Why babies cry

Why babies cry
No parent likes to see their baby cry, but crying is how babies communicate their needs.



Since babies can’t talk, crying is a means for them to tell you when they’re hungry, in pain, or bored. Crying is essentially a survival reflex. Parents respond to their baby’s cries by taking care of their needs. When your baby cries and you respond, this is a form of communication between you and your baby.

Speak to a doctor or nurse in the following situations:
  • Your child seems to be acting differently or they aren’t sleeping or eating
  • They’re running a fever, they’re throwing up, or they have diarrhea
  • They have traces of blood in their stool
  • They are crying potentially because of a fall or an injury
  • They continue to cry excessively beyond the age of 3 months
  • They’re not gaining weight

When in doubt, don’t hesitate to call Info-Santé (811).

Why babies cry: What the research tells us

On average, newborns cry for two hours a day. That might sound like a lot, but it’s perfectly normal. All babies go through periods when they cry more often, and some cry more than others. Sometimes, it’s just a question of temperament.

Researchers agree that the first three months is the stage when babies cry the most and when their crying is at its most intense. In fact, many studies have shown that during this stage, crying follows a specific pattern, known as the crying curve:

  • Around 2 to 3 weeks, crying begins to increase
  • Around 6 to 8 weeks, crying peaks
  • After this, crying gradually decreases until the age of 12 weeks

During the first three months, crying often starts and stops suddenly and without explanation, especially in the late afternoon or early evening. A parent may not always be able to soothe their crying baby, even after feeding, making sure their diaper is dry, or cuddling them.

It’s important not to doubt your parenting skills during these bouts of crying, which generally last about 45 minutes but can also continue for up to 2 hours. This type of crying is normal, and it isn’t your fault. The most important thing is for your child to feel your comforting presence.

Is it okay to let your baby cry?

It’s not recommended to let your baby cry, even if they’re no longer a newborn. Babies never cry to manipulate you. Their brain hasn’t yet developed to the point where they’re capable of manipulating their parents. They also have yet to learn how to manage their emotions. Consequently, letting them cry doesn’t teach them anything.

Consoling your baby every time they cry will not spoil them. In fact, it will calm and soothe your baby. When you respond quickly and calmly to their cries, they feel loved and safe. How you react therefore influences the initial bonds of love and attachment between you and your baby.

For this reason, you should take any preconceived ideas and advice that people offer with a grain of salt. It’s best to trust your own instincts, because no one knows your baby better than you do. Don’t listen to comments such as, “It’s okay, they’re developing their lungs,” “Letting them cry builds character,” or “They’re just crying so you’ll keep holding them.”

Allowing a baby to cry for prolonged periods without consoling them can have negative consequences on their health (e.g., increased heart rate and blood pressure, stress reaction).

Of course, you can’t always respond when your baby cries by picking them up, for many reasons (e.g., your other child needs you, you’re preparing dinner). When this happens, try soothing your baby in other ways, such as by talking softly to them, making eye contact, cuddling them, etc. The important thing is not to ignore your baby’s crying.

What crying can communicate

Some scientists believe that infants have different cries to express hunger, boredom, discomfort, colic, pain, emotional release at the end of the day, etc. However, not all researchers take this view.

An increasing number of experts believe that a baby’s cries say more about the child’s level of distress than they do about the specific reason they’re crying. According to this interpretation, the louder or more intense a baby’s crying, the greater their distress. In any case, parents can usually guess what their baby needs from the sound of their cries.

Babies can express a variety of things by crying, including the following:

If you don’t know why your baby is crying, simply hold them. Even if the crying doesn’t stop, they will feel loved and supported.
  • Hunger
  • Fatigue
  • Discomfort (e.g., they’re either too hot or too cold, their diaper needs to be changed, they need to burp)
  • A desire to be close to their parent
  • The need to release their emotions
  • The need for stimulation
  • Pain

Of course, babies can also cry because they’re sick (e.g., fever, nasal congestion, skin lesions, ear infections) or teething.

Even if buckled into a rocker or car seat, babies should never be placed on top of a clothes dryer or any other appliance, as they could fall off and be seriously injured.

Some tips to guide you when your baby cries

If they start crying during feedings:

When a baby cries, they can sometimes look like they’re in pain, even if they’re not.
  • Your baby may no longer be hungry or may need to burp.
  • They may have colic.
  • They may simply want to suck instead of feed. Lay them down or rock them, and give them a pacifier (if they’re already using one) or a small toy for distraction.
  • It’s okay to take a break during a feeding, to change breastfeeding positions, or to offer your baby the other breast.

If they start crying while you’re holding them:

  • They may simply be tired and want to sleep.
  • Even if your baby fed only two hours ago, they may still be hungry, especially if they’re going through a growth spurt. They could also be thirsty, or, if your child is breastfed, desire comfort nursing.
  • They may want something to suck on to satisfy their need to suck, a survival reflex in newborns.
  • They may need stimulation (e.g., a game, music, toys, a massage).
  • Something is bothering them: they may be cold or hot (check by feeling the back of their neck), need a diaper change, or have diaper rash. Depending on the situation, you can adjust their outfit, change their diaper, or treat their rash.

If they start crying while alone in their bed:

  • They may be between sleep cycles. Place a comforting hand on your little one’s belly to let them know you’re there. This may help them fall back asleep.
  • They may have gotten enough sleep or want company.
  • They need to be reassured.
  • They may be cold, thirsty, or hot (check the back of their neck), or have a wet diaper.

Successfully calming your baby will feel encouraging and reassuring for you as a parent. Conversely, when you’re unable to comfort your child, it may make you feel anxious or insecure. These moments can be useful, however, as they’ll teach you to step back, reflect, and become more and more observant of your child. You’ll therefore learn how to read your little one better and respond to their needs. Each child is unique, and what soothes one baby may not work for another.

Separation anxiety

Around 8 to 12 months of age, babies develop a fear of strangers, whereas they used to smile at them. They start to cry the moment they lose sight of their parents. This behaviour is entirely normal and is known as separation anxiety. To find out how to respond to this new fear and to make starting daycare easier if it coincides with this period, see our fact sheet on separation anxiety.

Crying: Colic or fatigue?

Colic can start as early as 3 weeks after birth, but it’s most common between 6 and 8 weeks. It tends to gradually subside by the 4-month mark.

If your child’s basic needs have been met, but they won’t stop crying, they may be suffering from colic. In general, colic is when a baby cries for more than 3 hours a day, at least 3 days a week, for more than a week. This is the type of crying that upsets parents the most, as they feel helpless to comfort their baby.

Colicky fussing may also simply be the only way for your baby to let off steam. It’s the end of the day, they’re a little cranky, and crying lets them release some of that built-up tension.

For more information, read our fact sheet on colic (intense crying).

What to do when your baby cries

Here are some suggestions to help you soothe your baby when they cry:

  • Talk to your baby in a soft, comforting voice.
  • Hold your little one as often as possible. Babies love it when you hold them close. Human contact helps them feel relaxed, calm, less stressed, and safe. If necessary, put your baby in a baby carrier or an adjustable sling to give your arms a rest. Many studies report a significant decrease in crying in babies who are carried daily. You will not spoil your baby by holding them frequently.
  • Give them comforting touches, especially on the belly. Massaging your baby may help soothe them and is completely safe. You can also lay your newborn on their back, take one of their feet in each of your hands, and gently pedal their legs back and forth toward their belly.
  • Give your baby a bath or take a bath with them.
  • Create a calm environment: turn off or dim the lights, reduce any ambient noise, and avoid loud noises.
  • Try not to move your baby around too much, since this may further stimulate them when what they’re expressing could be a need to rest. Instead, place them gently in their crib and stay close while talking to them to see if they calm down on their own. If there’s no change after a few minutes, it’s recommended to pick your baby up again and hold them.
  • If you breastfeed, try nursing your child, as many babies calm down when suckling at their mother’s breast.
Your baby may continue to cry despite your best efforts to soothe them. This is not your fault and doesn’t make you a bad parent.
  • Practise skin-to-skin contact with your baby. Remove your baby’s clothes except for their diaper and take off your shirt. Hold your baby to your chest and place a soft blanket over them to keep them warm. Skin-to-skin contact has a relaxing effect on babies. The warmth and movement provided by skin-to-skin contact can also relieve discomfort.
  • Gently rock your baby in your arms. The combined effect of warmth and movement seems to calm some babies. You can also place your baby on their belly on your thighs and gently rock them by moving your legs. If you can’t hold them, try placing them in a baby rocker or swing.
  • Lay your baby stomach down on your forearm with their head toward your elbow and your hand holding their bottom. Take a few steps around the room while gently rocking them, and massage their lower back if possible.
  • Take your baby in your arms and bend their legs, holding their back and under their feet. This may help their digestion.
  • Place your little one in a baby carrier or stroller and go for a walk. Movement is often calming for babies. You can also take them for a drive. If your child often cries at the same hour, try to leave before they start. This way, getting them dressed and settling them into the carrier, stroller, or car seat will be more pleasant for both of you.
  • Swaddle your baby. Some babies love the feeling of being swaddled, while others do not. Read our fact sheet on swaddling to learn more.
  • Stay calm. Because babies are very sensitive to the emotions of their adult caregivers, your own stress can sometimes make your child’s crying worse. If you’re feeling angry, exhausted, and like you’ve reached the end of your rope, it’s important to take a step back and ask for help. Acknowledging your emotions will help you avoid losing your temper.
  • To help you relax despite your child’s crying, start by taking three deep breaths. Next, sing a few lullabies or listen to soft, soothing music or simple, rhythmic sounds (e.g., ocean waves, gentle rain). It may even soothe your baby. Talking softly to your little one about how you’re feeling may help calm you down as well.
  • Follow your baby’s schedule. For example, if their crying peaks at the same time each evening, try not to schedule activities at that time and consider eating dinner early.

When crying becomes too much

When dealing with an infant’s constant crying, most parents will eventually start to feel angry. In some cases, if they’ve reached their wits’ end, they may resort to shaking their baby to make the crying stop. Excessive, persistent crying is indeed the most common reason behind shaken baby syndrome.

Even if you feel you can’t take another second of their crying, never shake your baby. Doing so can result in permanent brain damage, and even death.

What should you do when you feel yourself starting to slip?

Babies can sense when their parents are stressed or tense. This can make it all the more difficult for a parent who is upset to soothe their child.
  • Ask your partner or someone you know to try to calm your baby before you reach your limit.
  • If no one is home except you and your baby, lay them down in their crib and leave the room for a few moments, closing the door behind you, until you calm down. Check on your baby every 10 minutes to make sure they’re okay.
  • Avoid listening to your baby’s crying as much as possible so you can regain your composure. Listen to some music, for example, put in earplugs, or turn on the TV for a few minutes.
  • Call someone you trust who will be able to lend an ear or come by to help you. You can also call a help line such as LigneParents (available in French only) which offers free and confidential professional support, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
  • Make sure you are calm before picking up your child again.

Read our fact sheet on shaken baby syndrome for more information.

 

Things to keep in mind

  • A newborn’s crying peaks after 6 to 8 weeks.
  • Consoling your baby every time they cry will not spoil them. It will make them feel loved and safe.
  • If you’re at your wits’ end, it is important to take a step back and ask for help.

 

Naître et grandir

Scientific review: Marie-Ève Brouillette, perinatal nurse clinician and certified lactation consultant (IBCLC)
Research and copywriting: The Naître et grandir team
Updated: February 2022

 

Photos: iStock.com/Brosa and GettyImages/Sasiistock and FatCamera

 

Sources

Please note that hyperlinks to other websites are not updated regularly, and some may have changed since publication. It is therefore possible that a link may not be found. If a link is no longer valid, use search engines to find the relevant information.

  • AboutKidsHealth. “Crying.” 2009. www.aboutkidshealth.ca
  • AboutKidsHealth. “Crying: What you can do.” 2009. www.aboutkidshealth.ca
  • Bilodeau, Mélanie. Soyez l’expert de votre bébé. Quebec City, Éditions Midi trente, 2019, 220 pp.
  • Cabana, Michael D., et al. “Newborn daily crying time duration,” Journal of Pediatric Nursing, vol. 56, January 2021, pp. 35–37. www.pediatricnursing.org
  • CHUM. Birthing Centre. Information page on giving birth and how to take care of your baby www.chumontreal.qc.ca (link in French)
  • CHU Sainte-Justine. “When baby cries: Information and prevention capsule.” 2020. promotionsante.chusj.org
  • Doré, Nicole, and Danielle Le Hénaff. From Tiny Tot to Toddler: A practical guide for parents from pregnancy to age two. Quebec City, Institut national de santé publique du Québec. www.inspq.qc.ca
  • Encyclopedia on Early Childhood Development. “Crying behaviour.” 2017. www.child-encyclopedia.com
  • Institut national de santé publique du Québec (INSPQ). “Adaptation à la parentalité.” 2019. www.inspq.qc.ca
  • LigneParents. Free professional support. 18003615085. www.ligneparents.com
  • Ludington-Hoe, Susan M., et al. “Infant crying: Nature, physiologic consequences, and select interventions,” Neonatal Network, vol. 21, no. 2, March 2002, pp. 29–36. pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov
  • Canadian Paediatric Society. Caring for Kids. “Colic and crying.” 2021. caringforkids.cps.ca
  • Société française de pédiatrie. “Pas à pas en pédiatrie. Pleurs excessifs du nourrisson.” 2017. pap-pediatrie.fr
  • Vekemans, Gaëlle. L’ABC de la santé des enfants. 2nd ed., Montreal, Les Éditions La Presse, 2016, 413 pp.
  • Wolke, Dieter, et al. “Systematic review and meta-analysis: Fussing and crying durations and prevalence of colic in infants,” The Journal of Pediatrics, vol. 185, April 2017, pp. 55–61. www.jpeds.com

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