New moms are often exhausted, and uncertain. Babies can cry from hardly at all, to seemingly all the time. It’s hard on parents when babies cry a lot — we’re programmed to want to fix it and sometimes that’s not so easy. After the usual changing, feeding, and sleeping have been tried, what’s left?
Lots of stuff, as it happens. But these things may not be so obvious, especially to the inexperienced parent. I’ve learned a lot of interesting reasons why babies cry with my four, and through talking to several other experienced mothers. The reasons may surprise you — but hopefully result in a more peaceful home!
Image by Amy Garrett Photography
Why Do Babies Cry?
Babies cry to communicate. For the first few weeks, it is the only thing they can do. By the time they are two months old or so, they can also communicate through squirming, grimacing, smiling, cooing, etc. When babies intensely stare at you and coo and smile, they are trying to tell you something!
Babies do not cry “to exercise their lungs.” They do not cry for the sake of crying. They cry because they need something from you. Until they are much older (6 to 8 months at least) they do not cry for “wants” because they have no concept of this. They only have real needs. Older babies and toddlers can certainly cry because they don’t get what they want, or even fake cry to try to get their way! But what a 2-year-old does and what a young baby does are very different.
Today I’m focusing on young babies. They can be the most mystifying for parents because they have such limited ways to tell you what’s wrong, and when they’re really new, it’s hard to even know what’s normal!
The most important thing to understand is that babies cry for a reason. They never cry “just because.” If you believe that, then your job is to be a detective and figure out the reason.
Uncommon Reasons for Baby Crying
Obviously, parents should check the obvious first — hungry, tired, wet diaper. But if these don’t work, there are plenty of other reasons why babies cry!
Sometimes a baby refuses to eat even though it seems likely that s/he is hungry. It can happen, especially during growth spurts, that s/he is so frustrated with milk not letting down fast enough that he will not nurse despite true hunger. Getting skin-to-skin with baby or getting into a bath together can relax baby enough to actually eat patiently, and thus, stop crying.
An overtired baby can’t settle down. Check out my tips on getting babies to sleep for more ideas on how to solve this problem. Little babies with not much coordination might not show “typical” signs of sleepiness, like yawning, eye-rubbing, etc. By three months, tiredness signs should be more obvious. Some babies struggle more with tiredness than others. When I am very tired, I feel very twitchy and have trouble settling down. I have noticed that in one of my babies too. The ‘twitchiness’ is hard because he can’t calm himself down to sleep very easily.
Some babies struggle with gas pains. Squirming a lot is usually a sign of discomfort and this may be the reason why. Bicycling baby’s legs or offering gripe water can help with this, as well as burping.
Some babies go beyond ‘normal’ gas pains and scream during or after feedings. They may squirm and act as though in agony. They may latch on to nurse and choke (even though there’s not too much milk or anything to cause choking) and pop off to scream. They may refuse to eat, even though they seem hungry. They may spit up or even vomit. They may seem overly gassy or have diarrhea too. It can be extreme or it can be subtle. If baby is fussy about eating and is sleeping fitfully or not all, crying, gassy, and squirming with discomfort, then a food allergy may be the culprit.
Sometimes, a baby’s clothing is uncomfortable, even if it doesn’t seem like it should be. Some babies are very sensitive to textures, and they may not like the feel of certain types of fabric. Or, the clothing could be on the small side and feel too constricting. Or a thread could be caught around a toe. A diaper could be strapped too tightly. Try removing the clothing, loosening the diaper, changing to a different outfit. Baby could be too hot or cold in the clothing, too. One of mine will cry if the outfit is too cold even if wrapped in a blanket.
Baby can’t go anywhere, but by a month or so, s/he is awake and can smile and would like to interact with you. Since baby can’t do much, it’s easy to simply sit him nearby or curl him in your arms and go about your day. But sometimes baby wants to play! My older two boys would cry until someone talked to them and were never quite settled until they were mobile and could amuse themselves. Nathan loves to “talk” (more than any little baby I have seen!) and wants to be facing someone so he can ‘play’ with them. If awake, he hates to be worn because he can’t see anything.
Misalignment of the Spine
Birth is a really tight squeeze and worse if pushing is extended. Baby’s head can be molded and the spine can become misaligned. A good pediatric chiropractor or cranial sacral therapist can help correct these issues and relieve any pressure or pain baby is feeling. Although we haven’t had this in our little babies, we know people who have. Also, one of our older ones sometimes has accidents if his spine is misaligned, and a quick adjustment fixes this.
Mommy Doesn’t Smell Right
Babies know who their mother is initially by smell. At birth, your breasts produce an oily substance that smells the same as the amniotic fluid, which is how baby instinctually finds your breast — the smell on his/her hands leads to the same smell on the breasts. Some babies that I have known would cry if anything covered up their mother’s natural scent, because it confused them. That means perfumes, lotions, strong soaps, etc. Some moms found if they took a shower with mild-smelling soap that their babies would stop crying.
Some babies don’t like chaos and noise, and if there is a lot around them, they become overwhelmed. This might be seen at a party, if everyone wants to give the baby a snuggle. Remove the baby from the busy room and head somewhere quiet, and snuggle baby yourself. This usually stops this sort of crying.
This is not an exhaustive list, but some additional ideas to help you figure out why your baby is unhappy!
What is the most unusual reason your babies have cried, and how did you help them?
Great post! Just wanted to add onto your comments regarding clothing/diaper irritating baby. The most useful tool that our nurse told us in the hospital just before we took our first-born home was this: if you can’t figure out why they are crying and have gone through your checklist (hungry, wet diaper, need to burp) to no avail, “take the baby to zero”. This means taking off all clothes and the diaper to check for, as you wrote, loose hairs, tags or something else that might be bothering the baby. Sometimes just getting to zero is enough to calm baby, since it is akin to skin-to-skin contact.
It is amazing how many reasons babies can cry :D. My littlest sister (youngest of 8) had a TERRIBLE time sleeping. My parents finally figured out that it was at night not day she had the issue, and what was the difference she was upstairs where my parents sleep instead of downstairs in the busy crazy bustling house with 7 older siblings “whispering” around her. They played the radio softly, and she slept so much better!
I have a four week old and he has recently started having a fussy time in the evening, where nothing seems to work to calm him down. I try cycling through all of the things I can…nursing, changing diapers, changing clothes, bouncing, singing, rocking, etc…and I just keep trying those things over and over again, and eventually, sometimes hours later, he calms down and falls asleep. I agree that babies cry for a reason, so if anyone has any advice about what to try and what might be the problem, I’d love to hear from you. Or, do we just need to accept that he will be upset sometimes and there is nothing we can do?
Thanks for your help.
There can be many reasons on why a baby would cry. Thanks for sharing these possible reasons for parents to look out for.
Good post. Also this goes along with allergies but reflux is very common now and they don’t always vomit. My baby didnt. And another thing I think some new mom’s don’t realize is babies just need holding, cuddling time with you 🙂
The first thing I do when I’m given an inconsolable baby (ER nurse): remove its socks and check the toes. Threads from the socks wind around baby toes and cause terrible pain. If I’m out in public and see a parent struggling with a screaming infant, I suggest a look-see at the piggies. Amazing at how often I’ve encountered this.
I’ve got another one to add to the list. Even if the nappy is dry it may be that Bub needs to pee/poo and is uncomfortable doing so in the current position or even just in the nappy itself.
We started taking our daughter to the “potty” (ie. Cradling her over an appropriate receptacle) at 1 month of age and found that it solved a lot of her “crying for no reason”.
We have to train them to soil their pants – it’s not an instinct they’re born with. Google “Elimination Communication” for more info. It’s not for everyone but it’s worth a try!
Great post. To add to what you’ve said about food allergies, it is often the mother who has the food allergies not the baby. I have dairy, wheat and egg allergies shown through igg/ige blood testing. If I have ANY dairy my baby will be colicky and spitting up. If I avoid my allergens, he is fine, no colic, no spitting up, ever.
[…] you can find. Most importantly, make sure the clothes are comfortable. With snuggly outfits, your baby is less likely to squirm or cry. You don’t want any scratchy material irritating your little […]