Crying in newborns

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Crying in newborns is part of normal development. Learn how to effectively recognize the different types of cries your newborn baby might have.

Key points

  • Some babies cry more than others but studies show that the maximum crying occurs in the first three months of life.
  • Different cries can mean your baby is trying to communicate different things such as hunger, pain or fussiness.
  • Very high-pitched crying that persists, or in some cases very low-pitched crying that persists, can be associated with illness.

Parents are programmed to find their baby’s cries distressing. Your baby’s crying, and your response to their crying, is your first shared language. When your baby is soothed by your response to their 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, but all babies cry more in the first three months of life than later in development.
  • During the first three months of life crying 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 about 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.
  • Crying in the first three months is often unexplained. It starts and ends without warning and may not stop no matter what you try.
  • Babies can cry as much as 5 hours a day and often more in the late afternoon or evening.

Do different cries mean different things?

Babies’ cries can mean different things but it may take time for parents and caregivers to learn what each cry means. As your baby develops, you will find that you are usually able to correctly guess your baby’s needs based on the sound of their 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 a baby’s social development. Here are some general guidelines about types of crying.

Hunger

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 they had enough to eat, try feeding your baby.

Pain

The typical pain cry is high-pitched, tense, harsh, non-melodious, sharp, short and loud. A crying baby may also look like they are in pain even when they are not.

Fussiness

Your baby may cry in a mild, intermittent way when they are 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.
  • A wet or soiled diaper is causing discomfort.
  • Your baby is tired. Sometimes babies become frustrated when they cannot soothe themselves to 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 or caregiver does.

Abnormal crying

As parents and caregivers get to know your baby’s different types of cries, they can usually be identified by a change in the pitch, pattern or volume of the cry. Sometimes an abnormal cry is a sign that your baby is ill. Bring your baby to a health-care provider if you are concerned about a change in your baby’s cry. Seek immediate medical attention if your baby has a change in their cry and also has:

  • fever
  • pain
  • poor feeding or
  • vomiting

Your child may show physical changes when their condition is serious or when their condition gets worse. Parents and caregivers can learn how to spot these signs in order to seek help from a health-care provider.

Last updated: February 13th 2024