Newborn baby crying

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.

Joanne Cummings, PhD, CPsych

Brenda S. Miles, PhD, CPsych