Babies cry for many reasons. Sometimes it’s obvious they’re hungry, tired or even bored; at other times, it can be less clear what they want. Babies don’t cry to annoy you — they are communicating a need in the only way they know how.
Why do babies cry?
The only way young babies know how to communicate is through crying. And in the first 3 months of life especially, crying helps to build a close relationship between parents and their baby. In very young babies, a couple of hours of crying in the late afternoons and evening are common.
The pitch and intensity of your baby’s cry are designed by nature to get you to respond quickly. As they mature, they’ll learn other ways to get their needs met. Be patient as you learn what your baby’s cries might mean and what they need.
Your baby’s individual personality and temperament influence their behaviour. Although all babies are sensitive, some need a little more frequent soothing and reassurance than others.
Will my baby's crying change as they grow?
A baby’s feeding, age, environment and temperament all have an impact on their behaviour. All babies go through changes in their crying patterns and sometimes it’s hard to work out why.
In the first 3 years of life, babies are developing connections or pathways in their brain and need consistent, nurturing care to feel safe. This takes a lot of energy from parents, who often feel tired and sleep deprived.
As your baby gets older, their sleep patterns will become more predictable. Newborns sleep between 14 and 17 hours of each 24-hour day. As they mature, they’ll need less sleep during the day and have more continuous sleep overnight.
What are some of the common reasons for crying?
Sometimes it may be hard to know why your baby is crying. But it’s helpful to be able to rule out a few of the more common causes of crying and to understand why your baby is upset.
Consider whether your baby might be:
- feeling uncomfortable — try changing their nappy and checking they’re not too hot or cold
- hungry, tired or have a tummy ache — overtired babies often cry loudly when they need to sleep
- in need of cuddles and reassurance
- not feeling well — sometimes crying is the only obvious sign that a baby is unwell
What are the best ways to settle a crying baby?
Most babies like to be picked up and held when they’re crying. Rocking, shooshing, swaying and patting can help them to settle.
Babies aged less than 3 months often respond well to being swaddled. This helps them to feel secure and supports longer sleep periods. Young babies often prefer settling in arms or hands on settling strategies until they learn more independent skills.
Camping out is a sleep technique that allows parents or carers to gradually teach babies who are at least 6 months to fall asleep by themselves.
Controlled comforting is a sleep-training strategy used to help babies learn to settle themselves.
Babies often calm with movement, which is why going for a walk with the pram or placing them in a sling or carrier can help.
Some babies are particularly sensitive to stimuli such as noise and lights and calm more quickly in a dark, quiet room. Others prefer some background sounds rather than a completely quiet environment.
Think about your own emotions when your baby is crying. Many parents say their baby 'picks up' on what else is going on in the household, especially when there’s tension. Try to be mindful and focus on staying calm and reassuring when your baby’s crying.
Tips for settling your baby
- Once you’ve checked the basics — they’re clean, dry, comfortable and fed — consider if they just need to be close to you. Often, babies don’t need anything 'done' for them, they just want to be held by the people they feel emotionally connected with.
- Hold your baby close to you and gently pat, rock or sway. Use a soothing, reassuring voice to let them know you’re there. Sometimes the only way you’ll be able to settle your baby is to hold them until they fall asleep. See your child health nurse if your baby always needs to be cuddled to sleep.
- Take a walk outside and have a change of scenery — this can help because it’s distracting.
- Try holding them in different positions in your arms. Offer skin-to-skin contact if they’re still very young.
- Offer a dummy if your baby has one.
- Give your baby a warm bath and a massage afterwards. Be sensitive to your baby’s cues; some babies love baths and others dislike being undressed.
- Offer your baby a comforting breastfeed. If your baby is bottle feeding, they may need some extra milk.
- If your baby is younger than 3 months, swaddle them with a light cotton or muslin wrap.
- Put some music on, try humming, singing a song or reading to your baby. The sound of your voice may be enough to soothe them.
- Hand them to another trusted adult. Have a break from the intensity of your baby’s crying.
No long-term harm is done when healthy babies have short term periods of crying. What’s important is that parents do what they can to provide calm reassurance.
Tips to settle a crying baby - video
Video provided by Raising Children Network.
What can I do to help avoid my baby crying?
Follow a regular settling routine - this will help your baby to feel secure and learn it’s time for sleep. A gentle, predictable wind-down period helps babies transition from being active to becoming calm. Learning your baby's tired signs, such as yawning, rubbing their eyes, grizzling and fussiness are common signs they need to sleep.
Try to separate your baby’s feeding and settling times. It’s normal and very common for young babies to go to sleep when they’re feeding and being held. Missing their ‘sleep window’ can lead to overtiredness, making it more difficult to settle.
Make sure they’re comfortable, warmly dressed and have a dry nappy. The best time for most babies to settle is after feeding. Try to place your baby in their cot when they’re still drowsy, rather than asleep in your arms.
Stay with them until they’re relaxed and drifting off to sleep. Support your baby to learn how to settle independently, without always needing your help.
How do I look after myself when my baby is crying?
Parenting can feel like a marathon rather than a sprint and it’s important to look after your own needs. This means eating regular, healthy meals, staying well hydrated, getting as much rest and sleep as possible and knowing when to ask for help. Accept all reasonable offers of support from the people closest to you.
Try to stay calm, even though your baby is upset. Practice some mindfulness exercises and deep breathing.
Understand that sometimes you won’t know what your baby wants. Try not to view their crying as something you need to 'fix', but instead see it as their primary means of communication.
What are the signs my baby is unwell?
Take your baby to a doctor if they have:
- an elevated temperature, higher than 38⁰C
- vomiting or diarrhoea
- difficulty breathing
- a rash, or pale or blue skin
- changes in their feeding pattern
- not as many wet or dirty nappies
You also shouldn’t be afraid to take your baby to the doctor if you are worried or sense something is not right.
What not to do when your baby is crying
It can be stressful and frustrating at times when your baby is crying, especially when you can't get them to settle down.
What’s important is that you never:
- shake your baby — this can cause bleeding in their brain, which can lead to brain damage and even death
- become angry with your baby, including raising your voice, smacking, or handling them roughly
- stay physically close to your baby when you feel you’re feeling angry
If you feel yourself becoming overwhelmed by your baby’s crying, place them in their cot and walk away. Return when you’re feeling calm. Be mindful of your own mental health and see your GP or child health nurse if you’re feeling anxious or depressed.
Speak to a maternal child health nurseCall Pregnancy, Birth and Baby to speak to a maternal child health nurse on 1800 882 436 or video call. Available 7am to midnight (AET), 7 days a week.
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Last reviewed: April 2021