Why babies cry
Your baby has three survival skills:
Sucking – for nutrition
Crying – to alert you that they need something
Looking adorable – so that you’ll want to be there and care for them
These are the only ways your baby has to get what they need.
Your baby cries to tell you they need something
The good side of that, is that there aren’t that many things that babies need. They almost always cry because they are:
Hungry – and needs feeding
Tired – and needs help settling and gently put down to sleep
Uncomfortable –and needs burping
Frightened – babies don't like sudden noise, loud voices or abrupt changes
Wet or dirty – the nappy needs changing
Lonely – needs to be with someone who makes them feel safe
It might be a combination of these things, or one could start after you’ve sorted out another. You might not be able to figure it out. The most important thing isn't getting them to stop crying - but for YOU not to lose it.
A crying baby is like a puzzle for you to find the answer. Knowing there are really only a few reasons why babies can can help you solve that puzzle.
Is my baby in pain?
Your baby might sound or look like they are in great pain, but babies generally cry because they need something or are upset (and need soothing), not because they feel pain.
Crying is unlikely to mean that the baby is sick. Babies are more likely to go quiet if they are sick and are likely to have symptoms (a fever or have spots or runny nose) than to cry.
Colic, or a colicky baby is a label that may be given to infants up to four months old who cry a lot when they appear to be healthy and have all their needs met. Colic isn’t a precise medical condition but seems to be a way of explaining babies who cry a lot.
How to soothe a crying baby
Put yourself in your baby’s place. Before they were born, they had everything they needed every second of every minute of every day. Inside their mother’s body, they were never hungry, never cold (or too warm) and they were closely held and constantly rocked. They didn’t have to eat or even breathe! Life was easy and perfect.
Living outside of that wonderful container is a huge adjustment . It shouldn’t surprise us that it takes a few months for a baby to adjust to being in this new, bright, stimulating on the outside.
Baby Dr Harvey Karp says that we can comfort a baby by making them feel those comfortable parts of being in the womb. His method for soothing a crying baby:
WRAP or swaddle the baby in a soft blanket. It needs to be wrapped firmly enough around the shoulders so the arms don’t flail about - legs not so much.
HOLD on their side or stomach – maybe across your knee or on your forearm like a rugby ball, maybe their head slightly lower than the body. You’ll find a position your baby likes.
SHUSHING, make a “white noise” or some continuous, steady sound near your baby’s ear. Before they were born, it was quite loud inside their mother’s body. Hearing a steady sound can help them relax.
JIGGLING regular, small, settling movements will remind your baby of the womb. Before your baby was born, they were being held and rocked every time your partner moved.
SUCKING on your little finger or on their own hand. Wait until they are a few months old before introducing a dummy
Have a look at this homemade one-minute video that shows how a dad soothes his baby. This dad never gets to the sucking part because the baby stops crying before he got there.
Other tricks around crying
Try things and you will find things what work for your baby at least some of the time:
Taking them outside for a change of air or scenery
Quietly talking to them
Singing to them
Playing or putting on some music
Putting them in a front pack and going for a walk - even if it's just around the flat
Sometimes just passing the baby between people will be enough of a change to settle the baby
Keep a list of things that work on the fridge
What works to soothe your baby can be hard to remember, especially if the baby is crying and you can't think straight. A list of what sometimes works to sooth your baby stuck where you're going to see it - like on the fridge door - can really help.
It feels good to be able to soothe a crying baby
It can be very satisfying to be able to soothe a crying baby – and it’s a skill that any dad can learn. Men are as capable of soothing a baby as women are. Sometimes the mum will be able to do it better because she can also breastfeed. But sometimes the dad will be better because he is doesn’t smell of breast milk and feedings not the answer.
Going to your crying baby
No baby cries to intentionally manipulate their parents. Children may learn that they can do things to manipulate their parents - but not until they are about 18 months or even older. Before then, a crying baby is simply making a broadcast to the world that they have a problem that they need fixing. You are their world and therefore you are their fixer.
You will not spoil your young baby by going to them when they are crying. It is not possible to spoil a baby. When you sooth your baby, it helps them feel secure and wanted.
A dad doesn’t teach his baby to harden-up by ignoring them or leaving them to cry for long periods. A baby left alone to cry will forget why they were crying and just become frightened and even terrified.
A baby’s crying ramps up like this:
calm > alert > alarm > fear > terror
The sooner you interrupt this progression, the easier it is to bring the baby back to calm. The longer you leave it, the further up the scale they go – and the further the way back.
Going to and soothing your crying baby teaches them that they are not alone in the world and shows them that you care about them and will protect them. By picking-up your crying baby, even if they don’t stop crying, at least they know they are not alone.
There are many different types and intensities of crying. Some crying is just conversational, others are because they need something. Sometimes all they will need is to see you and feel reassured they are not alone.
Not all crying demands the parents’ immediate response. Going to your baby when they need you is important, but that doesn’t mean that someone needs to run to the baby every time they make a sound. You will learn to hear the difference by the tone of their cry.
For information about crying and sleep, have a look at our sleep page.
All babies cry
It's not just your baby who cries. You may see friends or strangers with peaceful, quiet babies. People may even brag about "how good" their baby is. Don't be fooled - or think that you are a bad parent. All babies cry.
Lots of crying puts stress on parents
Life can feel more difficult when a baby is crying excessively. It can put stress on the couple’s relationship. It is also the main trigger for parents shaking or otherwise damaging their baby. If the crying feels out of control or is causing problems at home (like causing the parents to argue a lot or to be unhappy), there may be help through your Well Child Tamariki Ora service, community-based parenting support services or your family doctor.
Crying: what doesn’t work
Shouting at a baby might stop for a second, but that's because they are frightened. But they will start again – probably even worse!
A baby hearing shouting – even when it’s not directed at them – will usually cause them to cry more, not stop them.
Never shake a baby to stop them crying. If you shake a baby enough to make them stop crying, you will have done them an injury that they may never recover from, like blindness, brain damage or being paralyzed. You will regret it.
If you feel you might lose it …
If you feel you can’t take the crying and there’s no one there to take the baby:
breath deep do some deep breathing, this adds oxygen to your blood and helps change the chemistry in your brain that is making you feel upset
put them in a safe place and take yourself away - not too far
call somebody you trust and tell them what's going on
if you feel you might lose it, put the baby somewhere safe and take yourself away until you are in control of yourself again
If this takes a while, check on the baby but don't go back to them until you have calmed down
Remember, crying is not a choice your baby has made. They are not doing it to annoy you. They are crying because they can’t help it. We are adults, it’s our job to manage our emotions, not to take it out on your baby. Or on partner, for that matter.