeps. Lack of sleep can amplify stress, making everything feel ten times harder.

Find joy in the little things

Whether it’s a hot cup of tea, a favourite song, or a quick chat with a friend, small pleasures can brighten your day and lift your spirits, even when baby’s crying.

Wrapping it up


Crying babies, sleepless nights, and endless guessing games about what each cry means – it’s all part of the parenting package, isn’t it? But here’s the thing: you’re not just surviving; you’re learning the most intimate language in the world, the language of your baby’s cries. Sure, it’s tough when you’re in the thick of it, trying to figure out whether they’re hungry, tired, or just need a cuddle. Yet, there’s something incredibly special about gradually understanding those little signals and cries. So, while those cries might test your patience, they’re also building an unbreakable bond. Hang in there; you’re doing an amazing job.

Sources


https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/baby/caring-for-a-newborn/soothing-a-crying-baby/

https://www.breastfeeding.asn.au/resources/why-baby-crying

https://www.seattlechildrens.org/conditions/a-z/crying-baby-before-3-months-old/

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