Seven Reasons Babies Cry and How to Soothe Them

Babies cry. There's no way to get around it. It's simply how they communicate. Since your baby can't talk, you may worry, "How will I know what she wants?" At first it can be difficult, but a large part of parenting is trial and error, and you'll soon learn to anticipate her needs and wipe away her tears. These are the most common reasons babies cry. If your little one is wailing, work your way down the list and chances are you'll find the cure.

I'm hungry

Once you learn to recognize the signs that your baby wants to eat - she'll fuss, make noises, and root around for your breast if you pick her up - you'll get pretty good at feeding her before she starts to really cry. But when she is crying, check first to see if she's hungry. Food might not stop her crying right away, but let her keep eating if she wants to. Sometimes a baby will continue to cry even after you start feeding her; keep going, she'll stop once her stomach is full.

Change my diaper

Some babies will let you know right away when they need to be changed; others don't mind when their diapers are soiled - it's warm and comfortable to them. (Parents are often surprised when they pick up their infant and find they've been sitting around in a dirty diaper and never made a sound.) Either way, this one is easy to check and simple to remedy.

I'm too cold or hot

Newborns like to be bundled up and kept warm. (As a rule, they need to be wearing one more layer than you need to be comfortable.) So when your baby feels cold, like when you strip her naked to change her, she'll let you know that she's not happy by crying. You'll learn how to quickly change a diaper and wrap your baby back up to calm her until the crying stops. Watch out that you don't overdress her, since she's less likely to complain about being too warm than about being too cold and won't cry about it as vigorously.

I want to be held

Babies need a lot of cuddling. They like to see their parents' faces, hear their voices, listen to their hearts, and can even detect their unique smell (especially Mom's milk). After being fed, burped, and changed, many babies simply want to be held. You may wonder if you'll "spoil" your child by holding her so much, but during the first few months of life there's no such thing. Infants will vary a lot in how much they want to be held. Some demand a lot of attention, while others can spend long periods of time sitting calmly by themselves. If your baby likes the attention, pick her up or keep her next to you.

I can't take it anymore

While newborns seem to thrive on a lot of attention, they can easily become overstimulated and have a "melt-down." You may find that your baby cries longer than usual after spending a holiday with many adoring family members or has periods at the end of each day when she seems to cry for no reason. Newborns have difficulty filtering out all the stimulation they receive - the lights, the noise, being passed from hand to hand - and can become overwhelmed by too much activity. Crying is their way of saying "I've had enough." This usually happens when your baby is tired. Take her somewhere calm and quiet and let her vent for a while, and then see if you can get her to sleep.

I don't feel good

If you've just fed your baby and checked that she's comfortable (it can be something as subtle as a hair wrapped around her toe or a clothing tag that's poking her), but she's still crying, consider checking her temperature to make sure she isn't ill. The cry of a sick baby tends to be distinct from the hunger or frustration cry, and you'll soon learn when your baby "just doesn't sound right" and needs to be taken to the doctor.

None of the above

Sometimes you might not be able to figure out what's wrong. Many newborns develop periods of fussiness when they're not easily soothed. These periods of fussiness can range from a few minutes of hard-to-console crying to full-blown colic. Colic is defined as inconsolable crying for at least three hours per day, at least three days per week. Even if your baby is not crying for three hours, these episodes may be difficult for you. When all else fails, try the tips below.


Wrap her up and hold her close

Newborns like to feel as warm and secure as they did in the womb, so try swaddling your baby in a blanket or holding her up against your shoulder. But be aware that some babies find swaddling or cuddling too constrictive and will respond better to other forms of comfort such as sucking a pacifier or rhythmic movement.

Let her hear the rhythm

Babies are used to the sound of your heartbeat; that's another reason they love to be held close. But you can also try playing soft music, singing a lullaby, or even just putting her close to the steady rhythm of an electric fan or the white noise of a vacuum cleaner.

Put her in motion

Sometimes just the motion of carrying your baby around will be enough to calm her. Other times, it may help to rock her gently in a rocking chair or swing at the same rate as your heart (around 60 to 100 beats per minute), set her on top of the dryer while it's on, or take her for a ride in the car.

Rub her tummy

Rubbing your baby's back or belly is one of the most soothing things you can do for her, especially if she's having gas pains, which is often the problem with colicky babies.

Let her suck on something

Even when she's not hungry, sucking can steady an infant's heart rate, relax her stomach, and calm her flailing limbs. Give her a pacifier or a finger to clamp onto and let her go to town.

Take care of yourself

No baby ever cried herself to death, but a crying baby can be very stressful for new parents. You're chronically sleep-deprived and may already be unsure about how to care for this baby. Mom's emotions are all over the place due to the hormonal changes she's going through. Dad may not be sure what role he should play in caring for the newborn or whether he'll ever get mom's attention again.

Add a crying baby to this scenario and many parents can become overwhelmed with feelings of incompetence. If you know your baby's needs have been met and you've tried to calm her but she's still crying, it's time to take care of yourself so you don't get too frustrated:

  • Put your baby down and let her cry for a while.
  • Call a friend or relative and ask for advice.
  • Give yourself a break and let someone else take over.
  • Put on some quiet music to distract yourself.
  • Take deep breaths.
  • Remind yourself that nothing is wrong with your baby and crying won't hurt her - she may just be having a good cry about something and can't tell you what it is.
  • Repeat to yourself, "She will outgrow this phase."

Fortunately, babies (and their parents) are resilient and somehow manage to get through even the most difficult crying episodes. Take heart that by the time your baby is 6 to 8 weeks old, she'll be better able to soothe herself and much of the crying will stop.

Dr. Anne Beal, an instructor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School, is a parenting commentator who has appeared on NBC's "The Later Show" and is the co-author of The Black Parenting Book: Caring for Our Children in the First Five Years.