Newborns usually spend 2 to 3 hours a day crying. Normal as it may be, a bawling baby can be distressing for infants and parents alike.
Babies sometimes wail for no obvious reason. But other times, they’re trying to tell you something with their tears.
Reasons for Crying
With a bit of common sense and sleuthing, you may be able to figure out how to comfort your baby.
During the first 3 months of their lives, newborns tend to feed as often as every couple of hours. When they want to feed, they usually make short, low-pitched cries that rise and fall.
How to soothe. Offer your breast or the bottle to see if it helps. Even if they’re not hungry, your infant may just want to suck on something for comfort. You can use a pacifier or have your baby suck on their own finger or thumb.
Babies who are tired often turn fussy instead of drifting off to sleep.
How to soothe. One of the best ways to encourage slumber is to swaddle your baby. Wrap them snugly in a blanket with only the head and neck peeking out. It mimics the mother’s womb. A change of scenery also may do the trick. Go for a walk with a stroller. Or pack your baby in a car seat: The lulling vibration of the car may get them to drift off. It may work to sometimes rock or nurse your baby to sleep. Or you could switch so your partner does the job. Sometimes you can put your baby in bed to fall asleep to singing or soothing tape recordings, for example. Set consistent nap and bedtime routines and habits. And "tank up" your baby with feedings every 3 hours during the day so they'll be less likely to wake up hungry during the night.
Tips from the American Academy of Pediatrics to establish good sleep habits include:
- Not letting your baby sleep as long during the day
- Putting your baby in the crib at the first sign of drowsiness
- Delaying your reaction to infant fussing starting at 4-6 months
A nursing mother may pass on what they eat through breast milk. That may upset a baby’s tummy. If it happens a lot, your infant may be allergic or sensitive to cow’s milk, nuts, wheat, or other foods.
How to soothe. If you think your baby has a food allergy, talk to your pediatrician. If you’re breastfeeding, your doctor may suggest you stop eating a single food (for example, milk or eggs) for a week to see if your baby’s fussiness lessens. If you’re using infant formula, ask your doctor about switching to a different formula.
Crying right after a feeding could be a sign of heartburn. But first, if your baby is bottled-fed, make sure that the discomfort isn’t just from swallowed air.
How to soothe. Take breaks and burp your baby often during meals. Feed them while they’re sitting up. You might try special nipples and bottles designed to prevent swallowing too much air. If that doesn’t help, reflux may be the culprit. Talk to your pediatrician. About 80% of the time, babies with mild reflux get better with thickened formula, staying away from cigarette smoke, and getting older.
About 1 in 5 newborns get this condition, which is marked by more than 3 hours of crying a day, three times a week. It usually happens during the first month after birth. These sudden crying jags may be louder and higher-pitched than usual. Your baby’s face might redden, their belly may bulge, and their legs may be bunched up.
How to soothe. It’s not clear what causes colic, but it usually stops on its own by 3 or 4 months. Until then, you might:
- Rock or walk with your baby.
- Run the vacuum or clothes dryer to lull them to sleep.
- Offer a pacifier.
- Ask your doctor if extracts of fennel, chamomile, or other herbal remedies might help.
- Take breaks for yourself so you can best care for your baby.
If your baby continues to cry for a long time, check with your doctor to make sure there isn’t something serious going on.
By 6 months, your child should be able to fall asleep and stay asleep on their own. But sometimes they might not want to go to bed without you. Even after they get into a sleep schedule, they may have trouble getting to sleep if they are sick or there are changes in the home.
How to soothe. Don’t feel guilty for ignoring your baby’s wail. Research shows that slowly letting your child cry out for longer and longer stretches of time before you check on them helps them learn to go to sleep faster and stay asleep longer than other methods.
Experts agree: there's not much parents can do to affect a baby's sleep cycle for at least the first month. The baby has no concept of day and night and doesn't connect night with sleep. That means: Be prepared to feed, rock, dance, sing, or hum the little one to sleep.
But at weeks 3-5, you can start signaling to your infant that night means sleep. Keep the lights off or very low during night feedings. Keep sounds quiet. After feeding, put baby back in the crib. Don't socialize. Between 6 and 12 weeks, start the habit of putting your baby down for naps and overnight sleep at the same times every day and night.
When to Call Your Doctor
Call your pediatrician right away if your crying baby:
- Has been inconsolable for more than 2 hours
- Has a temperature of more than 100.4 F
- Won’t eat or drink anything or is vomiting
- Isn’t peeing or has bloody poops, or doesn’t respond to anything
American Academy of Pediatrics: “Practicing Safety: Coping with Crying,” “Responding To Your Baby’s Cries,” “Getting Your Baby to Sleep,” “Calming a Fussing Baby,” “Colic Relief Tips for Parents.”
UpToDate: “Patient education: Colic (excessive crying) in infants (Beyond the Basics),” “Patient education: Acid reflux (gastroesophageal reflux) in infants (Beyond the Basics).”
Mayo Clinic: “Crying baby: What to do when your newborn cries,” “How to swaddle a baby.”
Pediatrics: “Behavioral Interventions for Infant Sleep Problems: A Randomized Controlled Trial.”
Cochrane Systematic Review -- Intervention: “Dietary modifications for infantile colic.”
Brett Kuhn, professor of psychology and pediatrics, University of Nebraska Medical Center; Director of Behavioral Sleep Medicine, Children's Sleep Disorders Center.