Your baby can’t do anything for herself and relies on you to provide her with the food, warmth and comfort that she needs. Crying is your baby’s way of communicating any or all of those needs and ensuring a response from you.
It’s sometimes hard to work out what your baby is telling you. But in time you will learn to recognise what your baby needs. And as your baby grows she’ll learn other ways of communicating with you. She’ll get better at eye contact, making noises and smiling, all of which reduce her need to cry for attention.
In the meantime, if your baby is difficult to soothe, she may be trying to say:
Hunger is one of the most common reasons that your newborn baby will cry. The younger your baby is, the more likely it is that she’s hungry.
Your baby’s small stomach can’t hold very much, so if she cries, try offering her some milk. She may be hungry, even if her last feed doesn’t seem very long ago. It’s likely that you will be feeding often and regularly in the first day or so to help your breastmilk to come in anyway. If you are formula feeding your baby she may not be hungry if she has been fed within the last two hours.
She may not stop crying immediately, but let her keep feeding if she wants to.
I just feel like crying
If your baby is younger than about five months old, she may cry in the late afternoon and evenings. This is normal, and doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with your baby.
The unhappiness can range from short periods of inconsolable crying to several hours at a stretch. While she’s crying, your baby may become flushed and frustrated, and refuse your efforts to comfort her. Your baby may clench her fists, draw up her knees, or arch her back.
It’s upsetting when it seems you can’t do anything to ease your baby’s distress. However hard it is at the time, rest assured that your baby will grow out of this trying phase.
Persistent and inconsolable crying in an otherwise healthy baby is traditionally called colic. Some people also associate colic with wind and tummy or digestive problems. These may be due to an allergy or intolerance to certain substances in breastmilk or formula milk.
These days, though, we have a greater understanding of how normal this pattern of baby crying is and that it isn’t necessarily linked to tummy troubles.
Ronald Barr, an expert on baby crying, has proposed a new term for this phase of crying. Barr calls it the “period of PURPLE crying®”, where the letters PURPLE stand for common characteristics of the crying. (It doesn’t mean your baby turns purple from crying so hard!).
The emphasis is on the word “period”, as you can be assured that your baby’s persistent crying will not last forever.
The letters in PURPLE stand for:
- P for peak of crying: your baby may cry more each week, the most at two months of age, then less at between three months and five months.
- U for unexpected: crying can come and go and you don’t know why.
- R for resists soothing: your baby may not stop crying, no matter what you try.
- P for pain-like face: a crying baby may look as if she is in pain, even when she is not.
- L for long-lasting: crying can last for several hours a day.
- E for evening: your baby may cry more in the late afternoon and evening.
Living with a baby who regularly cries inconsolably can be very stressful, but there are things you can do to help you to cope with the crying. See our section below: “My baby’s still crying. What can I do?”
I need to be held
Your baby will need lots of cuddling, physical contact and reassurance to comfort her.
So it may be that she just wants to be held. Try a baby sling to keep her close to you, perhaps swaying and singing to her while you hold her.
You may be worried about spoiling your baby if you hold her too much. But during the first few months of her life that’s not possible. Small babies need lots of physical comfort. If you hold your baby close she may be soothed by hearing your heartbeat.
I’m tired and need a rest
Often, babies find it hard to get to sleep, particularly if they are over-tired. You will soon become aware of your baby’s sleep cues. Whining and crying at the slightest thing, staring blankly into space, and going quiet and still are just three examples.
If your baby has received a lot of attention and cuddles from doting visitors, she may become over-stimulated. Then, when it comes to sleeping, she’ll find it hard to switch off and settle. Take your baby somewhere calm and quiet to help her to settle down.
I’m too cold or too hot
Your baby may hate having her nappy changed or being bathed. She may not be used to the feeling of cold air on her skin and would rather be bundled up and warm. But you will soon learn how to perform a quick nappy change if this is the case.
Take care not to overdress your baby, or she may become too hot. She will generally need to wear one more layer of clothing than you to be comfortable.
Use sheets and cellular blankets as bedding in your baby’s cot or Moses basket. You can check whether your baby is too hot or too cold by feeling her tummy. If her tummy feels too hot, remove a blanket, and if it feels cold, add one.
Don’t be guided by your baby’s hands or feet, as they usually feel cool. Keep your baby’s room at a temperature of about 18
C. Place her down to sleep on her back with her feet at the end of the cot. That way she can’t wriggle too far down under the blankets and become too hot .
I need my nappy changing
Your baby may protest if her clothes are too tight or if a wet or soiled nappy is bothering her. Or she may not mind if her nappy is full and may actually enjoy the warm and comfortable feeling. But if your baby’s tender skin is being irritated she will most likely cry.
I need something to make me feel better
Be aware of changes in your baby. If she’s unwell, she’ll probably cry in a different tone to her usual cry. It may be weaker, more urgent, continuous, or high-pitched. And if your baby usually cries a lot but has become unusually quiet, it may be a sign that she’s not well.
Nobody knows your baby as well as you do. If you feel that there may be something wrong with her, call your GP, midwife or health visitor.
Health professionals will always take your concerns seriously. Call your doctor if your baby has difficulty breathing through the crying, or if the crying is accompanied by a fever, vomiting, diarrhoea or constipation.
My baby’s still crying. What can I do?
As you gradually get to know your baby’s personality you’ll learn which techniques work best for her. If a cuddle doesn’t do the job, these suggestions may help:
Find a constant sound
In the uterus (womb), your baby could hear the beat of your heart, which is why she likes to be held close to you now. There are other repetitive noises that may also have a calming effect.
The steady rhythm of a washing machine, or the noise of a vacuum cleaner or hairdryer may lull your baby to sleep. But never put your baby on top of a washing machine or clothes dryer, just supervise her on the floor, next to it.
You can also download white-noise sounds or a white noise app for your phone, or buy a white-noise CD created for babies. These mimic the sounds in the uterus and may soothe your crying baby.
Babies usually love to be gently rocked. You could:
- Walk around while rocking her.
- Sit with her in a rocking chair.
- If she’s old enough, sit her securely in a baby swing.
- Take her out for a ride in your car.
- Take her out for a walk in her pushchair.
Try a massage or a tummy rub
Using massage oils or cream and gently rubbing her back or tummy can help to soothe your baby. It may also make you feel better, as it’s a practical way of reducing your baby’s distress. Ask your health visitor about local baby massage classes.
Try a different feeding position
Some babies cry during or after feeds. If you are breastfeeding, you may find that improving the way your baby latches on helps her to feed calmly without crying.
If she seems to have painful wind during feeds, you could try feeding her in a more upright position. Burp your baby after a feed by holding her against your shoulder. If your baby cries straight after a feed, she may still be hungry.
Let her suck on something
In some newborns, the need to suck is very strong. Sucking at your breast while you are breastfeeding, a clean finger or a dummy can bring great comfort. Comfort sucking can steady a baby’s heart rate, relax her tummy, and help her to settle.
Give her a warm bath
A warm bath may soothe your baby and help her to calm down. Check the water temperature before placing her in there. But bear in mind that this may also make her cry more. In time, you will get to know your baby’s likes and dislikes.
Don’t demand too much of yourself
If your newborn cries almost constantly, she won’t do herself lasting harm. But it’s likely to cause you and your partner a great deal of stress and worry. If she’s unhappy and resists every effort to calm her down, you may feel rejected and frustrated. But you are not the cause of her crying, so don’t blame yourself.
If you’ve met your baby’s immediate needs and tried everything you can to calm her, but nothing’s worked, it’s time to take care of yourself:
- Put your baby in her cot and let her cry for a short spell out of your range of hearing. Take deep breaths.
- Put on some quiet music and let yourself relax for a moment or two.
- If you and your baby are both upset and you’ve tried everything, it makes sense to call a friend or relative for support. Give yourself a break and let someone else take over for a while.
- Talk to your health visitor about coping strategies and local support groups or parent-and-baby groups. That way you can share your feelings and discuss ways of coping with other new parents.
- Call a helpline. Cry-sis offers a helpline on 0845 1228 669 for parents of babies who have sleep problems or who cry excessively.
Remind yourself that nothing is wrong with your baby and that crying won’t hurt her. Sometimes simply accepting that you have a baby who cries a lot can help. You then won’t wear yourself out looking for reasons for the crying, blaming yourself for it, or trying out endless potential remedies.
This crying is a phase and it will pass. Newborn babies are hard work. Being the parent of a newborn who cries a lot is even harder work. But try to get help and support when you need it, rather than letting things build up.
Be reassured that as your baby grows, she will learn new ways of communicating her needs to you. And when this happens, the crying will stop.