What Does My Baby's Cry Mean?

What does your baby's cry mean?Many new mothers have trouble at first distinguishing the meaning of their baby’s cry. Is it the “I’m cold” cry or the “I have a tummy ache” cry?  The more time you spend with your baby, the sooner you will learn to interpret their cries. Sometimes babies cry for no apparent reason; other times the cause is obvious.

Babies cry for a myriad of reasons. “I’m hungry.” “I’m hot.” “I’m cold.” “I’m tired.” “I’m sick.” “I want to be held.” “I’ve had enough!” When other behaviors accompany the crying such as sucking on fingers or pulling on an ear, it’s easier to identify the cause of the crying. But, when crying occurs in the absence of other behaviors, parents usually embark on a process of elimination (massaging their baby’s tummy; picking him up; removing a layer of clothing; changing his diaper; checking his temperature; breastfeeding, etc.) in an effort to identify the cause of the crying. Remember, babies thrive on attention and may simply be crying because they want to be held, talked to or played with.

In the beginning, most parents find it difficult to determine the exact cause of their baby’s cry, particularly those cries that occur in the absence of other behaviors. The more time a parent spends with their baby, the sooner they will learn to interpret their cries. For example a soft, intermittent cry that slowly increases in intensity may signal hunger, while a loud, sudden, scream can be a sign of pain. A cry that is accompanied by eye-rubbing most likely means your baby needs sleep. Even the most experienced parent may find their babies’ cries hard to decipher at first. Over time, you will learn to interpret your baby’s cry and your ability to soothe your baby will improve as well.

Parents of newborns are urged to keep their babies nearby (within arm’s reach) during the day and at night for at least the first month after birth. This will ensure that sucking sounds, mouth movements, a finger caught in loose thread, a dirty diaper, or skin that is warm to the touch doesn’t go unnoticed. In those cases where there is no obvious cause, consider the most likely causes and begin by checking your baby’s diaper, adding or removing a layer of clothing, changing your baby’s position or breastfeeding your baby.

Babies who cry for three or more hours a day, three or more days a week for three or more weeks are often described as colicky. Unfortunately, the cause of “colic” is unclear and most treatments are inconsistent in terms of effectiveness. What makes the colicky cry different is not necessarily the sound, but the parent’s inability to console their baby. Attempts to deal with colic can be exhausting, so parents are urged to take care of themselves as well as their babies. If parents reach a point where they feel they can’t cope, they should put their baby in a safe place (crib or play yard) and go to another room to calm down. Ask a family member or friend for help, or, if necessary, contact your health care provider or your baby’s health care provider. 

The more time you spend with your baby, the sooner you will learn to identify those behaviors that signal a particular need and a specific cry.

Amy Spangler, MN, RN, IBCLC, is a world-renowned breastfeeding and child nutrition expert. A registered nurse as well as an International Board Certified Lactation Consultant, Spangler has worked in labor and delivery departments and OB/GYN clinics, helping women through pregnancy, birth, and parenting. She has published articles in numerous medical journals. During her career, Spangler has served as the Chair of the United States Breastfeeding Committee, helping draft important legislation on women’s health, and has worked as a consultant with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to advocate for breastfeeding awareness and education among the general population. In 1996, Spangler was elected President of the International Lactation Consultant Association (ILCA) and served a three-year tenure.

Published: April 2013


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