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Crying in Babies

Parents are programmed to find their baby’s cries distressing. When your baby cries, you will try hard to meet his needs. Your baby’s crying, and your response to his crying, is your first shared language. When your baby is soothed by your response to his cry, you feel competent. When your baby’s crying is frequent, intense, and difficult to soothe, you can feel frustrated or anxious. The information here will help you understand your baby’s crying.

What do we know about crying in the first three months of life?

  • Some babies cry more than others.

  • All babies fuss and cry most in the late afternoon or early evening.

  • All babies cry more in the first three months of life than later in development.

  • Many studies have shown that during the first three months of life, the crying of babies follows a developmental pattern. This pattern is called the crying curve. Crying begins to increase at two or three weeks of age, peaks at around six to eight weeks of age, and gradually declines to the age of 12 weeks. Some other studies have shown different peaks of crying, but all studies agree that maximum crying occurs in the first three months of life.

  • Much crying in the first three months is unexplained, in the sense that it starts and ends without warning and may not respond to comforting or feeding.

Do different cries mean different things?

There is some difference of opinion among scientists about whether different types of early cries have different meanings. However, there is emerging consensus that babies’ cries are a graded signal, with increased pitch or intensity indicating greater distress, but not the precise cause.

Nevertheless, you will find that you are usually able to correctly guess your baby’s needs based on the sound of his cry. At about three months of age, crying becomes much more interactive, and your baby will use different cries to mean different things. This change coincides with the baby’s growing social competence. Here are some general guidelines about types of crying.


Your baby’s hunger cry can begin quietly and slowly, but it builds in volume, becoming loud and rhythmic. Unless you have fed your baby recently and are certain he had enough to eat, try feeding your baby.


The typical pain cry is high-pitched, tense, harsh, non-melodious, sharp, short, and loud.


Your baby may cry in a mild, intermittent way when he is upset. Most babies have a “fussy time,” usually in the late afternoon or early evening. The sound of fussy crying differs from a hunger cry, but like the hunger cry, it can grow in volume.

Some of the reasons for this type of crying can include:

  • Your baby wants to be held. This is often an effective technique to quiet your baby. Newborn babies have just emerged from a confined space and may find the wide open spaces of a crib frightening.

  • A wet or soiled diaper is causing discomfort.

  • Your baby is tired. Sometimes babies become frustrated when they cannot fall asleep.

  • Your baby is over- or under-stimulated. Use the context to decide whether to reduce or increase interaction or environmental sources of stimulation such as music or light.

Remember, during the first three months of life, fussy crying may be unexplained as noted above, and may start and stop regardless of what a parent does.

Abnormal crying

Very high-pitched crying, up to three times higher than a normal infant cry, that persists, or in some cases very low-pitched crying that persists, can be associated with severe or chronic illness. This type of crying is markedly dissimilar from any normal infant cries, and is not to be confused with the excessive crying often identified as colic.

Crying: What you can do

Regardless of how much crying your baby does, it can wear on your nerves, especially when you are tired.

Here are a few tips to deal with crying:

  • Try your best to keep calm. If you are able to keep calm while your baby is crying, you will be better able to read your baby’s signals. Try to maintain your composure and speak to your baby in a soft, soothing voice when he cries.

  • Realize the power of touch. When babies are distressed, they often need human touch in order to relax and calm down. Touching your baby helps to reduce his stress level, and teaches him that he is safe. When he feels safe, he will be better able to calm down and relax. Try carrying your baby more, as this can reduce normal bouts of crying. Consider using a baby carrier or sling so that you can go about your routines as your newborn snuggles close to you.

  • Follow your baby’s schedule. For example, if your baby has a specific time each evening when the crying and fussiness peaks, try not to schedule activities at that particular time. Consider having your evening meal at an earlier time.

  • Take a break from your baby. Find a neighbour or friend who can watch your baby for a few minutes while you escape for a walk around the block. Don’t worry that your friend will find it difficult to take care of a crying baby for that amount of time. If you are alone and you feel like you are becoming too frustrated or agitated, try placing your baby in a safe place such as his crib, and escaping to the backyard for a few minutes.

  • Get some sleep. Try to grab a nap when your baby sleeps during the day, especially if your baby fusses and cries at night. If you can, ask a friend to come over for an hour or two, to watch your baby while you catch up on your sleep.

  • Weather permitting, take your baby outdoors for a walk in a carriage or stroller, or for a drive in the car.

Undoubtedly, you will receive a lecture or two from older, well-meaning relatives who think you are spoiling your baby by responding to his every cry. Rest assured that you cannot spoil a newborn baby. When you respond quickly to your newborn baby’s cries, you are teaching him to feel secure, safe in the knowledge that you are there to take care of him. When you pick up your newborn baby to console him, be proud that you followed your parental instincts, and don’t fall victim to the opinions of others who do not know what your baby really needs.

Joanne Cummings, PhD, CPsych





Brenda S. Miles, PhD, CPsych