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Babies, crying

Introduction

All babies cry, particularly during the first few weeks after birth.  Babies cry when they need something, but it does not always mean that something is wrong.  Babies may cry if they:

  • are hungry
  • are tired
  • want a cuddle

Finding out why your baby is crying is often a matter of working through all the possible options.  If there is no obvious cause for the crying, a number of techniques can be used to soothe a crying baby, such as listening to music or going for a walk.

Coping with crying

When a baby cries, it can be distressing for parents or carers. A crying baby can  disturb sleep and cause stress or anger. When faced with a baby who will not stop crying, it is important to take time to relax, and if necessary, calm down.

Ask a family member for assistance or contact a charity, such as Cry-sis, which specialises in helping families with crying, sleepless and demanding babies.

When to seek medical advice

If your baby's crying seems abnormal in any way, for example if it is a very high-pitched cry or a whimper, seek medical advice.

Crying can sometimes be a sign that your baby is unwell.  If in doubt, visit your GP or contact NHS Direct Wales on 0845 4647.

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Causes

Babies cannot talk so they use crying as a way of expressing themselves and communicating their needs. Sometimes, it can be hard to work out why your baby is crying. Some common causes include:

  • hunger
  • thirst
  • a wet or soiled nappy
  • tiredness
  • trapped wind 
  • being too hot or cold
  • loneliness (wanting bodily contact or your attention)
  • boredom 
  • being uncomfortable, for example if their clothing or covers are too tight
  • being over-stimulated or frightened, for example if there is too much noise or activity
  • colic (see below)

Colic

Colic is a very common in newborn babies and usually begins a few weeks after birth. Colic causes excessive crying. Your baby will sound miserable and distressed and can be difficult to calm.

Another symptom of colic is a change in posture.  For example, your baby may draw their knees up towards their chest.

The cause of colic is unknown. Some research has suggested that the condition may occur because your baby's digestive system is still developing during the first few weeks of life. Sometimes, the developing digestive system becomes sensitive to certain substances found in breast and formula milk, such as lactose (a natural sugar). See Colic for more information.

When to seek medical advice

Within a few weeks, you will often start to recognise what your baby's crying means. If you are concerned about the way your baby is crying or their crying seems unusual, contact your GP, or call NHS Direct Wales on 0845 4647.

Your baby's cry can sometimes be a sign that they are unwell. Always trust your instincts. If you think that your baby is unwell, look for other signs and symptoms. Seek medical attention as soon as you can if your baby:

  • has a weak, high-pitched, continuous cry
  • seems floppy when you pick them up
  • takes less than a third of their usual amount of fluids, passes much less urine than usual, vomits green fluid or passes blood in their faeces (stools)
  • has a high temperature (fever) of 38C (100.4F) or above if they are less than three months old, or 39C (102.2F) or above if they are between three and six months old
  • has a high temperature but their hands and feet feel cold
  • has a bulging fontanelle (the soft spot at the top of a baby’s head)
  • has a fit (seizure) turns blue, blotchy or very pale has a stiff neck
  • has breathing problems, such as breathing fast or grunting while breathing, or they seem to be working harder than usual to breathe (for example, sucking in under the ribcage)
  • has a spotty, purple-red rash anywhere on their body (this could be sign of meningitis, which is a serious infection)
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Recommendations

When your baby cries, it can be stressful for both you and your child. Sometimes, you will know what their cry means and you can take the appropriate action. On other occasions, you may find it more difficult to stop your baby crying.

The first step is to rule out all of the common causes of crying, such as hunger, or a soiled nappy. See Causes for more information about the common causes of babies crying. If feeding or nappy changing does not help, then there are a number of other things you can try to soothe your baby:

  • Keep your baby close. Try using a baby carrier or sling so that you can maintain bodily contact.
  • Give your baby something to suck, such as a sterilised (clean) dummy.  Some babies suck their thumbs instead.  Sucking can often be very reassuring and settling for a baby.
  • Play your baby some music.  Try playing some soothing, relaxing music or singing a song or lullaby. Some babies like background noise, such as a washing machine or vacuum cleaner.
  • Give your baby a bath. A warm bath can often soothe a crying baby, but it can also make some babies cry more. Always check the temperature of the water beforehand.
  • Move your baby around. Gently rocking or bouncing your baby may help.
  • Take your baby out, for example in the car or in their pram.  Lots of babies like to sleep in cars and even if they wake up again when you stop, at least you will have had a break.
  • Get some fresh air. This can help you  both as you will be less stressed and it may help soothe your baby.
  • Find something for your baby to look at, such as a rattle or mobile hanging above their cot.
  • Try stroking your baby’s back firmly and rhythmically while holding them against you or laying them face down on your lap. You could also undress your baby and massage them with baby oil, gently and firmly. Talk soothingly as you do it and keep the room at a warm temperature.

Getting into a routine

Avoid over-stimulating your baby with too much activity or new experiences.  This can make them restless and more prone to crying.  Instead, introduce a routine for your baby, such as a regular evening bath time and a quiet bedtime. This will help reassure your baby and may encourage them to cry less.

Colic

Colic will resolve itself without treatment in a few months. However, you can try soothing your baby in a number of ways, such as those mentioned above. If you have trouble coping, contact your GP. There are some medicines available to treat colic, but they only have a limited effect.

See the Encyclopaedia topic on Colic - treatment for more information about what is available to treat babies with colic.

Take a break

It can be stressful and exhausting when your baby cries, particularly if your sleep is frequently disturbed.

If you have tried your best to comfort your baby and are confident that their crying or behaviour does not seem unusual, it is fine to leave your baby for a few minutes.

Make sure that your baby is safely in their crib or cot and then go into another room for 10 minutes and try to relax.  You could:

  • watch television
  • listen to music
  • practise some breathing or stretching exercises
  • make a cup of tea
  • phone a friend

Once you are relaxed, you will be able to cope better with your baby's crying.

Although it may seem difficult, it is still important that you have time to yourself when you are bringing up a baby. Where possible, ask a trusted family member or friend to help you out, even if it is just for an hour or so. This will give you time away from the stress of the situation and will help you return in a more relaxed state of mind.

Dealing with stress and anger

Take a break if your baby's crying is making you feel stressed to the point where you are getting angry or are about to lose your temper. Never shake your baby.  This moves their head violently and can cause bleeding and brain damage.

If you need support, contact your health visitor or GP, or the charity 'Cry-sis' helpline on 08451 228 669. The helpline is open 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

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