Soothing Your Crying Baby

From the WebMD Archives

Babies cry. That's a fact of life. But as a parent, you want to do whatever you can to make your bundle of joy, well....a bit more joyful. And let's face it, a crying baby doesn't do much for your nerves either.

Some babies cry more than others, but they all do cry, says Elizabeth Pantley, author of Gentle Baby Care. Why? "Simply put," says Pantley, "babies cry because they cannot talk. Babies are human beings, and they have needs and desires, just as we do, but they can't express them...their cries are the only way they can say, 'Help me! Something isn't right here!"

Your Crying Baby: What's He Trying to Say?

Babies have individual temperaments, just like adults do, says pediatrician Myron Rosen M.D. of Baylor Medical Center at Garland.

As you get to know your baby, you'll become the expert in understanding your own baby's cries, Pantley says, "Over time, you'll recognize particular cries as if they were spoken words." In addition to these cry signals, you often can determine why your baby is crying by the situation surrounding him. Some of the reasons for a crying baby are:

  • Hunger: If three or four hours have passed since his last feeding, if he has just woken up, or if he has just had a very full diaper and he begins to cry, he's probably hungry. A feeding will most likely turn a crying baby into a contented one.
  • Tiredness: Look for these signs: decreased activity, losing interest in people and toys, rubbing eyes, looking glazed, and the most obvious, yawning. If you notice any of these in your crying baby, he may just need to sleep.
  • Discomfort: If a baby is uncomfortable--too wet, hot, cold, squished-- he'll typically squirm or arch his back when he cries, as if trying to get away from the source of his discomfort. Try to figure out what's causing his distress and solve the problem.
  • Pain: A cry of pain is sudden and shrill, just like when an adult or older child cries out when they get hurt. It may include long cries followed by a pause during which your crying baby appears to stop breathing. He then catches his breath and lets out another long cry.Check your baby's temperature and undress him so you can check his body for any obvious sources of pain or discomfort.
  • Overstimulation: If the room is noisy, people are trying to get your baby's attention, rattles are rattling, music boxes are playing, and your baby suddenly closes her eyes and cries (or turns her head away), she may be overwhelmed by all that's going on around her and wants to find some peace. Take her out of the situation and spend some quiet time together.
  • Illness: A weak, moaning cry may indicate that your baby is sick. This is his way of saying, "I feel awful." If your baby seems ill, look for any signs of sickness and call your healthcare provider.
  • Frustration. Your baby is just learning how to control her hands, arms, and feet. She may be trying to get her fingers into her mouth or to reach a particularly interesting toy, but her body isn't cooperating. She cries out of frustration, because she can't accomplish what she wants to do. All she needs is a little help.
  • Loneliness: If your baby falls asleep feeding and you place her in her crib, but she wakes soon afterward with a cry, she may be saying that she misses the warmth of your embrace and doesn't like to be alone. Cuddling her back to sleep should do the trick.
  • Worry or fear. If your baby suddenly finds himself in the arms of Great Aunt Matilda and his happy cooing turns to crying, he's trying to tell you that he's scared. He doesn't know this new person, and he wants Mommy or Daddy. Explain to Auntie that he needs a little time to warm up to someone new, and try letting the two of them get to know each other while you hold your baby in your arms.
  • Boredom. Your baby has been sitting in his infant seat for 20 minutes while you talk and eat lunch with a friend. He's not tired, hungry or uncomfortable, but he starts a whiny, fussy cry. He may be saying that he's bored and needs something new to look at or touch. Turning his seat so he can see something new or giving him a toy to hold may help.
  • Colic. If your baby cries inconsolably for long periods every day, he may have colic. Babies with "colic" will cry for several hours a day, usually in the evenings, says Rosen. They are fine at other times of the day, and they eat and grow well. No one knows what causes colic, says Rosen, but one theory is that it is a way for the baby to "vent" after a long day of new experiences and stimuli. Just like adults, babies have differing abilities to tolerate new experiences. Whatever the cause of colic, you'll be happy to know that it doesn't usually last past 4 months of age, Rosen says.


Your Crying Baby: Meet Her Basic Needs

If you haven't yet learned to distinguish among your baby's different cries, just start with the basics, says Sherry Iverson, Director of Women's and Children's Community Education at St. Luke's Regional Medical Center in Boise, Idaho.

  • Feed the baby
  • Burp the baby
  • Change the diaper
  • Make sure clothing isn't too tight

Make sure baby isn't too hot, or too cold. Of course, there are plenty of times when you can't tell if your baby's crying is directly related to a fixable situation such as hunger or a dirty diaper, or just expresses a longing to be held. If you're not sure, take a deep breath and try some of the following cry-stoppers, says Pantley:

Hold your baby. No matter the reason for your baby's cry, being held by a warm and comforting person offers a feeling of security and may calm his crying. Babies love to be held in arms, slings, front-pack carriers, and (when they get a little older) backpacks; physical contact is what they seek and what usually soothes them best.

If you're worried that you'll "spoil" your baby by picking him up to stop his crying, don't let this thought deter you. "This is simply not the case. Babies are just telling their parents what they need," Rosen says, observing that infants, especially newborns, thrive on close physical contact. "You cannot "spoil" a baby by holding it," says Rosen. "The baby has been used to being very close to you for 9 months, and it takes time for him to get used to the idea of separating."

Breastfeed your crying baby. Nursing your baby is as much for comfort as food. Breastfeeding is an important and powerful tool for baby soothing.

Swaddle your baby. During the first three or four months of life, many babies feel comforted if you can re-create the tightly contained sensation they enjoyed in the womb.

Get your crying baby moving . Babies enjoy repetitive, rhythmic motion such as rocking, swinging, swaying, jiggling, dancing, or a ride in the car. Many parents instinctually begin to sway with a fussy baby, and for a good reason: It works.


Use white noise. The womb was a very noisy place. Not so long ago, your baby heard that noise 24 hours a day. Sometimes your baby can be calmed by "white noise" -- that is, noise that is continuous and uniform, such as that of a heartbeat, the rain, static between radio stations, and your vacuum cleaner. Some alarm clocks even have a white noise function.

Let your crying baby have something to suck on. The most natural pacifier is mother's breast, but when that isn't an option, a bottle, pacifier, baby's own fingers, a teething toy, or Daddy's pinkie can work wonders as a means of comfort.

Play music. Soft, peaceful music is a wonderful baby calmer. That's why lullabies have been passed down through the ages. You don't have to be a professional singer to provide your baby with a song; your baby just loves to hear your voice. In addition to your own songs, babies usually love to hear any kind of music. Experiment with different types of tunes, since babies have their own favorites that can range from jazz to country to classical, and even rock and rap.

Massage your crying baby. Babies love to be touched and stroked, so a massage is a wonderful way to calm a fussy baby. A variation of massage is the baby pat; many babies love a gentle, rhythmic pat on their backs or bottoms.

Distract your crying baby. Sometimes a new activity or change of scenery -- maybe a walk outside, or a dance with a song, or a splashy bath -- can be very helpful in turning a fussy baby into a happy one.

Your Crying Baby: Start by Soothing Yourself

Jennifer Shu and Laura Jana, authors of Heading Home with Your Newborn, suggest that along with soothing your infant, you need to soothe yourself. "It helps to try and stay calm, because a stressed-out parent can make the crying worse instead of better," they say.

"Give it time," they add. Some amount of crying is to be expected, and it's okay to put your baby down for a few minutes so you don't get so frustrated that you can't do much good (or worse, feel like hitting or shaking your baby).


Call a friend, relative, or neighbor to come over for support and/or take care of the baby while you take a break, adds St. Luke's Sherry Iverson. If no one is available to help and you need a break, put the baby in his crib. Make sure he is safe, close the door, and check on him every 5 minutes until you have regained your composure.

But when your crying baby won't quiet down no matter what you do, say Shu and Jana, it warrants a call to your doctor to rule out the possibility of anything serious. And if at any time you feel that you can't cope anymore, seek professional help, regardless of the cause.

For the most part though, says Sherry Iverson, all you need to do is be patient. "Take a deep breath, close your eyes, and count to ten!"

WebMD Feature


SOURCES: Elizabeth Pantley, Author, Gentle Baby Care; Sherry Iverson, Director, Women's and Children's Community Education, St. Luke's Regional Medical Center, Boise, ID; Myron Rosen, MD, pediatrician, Baylor Medical Center at Garland, Baylor Health Care System, Dallas, TX; Jennifer Shu, MD, Co-Author, Heading Home with Your Newborn; Laura Jana, MD, Co-Author, Heading Home with Your Newborn

© 2007 WebMD, Inc. All rights reserved.


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