Your baby crying can be distressing. Know what to look for and how to cope.

Crying is your baby’s only form of communication.

Babies cry for a reason. They cry because they need something. Crying may indicate that your baby is hungry or thirsty, tired, cold, hot, frightened, has wind, colic or reflux, is bored or lonely, has a soiled or wet nappy, or is ill and in pain. You will discover early on that your baby has different cries for different needs. Working out what your baby wants is all part of the bonding process.

For a parent, the first few weeks can be the most difficult and requires endless patience. In the first few weeks crying is nearly always a request for food. At this stage, a wet or soiled nappy doesn’t really concern most babies.

As a first step, offer a feed, burp your baby, change the nappy, check that it is not too hot or too cold by feeling inside the clothing around the neck, give your baby a cuddle with a little rocking and talk soothingly, or sing.

By observing and assessing your baby in the coming weeks, you will begin to understand and define particular behaviours. Talk to other parents or a specialist and work with your partner and friends. Above all, don’t expect perfection from yourself or your baby.

Types of crying


The cry for milk is the most common cause of crying. Studies have shown that a hungry baby can only be satisfied by milk in its stomach. Water, juice, or mere suckling is no replacement for milk. Crying of this nature may occur two and a half to three hours following the beginning of the last feed. It is usually medium-pitched and of medium intensity.


A high-pitched cry of pain can be distressing and difficult to define. Wind can also trigger a cry of pain. When you pick up your baby, you may be greeted with a bubble of wind from either end. In the early weeks, your baby’s nervous system is still developing and reaction to minor knocks and bangs may be more shock-induced than a response to pain.


Begins as a grizzle or grunting and develops into a deep, growling cry. Jerky movements, hand to mouth actions, and grumpy facial expressions can accompany this.


Loud noises, sudden bright lights, a hot bath, sharp tastes, cold water, unexpected large faces up close, a burst of laughter; all these can be overwhelming for a new baby. An environment that is suddenly too hot or too cold will also induce crying. Even feeding times can be chaotic as an increased milk flow alarms the baby and tears flow. Changing nappies may also induce a round of tears as suddenly the naked skin is exposed to air.

Ideally, try not to bathe a baby as soon as it has eaten. Choose a wakeful moment for bathing. Likewise, if your baby is sleepy try to maintain a constant environment.

Physical contact

In many parts of the world most babies are held and carried most of the time. The physical contact is nurturing. They feel safe and secure. The warmth, the beating heart and the rocking movement are reminiscent of the womb environment. It is impossible to spoil a young baby by picking it up. It is natural and instinctive for a baby to be content while being held.


Swaddling your baby offers a secure, tactile environment. Your aim is to encase your baby completely for warmth and comfort. A baby’s natural position is with its arms bent at the elbows and crossed on the chest, with legs flexed. Ideal wrapping material is light and slightly stretchy to allow a little movement. Cotton or muslin is soft on your baby’s skin and allows air to circulate. A square-shaped fabric is best.

  • Place your baby on the swaddling cloth so the top of the cloth, level with your baby’s ears.
  • Take one top corner and bring it down diagonally over the shoulder, and tuck under your baby’s knees.
  • Take the other top corner up with as much tension as you can without shifting the baby. Fold this side straight down and lift your baby to secure the end beneath the body.

How to cope?

Put it into perspective. A newborn can cry for two or three hours a day, and this may increase over the first few weeks to peak at about the sixth, before tapering off, as familiarity and routine in your baby’s life increases. By the third month, things will level out. While this may not be comforting at the time, the fact is that most babies have many unsettled moments in the first three months.

A baby who cries and cannot be comforted can be extremely difficult to cope with calmly. The constant noise can be frustrating, confusing, upsetting, disturbing and demoralising, particularly when you are mentally, physically and emotionally drained. Tension can build to an extent that the parents forget their baby cannot stop crying until its needs have been met. In response, the baby becomes more distressed as it senses the growing unease. Many parents at some stage reach a point of sheer exhaustion and desperation.

Stay calm

Babies are very intuitive and pick up on our anxiety. Try to stay calm. This may sound ridiculous but you are bound to witness a lot of tears over the years and your ability to breathe and maintain some sort of detached logic will help. Listen to your baby’s pattern of crying and learn to recognise the changes. Crying flows in and out of calm and frenzy. A calmer cry will eventually progress to sleep so hold off stepping in at this point. Instead of counting the minutes and hours, get busy and focus on something else that needs to be done. Put some music on.


Walking, rocking, music, bathing, an aromatherapy bath, and baby massage will all help soothe your baby. A drop of chammomile or lavender essential oil on your baby’s linen may also help.

Never ever shake your baby in a desperate attempt to stop the crying.

Shaking your baby is frightening and can have serious consequences. It can cause irreversible harm to the brain, causing unconsciousness or fits, sometimes leading to brain damage, bleeding around the brain, spasticity, cerebral palsy, blindness, epilepsy and learning difficulties.

A baby’s brain is very fragile. It is easily bruised and damaged if shaken. Their heads are large in comparison to their bodies and their necks are weak. Anything that causes rapid, uncontrolled movement of the head should be avoided.
Children under the age of one are more at risk but older children can still be damaged when shaken.

Shaking is not the correct way to revive a baby either. If you think your baby has stopped breathing, shaking may cause further harm. If you suspect your baby has stopped breathing, call for medical help.

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