Dr Lin Day is one of the UK’s leading parenting experts and a renowned author within the field of childcare and education. Here she explains how recognising different types of baby cry and reading baby’s signals can give parents a better chance of working out the source of distress and doing something about it.
All babies cry. Crying is one of the ways a baby communicates and is simply a means of fast-tracking the parent to respond to the baby’s hunger or comfort needs, or to sensations that are too intense or overwhelming. However, recognising the different types of cry and reading baby’s baby signals, gives parents a better chance of working out the source of the distress.
Very young babies make sounds based on reflexes such as sucking and yawning. The different pitches, patterns, and loudness of the cry indicate the urgency of the baby’s need. Babies also use body language to communicate with the people closest to them. As they grow older, they may use gestures such as pointing and make specific babbling noises to get their wants and needs met.
In the early months, crying often peaks at certain times of the day, during which time the baby may want to be fed or held constantly. In the fourth month, most babies settle into a routine, and crying peaks become less intense and more manageable.
Babies cry for a number of reasons and any one of the following could be possible reasons. However, if removing the cause fails to solve the problem, parents should seek expert medical advice.
Some Babies Cry Because Of Hunger
Hunger is probably the first thing that parents think of when their baby cries. However, if the baby leaves the breast or bottle during a feed, or cries less than an hour after a feed, hunger is unlikely to be the reason.
Hunger signs include rooting for the breast, turning the head from side to side, opening and closing the mouth, sticking out the tongue, puckering the lips, and sucking the hands or fists.
From birth to three-months-old, the hunger cry is based on the sucking reflex, in which the tongue is pushed up on the roof of the mouth to produce the sound‘neh’.If the baby is not fed, the cry will escalate to a strong, rapid, high-pitched sound. If the mother feels that hunger is the reason for crying, she may discontinue breastfeeding, switch to a different brand of formula, or begin early solid food intake. However, it is worth exploring other reasons for crying before deciding.
Some Babies Cry Because Of Swallowed Air
Some babies become so worked up that by the time feeding begins they gulp air with the milk, which causes more crying. Fast delivery of milk from a full breast or fast-flowing teat can make the baby gulp or swallow air. Air can become trapped inside the stomach if the baby slouches when feeding. When air passes into the small intestine, it can cause abdominal distension and discomfit.
As the diaphragm tightens to expel trapped air, an intermittent ‘eh’sound is produced. The baby may also produce a false smile, scrunch up the face, and roll the eyes. The best way to disperse air is to position the baby upright during and after feeds. Carrying the baby in a sling carrier also allows swallowed air to be alleviated by gravity.
Some Babies Cry Because Of Discomfort
Some babies cry when their nappy needs changing. A nappy change gives the parent the chance to find out if it is too tight, or if something else is causing the baby distress. Crying often coincides with changes in core body temperature, which can range from 36 to 37.4°C at different times of the day. Temperature naturally rises late afternoon and early evening and drops after midnight or in the early morning. It can also drop after a warm bath and in cold weather, or rise if the baby is overdressed, wrapped too tightly, or too hot. Removing or adding a blanket or clothing can make the baby feel more comfortable.
Babies may be unusually irritable if they have a gastrointestinal upset, fever or cold and after a recent vaccination. Strong smells can also cause the baby distress. An uncomfortable baby may produce a whiny and protracted ‘heh’ sound, which may turn into a loud bawling cry if his or her needs are not satisfied; this cry may be accompanied by facial grimacing, fist clenching, and squirming.
Some Babies Cry Because Of Pain
Skin pinching from a zip, car seat or pushchair strap, a painful bowel movement, an ear infection, an abdominal upset, and teething can cause pain. Signs of pain include turning away from a stimulus, clenching the fists, jerking or flailing of the limbs, drawing the knees up to the chest and arching the back when held. If the baby is suffering from an abdominal upset, the stomach may appear distended and feel hard. If an ear infection is present, the baby may pull or grab the ears.
The pain cry may be sudden, shrill or piercing followed by an elongated pause during which the baby appears to stop breathing. The baby then catches his or her breath and lets out another long cry.
Some Babies Cry Because Of Colic
Inconsolable crying for three or more hours at the same time each day, usually in the late afternoon or evening is generally associated with colic. The most logical cause appears to be a temporary insufficiency of the enzyme lactase, which breaks down lactose (milk sugars) in the small intestine. Overproduction of intestinal gases from undigested lactase can cause bloating and abdominal pain. Unless the baby is hungry, small regular feeds can protect babies from excessive gas production.
The baby may produce a sudden, shrill or piercing ‘eairh’ cry and pull the knees up to the chest to force out trapped gas. Symptoms usually occur within an hour after a feed, peak at six-weeks-old and decline at four-months-old.
Parents should seek medical advice before giving their baby gripe water or medications to relieve colic. Even herbal remedies may contain harmful ingredients, which can have adverse side effects.
Some Babies Cry Because Of Maternal Diet
There is no scientific evidence to suggest that vegetables, fruits, and dairy products in the maternal diet produce excessive intestinal gas in the baby. Nevertheless, chemical additives in processed foods and caffeine may lead to gastrointestinal distress in some breastfed babies.
Although rare, very sensitive babies may react adversely to wheat, eggs, or peanuts in breast milk. Crying that is not accompanied by an intestinal upset, a rash, or congestion, however, is probably not food-related. Keeping a journal with a record of foods eaten and the baby’s symptoms can be helpful in pinpointing problem foods.
Some Babies Cry Because Of Milk Protein Intolerance
If the baby has been recently introduced to formula and cries immediately after a feed, an allergic response to cow’s milk protein could be responsible. Crying may also be accompanied by other symptoms such as vomiting and diarrhoea. Formula milk, which has been specially treated or contains no milk proteins, can be given as an alternative, but only on the advice of a health professional.
Some Babies Cry Because Of Growth Spurts
Growth spurts generally occur between one and eight weeks, and between three and nine months and in short, intense bursts. The baby may quickly outgrow outfits, want to nurse more frequently, wake up sooner after naps, and cry more often. Massage and exercise can help relieve stress and tension in the muscles, joints, and ligaments.
Some Babies Cry Because Of Frustration Or Boredom
Babies may cry out in frustration when they cannot reach a toy or object, and when they attempt new skills. Frustration cries are common in three to six-month-old babies. When babies are bored, or in need of a change of activity or scenery, they may fuss and cry in a whiny way. Anew toy, getting out and about in the fresh air and seeing other babies and people can make a difference to the baby’s mood and sense of well-being.
Some Babies Cry Because Of Tiredness
Teething, immunisations, growth spurts, overstimulation, and exposure to environmental smoke or chemical contaminants can also cause irritability and poor sleeping patterns. High levels of artificial light can slow down the production of melatonin, a hormone that suppresses intestinal contractions and induces sleep. A darkened room will help babies to develop good sleeping habits. Tiredness signs include yawning, fussing, droopy eyelids, rubbing the eyes, stretching of the arms and legs, and loss of interest in people and toys.
Some Babies Cry Because Of Overstimulation
Too much attention, noise, bright lights, and unexpected or frequent changes in routine can lead to inconsolable crying, which generally peaks in the late afternoon or evening. Overstimulation signs include turning away from lights, sights and sounds, flailing of the arms and legs, resisting touch by objects and people, arching the back, and pushing the parent away. Despite cuddling, carrying, or desperate drives in the car, an overstimulated baby is very difficult to pacify. A daytime routine that includes frequent rest-breaks will rejuvenate the baby both mentally and physically.
Some Babies Cry Because Of Lack Of Attention
Babies cry when they need attention or close physical contact. A loving cuddle satisfies the baby’s emotional needs and reaffirms the parent-baby relationship, which results in a happier and more content baby.
Numerous studies (e.g. the theory of attachment) show that consistency and promptness in the maternal response leads to a decline in the frequency and duration of crying. Research also shows that carrying the baby in the parent’s arms or in a carrier for at least three hours during the day can significantly reduce crying and fussing that clusters in the evening.
Some Babies Cry Because Of Parental Tension & Anxiety
Inconsolable crying can make parents feel stressed, exhausted, and helpless in caring for their baby. However, the baby will quickly pick up on tension and emotions and the crying will escalate. Close family members may be able to hold the baby while the mother takes a break. Putting the baby in the cot or pram can give the mother a chance to unwind and regain her emotional strength.
As time goes on, parents become more familiar with their baby’s body language and are better able to interpret their different cries. Parents should be encouraged to seek professional advice if they feel, however, there is an underlying health or medical problem or if the baby continues to cry excessively in the fourth month.
About the Expert
Founder and director of the multi-award winning national and international baby and toddler activities, Baby Sensory and Toddler Sense, Dr Lin Day (PhD, M. Phil, PGCE, FETC, BSc, Dip Ed), is one of the UK’s leading parenting experts and a renowned author within the field of childcare and education. Lin is also the founder of the Baby Sensory Academy, an online ages and stages programme, and Baby Foundations, which offers information to new and expectant parents.
With over 35 years of teaching and practical experience working with parents and children, and driven by the commitment and passion to offer the best quality service, Lin aims to help provide the support and knowledge necessary to lead learning and development forwards from birth to five years. In sharing her knowledge with others, Lin hopes to inspire excitement for early education and make a difference to future generations.
Prior to running Baby Sensory and Toddler Sense classes, Lin trained as a paediatric nurse, led the first holiday scheme for disadvantaged children in Wiltshire, ran her own hugely popular nursery school for fifteen years, and taught and assessed childcare and education courses in the post-sixteen sector.