Baby Cries: What Your Baby Is Trying to Tell You

Taking care of a newborn sounds straightforward enough, right? Baby cries and mom and dad leap to attention to answer his calls. Maybe those cries subside when mama provides a little breastmilk. Or maybe baby is soothed by a diaper change. You feel like you’ve totally got this—until baby won’t stop crying.

The thing is, painful as it may be, it is also completely normal. And, in moderation, crying can even benefit baby. Here we’ll take a look at why babies cry, decode what different crying baby sounds mean, and share tips to help your baby stop crying.

Why Is My Baby Crying?

It should surprise no one that babies aren’t born with the ability to express themselves with words—or even hand gestures. Crying is one of a newborn’s primary ways of communication.

Your baby is trying to give you cues with her cries. She may be trying to tell you any number of things, like she’s hungry, bored, tired, or has a dirty diaper. But to a new parent exactly what that message is at any given time can feel like the greatest mystery in the world.

And the truth is, you may not always get to the bottom of the cries. Sometimes the wailing is actually a form of “exercise” to help them tire out and fall asleep. And sometimes infants cry simply because being a newborn is tough work—baby is trying to adjust to the big, bright, and loud outside world after more than nine months in the womb. Imagine how overstimulating that would be!

Crying Baby Sounds

That said, some believe that different baby cries mean different things. Priscilla Dunstan, a mother and former opera singer had a special ear for sounds. She noticed that her own baby’s cries seemed to corresponded to particular needs.

She identified five different words or “sound reflexes,” each coordinating with a different need—hunger, discomfort, gas, sleep, and burping. Here the “language” Dunstan identified:

  • Neh: When the sucking reflex is triggered, the tongue is pushed to the roof of the mouth, creating the sound “neh.” Baby is hungry.
  • Owh: Reminiscent of the sound created by an adult yawn, “owh” means baby is tired.
  • Heh: Dunstan says this sound is produced to communicate stress when baby feels skin discomfort. “Heh” means baby is uncomfortable and might need a fresh diaper or outfit change (too hot/too cold).
  • Eairh: When excess air is trapped in baby’s system, the intestines tighten in attempt to release the air. This causes baby to make an “eairh” sound. Baby likely has gas or an upset stomach.
  • Eh: Excess gas may also get trapped in baby’s chest. When this happens, baby makes an “eh” sound, indicating they need to be burped.

It’s important to note that Dunstan’s theory has not been tested clinically and, adding to any potential confusion, others have developed their own ideas of what different crying baby sounds mean.

How to Soothe a Crying Baby

Tracy Hogg, better known as “The Baby Whisperer,” is known for her keen attention to baby cries and actions. She also believes that, when paired with body language, certain cries have real, identifiable meanings:

Hungry Cries

A cough-like sound—a waa, waa, waa rhythm—in the back of the throat that precedes the first cry, and picks up to become more steady. It’s often accompanied by the licking of lips or rooting for the breast.

How to soothe a hungry baby: This one’s easy. Feed baby. The sooner, the better too—if you wait too long, they may be too frantic to take the milk.

Tired Cries

Breathy cries that come and go. It often starts with three short wails followed by a hard cry, then two short breaths and an even louder, longer cry. This cry is often paired with eye-rubbing, blinking, and yawning, along with back arching, legs kicking, and arms flailing.

How to soothe a tired baby: Just like feeding, you’ll want to address this one as soon as you see the first signs. Otherwise, you risk having an over-tired baby on your hands who is much harder to put to sleep!

Overstimulated Cries

This one sounds similar to overtired cries—long and hard. Other signs include avoiding eye contact and constant head turning. It can be accompanied by flailing arms and legs.

How to soothe an overstimulated baby: Take her into a dark room, rock her in a chair, and make soft shh-ing sounds until she feels calm and centered. In the future, you’ll also want to note of everything around your baby. Are the lights bright? Does she have too many toys in front of her? Are those toys flashing lights and making noises? Babies are very sensitive to sights and sounds, even ones that don’t seem excessive to us.

Painful Cries

There is no mistaking this one—your heart will probably hurt as soon as you hear them. These cries are piercing and come without warning. The baby’s body becomes tense and rigid, and they may pull their knees upward to their chest. Their face is scrunched with pain, and their tongue wiggles.

How to soothe a baby in pain: Though this, of all cries, is the one we want to help the most, it’s often the hardest to fix. One of the most common causes of pain or discomfort in the first few months is gas. (See this post for lots of ideas about how to handle.) You can also try to help baby pass gas by squeezing his legs into his tummy, bicycling his legs, or bouncing him on your knee (possibly while sitting on an exercise ball) to get things moving.

Cold Cries

Unmistakable crying paired with a quivering bottom lip. You may also observe goose bumps on the body, cold hands and feet, and even a bluish tinge to their skin.

How to soothe a cold baby: Wrap him or her in a blanket, or better yet, hold them close to your chest. Skin-to-skin is not only warming, it’s also soothing to your little one.

Hot Cries

A panting whiny sound that is low at first, but if left alone will escalate into an all-out cry. Baby’s body will feel hot and sweaty, and they may pant instead of breathing regularly.

How to soothe a hot baby: Baby may be over-dressed, which can easily be resolved by removing a few items of clothing or bringing them outside for some fresh air. If baby’s skin is dry instead of clammy, take their temperature; it may be a fever.

Learning Your Baby’s Language

Whether you subscribe to Dunstan or Hogg’s theories, most can agree that baby cries paired with body language and context cues are all going to help you determine what is bothering your baby, and how you can help make them feel better. It takes practice… but soon you’ll learn your baby’s unique language.

My Newborn Won’t Stop Crying! Why Does My Baby Cry So Much?

So maybe you’ve read all the books, done all the Googling, and tried every technique but nothing is working. It’s important to note that baby cries are not necessarily as simple as baby cries + mom’s action = problem solved.

The severity and frequency of crying will vary from baby to baby but do know that excessive crying is very prevalent—it’s reported in up to 30% of babies under 3 months old! So the point is: YOU ARE NOT ALONE. And you will get through this!

Many babies go through a period of unexplainable crying between the ages of two weeks and three to four months.

This time period coincides with the greatest amount of growth, particularly brain/neurological, that your child will ever undergo.

There can be many different explanations for this time of heightened crying. Let’s unpack some now…

Purple Crying Defined

Some people call this inconsolable baby stage “purple crying.”

PURPLE is an acronym that stands for:
Peak of crying,
Unexpected,
Resists soothing,
Pain-like face,
Long lasting, and
Evening.

Believers in this concept say that unexplainable crying is a completely normal part of development and that it will pass as baby gets older and his brain and neurological system is more mature (usually around 3-4 months old).

The “Witching Hour”

Others call this phenomenon simply “The Witching Hour,” the period of time between late afternoon (around 3-4 p.m.) till just before a newborn’s bedtime (around 1o-11 p.m.) when baby cries more, tends to be fussier than normal, and requires more soothing and feeding. Many babies will even cluster feed during this time. Again, this will pass as baby gets older and more mature.

Acid Reflux, GERD, Silent Reflux

Acid reflux can be another culprit of excessive infant crying. Signs can be as obvious as projectile vomiting and intense crying, or as subtle as sour breath, hiccups, and physical stiffness. There are many natural remedies for acid reflux, though medication can be prescribed in severe cases.

Colic?

Other parents go to their pediatrician in desperation only to get the dreaded colic diagnosisAnd does it really help? Sometimes, it explains their baby’s behavior, but there isn’t really any “remedy” for the problem. Some colic parents have helped their babies with targeted probiotics, strategies from The Happiest Baby on the Block, or by getting support from other colic parents.

What to Do if Baby Cries?

When the obvious baby soothers—feeding, burping, changing, sleeping—don’t manage to quell those baby cries, try these ideas:

  • Hold baby (with or without ear plugs): Sometimes the best medicine is extra snuggles. Holding your baby close shows unconditional love and support. Try skin-to-skin contact for best results.
  • Consider babywearing: this evidence-based practice can reduce fussiness and crying by over 40%! The skin-to-skin contact with your baby will also boost your endorphins while allowing you to be “hands free” and get some work done around the house.
  • Change up your routine: Sometimes a change of scenery does everyone some good. Your baby may like different forms of stimulation in different environments to soothe his baby cries.
  • Try a white noise machine: If it’s nighttime cries that you’re struggling with, a white noise maker can work wonders for some babies.
  • Get fresh air: Don’t discount the power of fresh air. This can be especially difficult if you live in a cold climate, but just a quick walk around the block may be the best remedy for your baby cries.
  • Put baby in a swing: The back-and-forth rocking motion of a swing may help soothe an especially irritable baby.

At any time, if suspect a deeper issue or a medical problem, contact your medical provider immediately.

Why TV Is Never a Good Way to Soothe Baby

When you’re looking for something to distract or cheer up baby, one of the most tempting options is your television. But the American Academy of Pediatrics strongly warns against screen time for infants and babies. Parents are encouraged to prioritize creative, unplugged playtime until at least 18 months. (And remember, this is an absolute minimum!)

All of the rapid changes in imagery and sound can overstimulate a baby’s developing brain. In fact, one study found that, for every hour of TV young children watch per day, their risk of having attention problems rises by almost 10%.

It Will Get Better…

Though difficult to cope with in the moment, most of the time, these crying fits will fade with time. It’s in these situations that we have to let go of all of our natural instincts that say take action and realize that sometimes the answer is acceptance (and patience). 

For moms with colicky babies (or excessive criers), be sure to take extra care of yourself as you have an increased risk for postpartum depression.  

This could include:

  • Get a friend, babysitter, or family member to watch baby a few times per week, so you can get a break. Have your partner take over on the weekends so you can get some alone time
  • Take baby outside, even if he/she is crying, and go for a walk. The exercise will boost your endorphins and may even help baby stop crying
  • Be sure you’re taking cod liver oil, getting daily sunlight, and eating a healthy diet—things that help support a good mood
  • Talk to others with colicky babies. Message boards are a great place to find fellow mamas who can empathize with your situation and offer support.
  • See a counselor if you find yourself slipping into depression
  • Take medication if needed.

And your baby will cry less and less as he gets older, his brain matures, and he is able to communicate in other ways. This will pass, mama! 🙏🏻

How About You?

All the research studies in the world can’t replace the expertise of an experienced parent. What has been your experience with crying babies? Do you have any great soothing techniques you’d like to share with the sleep-deprived moms and dads out there?

About the Author

Genevieve Howland is a childbirth educator and breastfeeding advocate. She is the bestselling author of The Mama Natural Week-by-Week Guide to Pregnancy and Childbirth and creator of the Mama Natural Birth Course. A mother of three, graduate of the University of Colorado, and YouTuber with over 75,000,000 views, she helps mothers and moms-to-be lead healthier and more natural lives.

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