Understanding Your Baby’s Cries

Author // Pinky McKay, IBCLC

One of the inevitable realizations experienced by new parents is that there are times when your baby will cry, and be seemingly inconsolable. This often leaves you, the parent, feeling inadequate, frustrated or as though you’ve done something wrong. But the first rule of the crying game is “don’t blame yourself.” It’s not your fault, or anybody’s, that your baby cries—and cries! According to a University of London study, there is no correlation between persistent crying and a stressful environment, inadequate parenting, obstetric complications, breastfeeding vs. bottle feeding, birth order or sex.

Crying is your baby’s first language. It’s pretty much the only way an infant can express feelings like discomfort, hunger, exhaustion and loneliness. By understanding your baby’s cries, you will find that you can comfort your baby more often, and more easily, than you might have initially thought.

Crying is also the only way your baby can release pent-up stress. He might be saying, “I don’t feel right; please help me.” As your baby grows, he will learn other ways to communicate—through facial expressions, body language and, eventually, by telling you how he feels and what he needs. For now, though, here are some tips to help you soothe the sobs.

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Learn Your Baby’s Language

By learning your baby’s pre-cry signals—wriggling, anxious facial expressions, little grimaces, flailing arms, “rooting” at the breast, changes in breathing and little noises that say, “I am working up to a cry,” you will be able to see when he is bored, frightened, hungry, tired or overwhelmed. By responding accordingly, you may be able to avert full-blown crying.

Offer Womb Service

Ease the transition from womb to room by snuggling your baby against your bare skin, letting him feel your heartbeat. In the early weeks, protect your little one’s senses by avoiding sudden movements, changes in temperature, loud noises, bright lights and excessive handling by “strangers.”

Feed Him Well

Tiny tummies don’t hold enough food to go for long between feedings—day or night. If you are breastfeeding, remember, the more your baby nurses, the more milk you will produce. He needs to suck long enough to get the more satisfying hind-milk, which is thicker, richer and higher in calories. The best way to do this is to watch your baby, not the clock. Allow him to decide when he is finished at the first breast before you switch sides.

Respond Quickly

If you leave your baby to cry, she will become more upset as her crying picks up momentum. Soon she won’t even know why she was crying in the first place, and she will be much harder to soothe. If you are breastfeeding, it is particularly important to respond quickly to hunger cues. A baby who has worked up to a full-blown cry will have a less efficient latch, or she may only nurse for a short time before she falls asleep from exhaustion.

Wear Your Baby

Studies have shown that carrying your baby may minimize crying. Having her in a sling against your own warm body will reduce your baby’s stress levels and help relieve symptoms of colic and reflux. Baby-wearing is also reputed to help babies adapt more quickly to a day/night sleep cycle. As an added bonus, you’ll have both hands free!

Try the “Colic Carry”

If your baby is restless, don’t hold her in a cradle (feeding) position. There are various other positions for holding and carrying your baby which she might find soothing:

  • Lay your baby face-down across your arm, her cheek at your elbow.

  • Carry her with her backbone against you, with her knees pulled up toward her stomach.

  • Lay your baby tummy-down across your knees, perhaps with a warm water bottle on your lap.

  • Hold your baby up against your shoulder and walk around, or gently rock her back and forth.

Offer Your Finger

Sucking is comforting to babies and helps them relax. However, the different sucking action between breast and a pacifier could cause “nipple confusion” in the early weeks, so offer a clean finger to suck on if it is inconvenient to offer a breast, or if your baby isn’t hungry.

Wrap Her Up

Primitive survival reflexes—such as the startle reflex, which produces spontaneous, jerky movements, even in sleep—can be upsetting to your baby. Provide a sense of security by swaddling your baby—wrapping her firmly in a blanket.

Soak Away the Sobs

A bath will often soothe a tense, crying baby. Try a deep, warm relaxation bath. If your baby is over three months, you can add a few drops of lavender or chamomile oil for their added calming effects.

Kick Butt

Studies show that the risk of colic is increased whenever a parent smokes. Not only does smoking increase the risk of SIDS in the short term (and countless other diseases in the long term), it also inhibits prolactin, the hormone that aids relaxation and milk flow. So be sure to quit. If you (or anyone in your house) must smoke, smoke outside, far away from your baby.

Consider Food Intolerance

If you are breastfeeding, don’t discount the possibility that crying spells can be related to your diet. Keep note of your baby’s crying episodes and what you have eaten. If there appears to be a link, eliminate the suspected food for at least a week. Common culprits are caffeine, dairy, citrus, chocolate and peanuts.

Offer a Gentle Touch

With warm hands and warm oil, massage your baby when she is calm, so she associates your gentle touch with relaxation. Tummy massage can aid in digestion and help ease constipation. Massage in a clockwise direction—the direction that food travels. If your baby has some gassy discomfort, alternate massaging her tummy with bending her knees.

Beat the Blues

If your baby has a regular fussy time or suffers from colic, try to preempt the wails with a combination of massage and a relaxation bath about an hour before her usual crying time. Sing Soothing Sounds Sing a lullaby, incorporating your baby’s name, or play calming classical music.

Take Care of Yourself

Eat well, especially at breakfast, to maintain your energy level. Take a high-quality multivitamin, exercise to stimulate your endorphins, and snuggle up with your baby during the afternoon. A little siesta can have a marked effect on your milk supply as well as your stamina, and may help ease your baby’s (and your own) stress levels.

About the Author:

Pinky MckayPinky McKay is an international board certified lactation consultant, infant massage instructor, mother of five and the author of Parenting by Heart, 100 Ways to Calm the Crying, Sleeping Like a Baby, Toddler Tactics and her baby massage DVD, Gentle Beginnings. Based in Melbourne, Pinky regularly holds workshops and is available for mothers groups and conferences. Her website is

Pathways Issue 26 CoverThis article appeared in Pathways to Family Wellness magazine, Issue #26.

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