Why Babies Cry and What Their Wails Mean
Those big screams and little tears are your baby’s way of communicating needs.
Expert Sources: Tammy Johnson; James J. McKenna, PhD; Dale Rosin, DO
If a baby fails to offer a strong cry immediately following birth, we worry. If that same baby cries a whole lot once they leave the hospital, we worry!
Though everyone knows that infants cry, new parents may have a difficult time deciphering whether they have a fussy baby or should worry. They may also question the meaning of baby’s cries or struggle to know how much crying is normal. Of course, this learning curve sharpens as we realize that the spectrum of “normal” is vast and that every child is different.
Our experts help clarify when parents should consult a pediatrician and when not to worry.
A Means of Survival
The most important thing for a new parent to remember is that crying is not only normal—it’s good! It’s how a very vulnerable infant, who can’t yet move, feed, or understand that people who leave the room come back, expresses needs and wants.
James J. McKenna, PhD, director of the Mother-Baby Behavioral Sleep Laboratory and professor and endowed department chair of anthropology at the University of Notre Dame, in Notre Dame, Indiana, says, “When all is considered, it is dangerous to be an infant … Crying is the infant’s primary mode of communication, and it functions not just to accommodate infant needs but [also] to bring the caregiver close. Proximity to the caregiver is critical to the infant’s survival.”
The closeness that Dr. McKenna refers to means many things. Physical closeness both protects the infant from possible danger and helps immature biorhythms regulate. It also facilitates trust and emotional well-being and allows parents to better understand their babies.
Another benefit of crying for the infant is the discharge of built-up energy. Much like how an adult may feel better after a good cry, the release relaxes baby in a similar way.
“Charge of emotion builds up—anyone, even a baby, needs to relieve that tension,” notes Dale Rosin, DO, a child psychiatrist in Somerville, New Jersey. “Sometimes the baby needs to get out feelings. Feelings from birth, feelings perhaps transferred from a new mother’s anxiety.”
All you need to do is observe a baby’s face for any five-minute period to see that it is intensely sensitive. You’ll see expressions of worry, frustration, euphoria, love, contentment, and possibly even loneliness. Crying helps babies let those feelings out.
The Different Cries
Many wonder whether different types of cries can be translated into a baby’s cues. Is there a universal guide to interpreting an infant’s cries?
“I think, yes,” says Tammy Johnson, a birth and postpartum doula, lactation counselor, and parent educator in Burnsville, Minnesota. “Just as there are vocalizations we, as humans, make universally when communicating or experiencing situations—such as the vocalizations during the stages of labor or even the different sounds people make during sex—there tend to be universal truths in the type of sounds heard in crying.”
A shrill cry might mean panic or fear. A sharp cry often signifies pain. A whiny and persistent cry could indicate hunger or sleepiness; a sad cry, loneliness.
This breakdown of how cries usually sound gives an idea of how one might interpret the cries by listening, empathizing, and paying attention.
“If you view a child crying too mechanically, you’re not in emotional contact,” explains Dr. Rosin. Emotional contact refers to one of the kinds of closeness Dr. McKenna described as crucial to survival. That closeness, that bond, is exactly what will allow a parent to become an expert at interpreting different cries.
When to Worry
An emotionally connected mother will know when something is cause for concern, and in the face of such certainty, no one, not even a doctor, a doula, or an in-law, should doubt her.
“Crying in the presence of other symptoms, like many attempts to feed a baby with refusals or pulling away, for instance, would be cause for concern,” cautions Johnson. “It might mean the baby is under the weather; it might mean the baby has thrush.”
Dr. Rosin adds that it may be time to worry if a child cries incessantly without relief. This could indicate pain, such as an ear infection.
Should parents be concerned if they have a colicky baby? Concerned for their own mental health, perhaps. Although the term “colic” dates back many years, it is still somewhat of a mystery. Generally speaking, the excessive crying of colic can be defined by the Rule of Threes:
- Lasts for approximately three hours in a stretch
- Happens at least three days per week
- Lasts for longer than three weeks
If the incessant crying doesn’t abide by these rules, it is likely the result of a rough patch or developmental growing pains.
While there is no known cause of colic, it is frequently linked to tummy troubles and is often used to describe trapped gas, even in adults.
But if you ask a family deep in the trenches of infant colic, they will vehemently express that it is not “just bad gas.” They have likely tried endlessly to burp their baby and explored remedies such as gripe water, probiotics, and different feeding positions.
Whatever the potential cause of colic—be it gas, early onset migraines, or something else entirely—it is imperative that parents trying to cope with the situation practice good self-care for the sake of their mental health. Additionally, parents should also take measures to keep baby as comfortable as possible. One way to do this is by wearing the baby, both during episodes of colic and throughout the day. The upright position will help with gas, the intimate snuggle will eliminate sensory overstimulation, and the proximity to a parent will help regulate out-of-control impulses.
Responding to Baby’s Cries
For at least the first year of a child’s life, it is imperative that caregivers respond to an infant’s cries. This is important for their emotional development and, in part, shapes the way in which the child will view the world. Still, parents should also be mindful of how they respond to their baby’s wails.
“There are two extremes in which parents might continuously handle crying in an ineffective way,” explains Dr. Rosin. “The first is to rush in and frantically try to put a stop to it. The other extreme is adopting the idea that you have to let a baby cry alone.”
Dr. Rosin points out that somewhere in the middle is more reasonable. You can allow your tot to cry while still communicating via a gentle touch or response to a basic need, that you are there.
That being said, waiting a beat to collect yourself or to see if your little one self-soothes and settles down on its own will not cause your baby harm. If you need a break during a particularly intense crying session, it’s perfectly OK to give yourself a two-minute breather.
Remember that your own intuition is your biggest teacher in terms of understanding, responding to, and coping with your baby’s cries. Never doubt that you know your baby best, and if their cries leave you feeling like something is off, don’t hesitate to reach out to their health care provider.