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A midwife’s guide to understanding newborn cries

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Newborns communicate through cries, and understanding them is an important part of parenting. Cries can tell us if a baby is hungry, tired, or in pain. They can also tell us if a baby needs to be cuddled or just wants some attention. Knowing how to interpret these cries can help parents respond quickly and accurately to their newborn’s needs. With the right knowledge and understanding of newborn cries, parents can create a more peaceful home for their little one.  Here is our experience with our baby's crying and an explanation from a midwife to understand different baby crys.

Our experience with baby crying

As Reuben is now two years old I feel like we are (finally) coming out of the baby stage and hopefully leaving a lot of the crying stages behind us.  To be replaced with terrible two tantrums instead, then troublesome threes and so on I’m sure!  Luckily Reuben and Bella weren’t huge criers, they tended to only cry to alert me to something they needed.  The first few weeks, perhaps 6-8 weeks or so, were definitely the hardest with regards to crying. 

Bella used to cry in the evenings.  It was as though a switch went off at 6pm and it was crying time!  This went on until midnight at first and the only thing that would settle her was walking up and down the room with her over our shoulder, bobbing up and down and patting/rubbing her back.  She even knew if we sat down!  We could hold her the same and comfort her in the same way as if we were standing up, but she knew we weren’t standing up and start crying again!  Up and down the hall way and round and round the living room in laps, taking it in turns was our evening ritual for so many evenings.  

Gradually over the first few weeks these six hours reduced down and down, until eventually this evening crying stopped.  We continued to have crying and be woken during the night for several months still, but usually because Bella wanted a feed.  I gradually worked out what the cries meant and mostly knew what Bella wanted.

Reuben never had the same evening crying patch as Bella.  Don’t get me wrong, he sure could cry, but there wasn’t a pattern to it.  The funny thing was I thought everything would come totally naturally with the second and I’d know what all his different cries meant as I’d learned with Bella, but every baby is different.  It took me a few weeks with Reuben to work out most of his cries and what he wanted.

When you arrive home from the hospital, especially with your first, it can be pretty daunting once they start crying (don’t be fooled by the reasonably quiet first few days when they mostly sleep!)  But over time you’ll work out what most of the different cries mean and how to comfort your baby. 

Top 9 reasons why your baby might cry and what to do

Healthcare brand Care and Penny Lazell, a qualified midwife and independent health visitor are here with advice to help you comfort your little one.

“Babies are genetically programmed to call out for comfort when distressed”, says Penny. “Crying is your baby’s way of getting you to understand what they need as their brain isn’t developed enough to manage this on its own. Babies do not cry to exercise their lungs or to annoy you! They cry when they need to alert you to something that is bothering them, either physically or emotionally, and require you to meet their needs. The more these needs are met and understood over time, the less your baby will cry as you will learn to understand what they want before they become upset.”

1. Hunger

  • “Young babies’ brains are not developed enough to anticipate hunger”, says Penny. “Therefore when they realise they’re hungry, a message goes directly to the brain to alert the baby to let their carer know they need feeding. This can happen very quickly and the force and escalation of the cry often catches parents out and can be quite worrying.”
  • What to do: “If your baby has not been fed for 2- 4 hours then they may be hungry. If they are soothed immediately by a breast or bottle then that’s probably what they were trying to tell you. Over time, babies will learn to regulate their feeds and often manage to have longer gaps in between, which will help you anticipate when the feed is due and reduce crying.”

2. Wet or dirty nappy

  • “All babies are different so some don’t mind a slightly dirty nappy while others will cry as soon as it has been filled”, explains Penny. “Often babies will open their bowels straight after feeding so if they start to cry after a feed, it may be that they have a dirty nappy.”
  • What to do: “A cry for a wet or dirty nappy is often mistaken for them still being hungry. Try to change your baby’s nappy frequently to avoid distress.”

3. Tiredness

  • “Your baby yawning, rubbing their eyes, becoming fidgety, or disengaging are all signs of tiredness”, reveals Penny. “Once a baby becomes overtired, they find it really difficult to calm down again. This often causes anxiety for the parent and in turn the baby picks up on this and is even less likely to calm down.”
  • What to do: “A change of environment or someone different soothing the baby may help”, recommends Penny. “Or sometimes just allowing your baby to start using their own self-regulation; placing them in their cot with you nearby may actually give them permission to fall asleep.”

4. Pain

  • “Cries from pain can be quite frightening and are often very different to those of hunger or tiredness”, says Penny. “They tend to be more high pitched and have quite a sudden onset.”
  • What to do: “Trust your gut instinct. If you think your baby’s cry is one of pain, take their temperature and check them over. It may just be that a piece of clothing is tight or they are in an uncomfortable position. If the cry continues seek medical advice.”

5. Boredom

  • “The brains of young babies are wired to crave attention so they can start to learn about the world. For this reason they become bored very quickly and will often alert you on a regular basis that they want you”, explains Penny. “Although this can mean you find little time to get things done, it is very important to respond to these cries to ensure your baby’s brain develops.”
  • What to do: “Babies learn from you so try to set aside time to provide short periods of stimulating activities. This could just be talking to them or singing. They love your voice and eye contact. Try to avoid putting them in front of a TV. Even watching you hang the washing out is fun for them even if not for you!”

6. Over stimulation

  • “This can be as hard to deal with as boredom. Babies’ brains are like sponges but can only take so much at a time. An over stimulated baby will become very fretful and can be difficult to settle which may be mistaken for many other things.”
  • What to do: “If your baby appears to be fretful and isn’t settling with rocking or cuddling, try taking them to a quiet low lit room and just hold them still, gently sshshhing and talking to them. It may take a little while to settle them but stick with it.”

7. Wanting a cuddle

  • “Babies have emotional needs and having spent nine months tucked up in a nice cosy womb feeling secure, they can often feel a little lost when out in the big wide world”, adds Penny. “Cuddling babies is important for their emotional development and for growing their ability to self-regulate themselves.”
  • What to do: “Don’t be afraid to cuddle your baby. It will not make them clingy, in fact, it will help them become more independent.”

8. Being too hot or too cold

  • “Babies have immature temperature regulation which means parents have to regulate it for them”, recommends Penny. “Babies lose heat from their heads so you should leave this uncovered. If a baby looks red with their crying it may be that they are too hot.”
  • What to do: “Start by removing a layer of clothing from your baby. You may also need to check their temperature to see if they are hot due to a fever. Equally babies may alert you to being cold by crying. Try to remember to always be aware that this may be a reason for their crying.”

9. Transient Lactase Deficiency

  • The available evidence states that the immature digestive system of babies can struggle making enough lactase to digest the lactose (a natural milk sugar found in breast and formula milk) in their feed, which can induce colicky symptoms. This is called Transient Lactase Deficiency. Guidelines from both the National Institute of Clinical Excellence (NICE) and the NHS Choices website suggest that Transient Lactase Deficiency could be an underlying cause of infantile colic, and that a one week trial of a Lactase Enzyme Drop is worth a try in colicky infants.
  • “Transient Lactase Deficiency is a common occurrence in young babies”, says Penny. “It can make them very uncomfortable and difficult to settle, which can lead to increased stress for both baby and parent.”
  • What to do: “Introducing a lactase enzyme drop with feeds can often resolve the problem without having to move to or change formula.”