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Why is my baby crying? Our Vhi Paediatrician gives tips to soothe your child

5 minute read

Understanding why your baby is crying can be tough enough, let alone trying to soothe them. To put you on the right track, Vhi Consultant Paediatrician Dr. Caroline Lhopital draws on her vast clinical experience to bring you a comprehensive guide to drying those tears…

Dealing with a crying child can be stressful, but it really does serve a vital purpose. Your child crying is essentially their first way of communicating. While the message may seem quite crude in the beginning, cries will change over time to express different feelings, be it hunger, tiredness, frustration or fear. Parents’ ability to interpret the needs of crying babies is also likely to grow in parallel to this.

We know that all mammal babies cry, so it seems to be a way of evolution ensuring parents care for their offspring. Studies in healthy, non-colicky babies show that crying will be low in the first two to three weeks following birth. Newborn baby crying then increases to reach almost two hours per day at around four to six weeks of age, before improving back down to around one hour per day at around ten to twelve weeks. Colic is intense, unexplained crying that happens to roughly 20% of babies.

What are common reasons for a newborn crying?

It usually expresses a need, typically acting as a request for assistance with:

  • Hunger
  • Discomfort (from needing burping or a change of nappy, to being too cold or warm)
  • A need for reassurance or closeness

The timing and context of the crying should give parents a clue as to what’s going on. Or else just trying one thing after another until something works is a solution in itself. It’s a learning process!

What can you do to soothe a cranky baby?

You might have addressed the above needs but the crying hasn’t stopped. That overwhelming sense of “What do I do now?’ with a crying child in your arms is a feeling shared by all parents, no matter the amount of reading you’ve done or experience you’ve had. There are certain soothing techniques that may help control crying.

Taking the baby in your arms will answer a physiological need that often helps, so don’t worry about “spoiling” them or giving them too much attention. During the first three months, babies have an intense need for contact, gentle pressure and proximity, whether it’s skin-to-skin contact or gentle rocking.

Slings and baby carriers are also very helpful once you’re happy that you know how to use them safely. Remember, your baby’s head should always be supported, their nose and mouth should be visible, and their hips should be in a “frog” position.

Other than that, white noise or repetitive low singing can work. Lullabies have been sung to crying babies in all cultures since prehistoric times. 

Meanwhile, a baby crying during sleep might not immediately require picking up. Watch and wait to see if they’re ready to wake. If they need attention, the crying will escalate and you should then respond.

Are there other factors at play?

If they have had too much stimulation during the day, a baby may be crying from being overtired – feeling tired while still excited from all that information and getting very cranky as a result. You can help by reducing all environmental stimulation 1-2 hours before putting them to bed: soft lights, soft voices, soft-touch or as little touch as needed.

All babies drool from around two-three months and put their hands in their mouths at about four-six months. This is also when they cry the most, and most of them start having new teeth, so teething has often been blamed for a lot of those normal behaviours. That being said, some babies are really uncomfortable right before erupting a new tooth, with red cheeks, food aversion and fussiness. Usually, a suitable dose of painkiller helps in those cases. Local measures, such as a cold teething ring or gel, can help too.

Most parents find the answer on their own, but you can also seek help from your “support team”, be it family, friends, a GP or a public health nurse.

Vhi Paediatric Clinic

Occasionally, crying can point to an underlying pain or illness. Your child may seem “sloppy” in their movement or, on the contrary, stiffer and more tense than usual. In this case, check their temperature with a thermometer. All temperatures above 38°C in a baby less than three months old need to be checked by a doctor.

Does a baby’s cry change if they are sick?

Yes, it does. To doctors, intense, loud, piercing cries are not as worrying as you might think. But a small, continuous whining sound, especially if it is unusual, can be the sign of a baby too tired or too sick to cry properly.

Some communications happen on an instinctive level: if you are worried that your child’s crying is not as usual, even if you can’t pinpoint exactly what is wrong, get it checked.

Any key takeaways when soothing a crying baby?

  • There is no lying to a baby. If you’re not really “here” for your baby, they can feel that, even though you’re doing all the right things. Crying is a way of asking for that interaction. Sometimes, the best thing to do is to get help, leave them to someone else for a while and make time for yourself as an individual rather than a parent.
  • Every child is different. What worked for your eldest, or the neighbour’s daughter might not work for your newborn.
  • Trust your instincts. Very well-intentioned people, family members and even healthcare professionals will all have different advice. So, listen and decide what you feel will work best for you and your baby. Parenting is a learning process.

This content is for information purposes only and is not intended or implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Always seek advice from your GP or an appropriate medical professional if you have concerns about your health, or before commencing a new healthcare regime. If you believe that you are experiencing a medical emergency call 999 / 112 or seek emergency assistance immediately.

Meet our Vhi Verified Expert

Dr Caroline Lhopital

Consultant Paediatrician 

 Vhi Paediatric Clinic