Understanding why your baby is crying

by Kaiser Permanente |
Young mother with her newborn baby son in sling at home.

Babies cry for all sorts of reasons. Your baby might cry because they are uncomfortable, overstimulated, hungry, or tired. Crying can also express emotion, which is why babies cry when they’re unhappy about something.

Your baby will cry if they are sick or in pain. However, this cry usually sounds different than their normal crying.

Your new baby cries to communicate with you. It’s normal for newborns to cry for up to three hours every day. Many babies seem to cry more in the late afternoon or early evening.

Myths about crying

There are many myths about crying babies. Many people believe that crying is good for newborns, but it isn’t true. Research shows that infants left to cry by themselves experience more stress than those who are held. Not comforting your infant when they cry also keeps them from trusting you, since you’re not taking steps to meet their needs.

Some people believe crying strengthens a newborn’s lungs, but there isn’t any proof of this. Those who cry a lot don’t necessarily have more lung capacity than quieter ones.

Others mistakenly think that a crying infant is trying to manipulate you. That simply isn’t true. Your baby cries because they need something. That need may be physical, social, or emotional, and they are counting on you to help them. Learning to read your baby’s cues will help you meet their needs and help them feel safe.

Soothing your baby

Fortunately, there are many things you can do to help calm your baby. You’ll need to experiment to see which work best for you.

To soothe your baby, try:

  • Bouncing your baby while standing or sitting down.
  • Creating a calm, dark, and quiet environment.
  • Holding your baby skin-to-skin as you rock them or walk around.
  • Gently touching, patting, and massaging your baby’s skin.
  • Letting your baby suck on a pacifier or their hands.
  • Playing white noise or running a fan or air purifier.
  • Making repetitive sounds over and over.
  • Warming your baby with warm water or soft blankets.
  • Holding your baby like a football, resting on their side.
  • Swaddling your baby, wrapping them snugly.

Catching crying early

You can often catch your baby as they start to cry to help prevent long, loud crying spells. Babies who get a quick response usually cry less often. By picking up your baby when they start to cry, you teach them that they can trust you. This helps strengthen the bond between you and helps improve your confidence as a parent.

Is this crying or colic?

“Persistent crying,” or colic, refers to when your baby cries and nothing you do calms them. Colic is defined as a baby crying more than 3 hours a day, more than 3 days a week, and for more than 3 weeks. This usually starts after their second week of life. Persistent crying prior to this age is usually not colic, and other reasons for crying should be considered.

The good news is that 95% of persistent criers are healthy and thriving. Persistent crying (just like all newborn crying) improves by the time the baby is 12-16 weeks old.

Only 25%-30% of persistent criers have problems with digestion, and it is usually not related to the mother’s diet. If you suspect your baby has digestion pain, make an appointment with your baby’s doctor.

Some persistent criers have especially sensitive or underdeveloped nervous systems, so look for excessive stimulation in your baby’s environment and ways to eliminate it.

The Period of PURPLE Crying is a program designed by leading experts on infant crying. It offers detailed information on why babies cry and tips for soothing them. For more information, go to purplecrying.info.

What if crying stresses you out?

Sometimes no matter what you do, your baby will continue to cry. If you’ve tried many ways to soothe your baby and nothing seems to work, you can walk away for a few moments. Be sure to put the baby down in their crib or another safe place. Take a few deep breaths, then try soothing them again. Start with skin-to-skin contact.

You can also ask your partner, a family member, or a friend to watch your baby for you. If you need a break, this ensures your baby is still looked after while you’re not there. Try going for a walk or taking a shower to help you reset so you can try again.

When to call your clinician

Contact your baby’s clinician if they cry for more than three hours every day. You should also let someone know if you’re having trouble staying calm yourself when your baby cries. We can help you better manage your feelings as you adjust to having a newborn in the house.

This article has been created by a national group of Kaiser Permanente ob-gyns, certified nurse-midwives, pediatricians, lactation consultants and other specialists who came together to provide you with the best pregnancy, birth, postpartum, and newborn information.

Some of the content is used and adapted with permission of The Permanente Medical Group.