Hearing your baby cry is one of the biggest causes of stress and confusion for new mums.
No mother wants their baby to be distressed but with crying bub’s only way to communicate, many mums are left wondering what they can do to help.
It’s important to understand that crying is normal for babies, but how much they cry can vary significantly.
On average though, a six week old baby will cry for more than two hours per day.
According to Dr Howard Chilton, there are five different reasons a baby will cry, each with a different solution.
“If you lump them into one catch-all bag, it will lead to confusion and more crying – both from you and from the baby.”
1. Crying and irritability from a physical cause, such as hunger, cold or loneliness, or discomfort
“First off check that your baby is not too hot or too cold, the nappy is dry and clothes not too tight,” says Dr Chilton.
“Most parents will also give their baby a cuddle and some close contact to see if that is their need.”
The most common organic cause for a lot of unsettledness is hunger.
“If breastfeeding, make sure the breasts are being drained properly, as this will boost the supply so they refill fully.
“With the formula-fed baby, at least you know the supply is adequate. Just be sure you’re mixing powder to water in the correct proportion of scoops to water.”
If you are concerned about reflux or allergies, it’s important to visit your GP for a confirmed diagnosis.
2. ‘Fussy’ crying
Over a 24-hour period this is the most common kind of crying.
“It is the incessant low-key unsettledness that can go on and on and can occur any time of the day or night,” says Dr Chilton.
“It is amenable to parenting practice, so warmth, feeding and closeness from cuddling or breastfeeding works well to diminish or eliminate it.”
Studies have shown babies whose parents carried and cuddled them frequently cry less frequently.
“New babies are still missing the environment of the womb, but are also becoming more communicative and therefore they express their displeasure more competently and loudly.
“So to diminish this unsettledness at this age, don’t worry about ‘spoiling’ your baby, don’t try to ‘teach him to settle himself’ and do what your instincts tell you: hold, kiss and cuddle him and revel in his smell, touch – and the eventual silence!”
3. Whinging in light sleep
As a baby moves from the phases of deep to light sleep (which they do every 50 minutes or so), they will often thrash their arms and head, and whinge.
“Beware, they are not awake!” says Dr Chilton.
“If you erroneously think they are distressed and interfere with them, they soon will be.
“Generally the baby will murmur and cry out for a few minutes, then fall back into the deeper realms of sleep, and quieten.
“So if you feel your baby is stirring within sleep, wait a few minutes before going in to them, as they may well settle themselves.”
4. Inconsolable crying
“There is no doubt that a small proportion of the crying that occurs in the first two to three months bears no relation to parenting practice, feeding issues or the baby’s environment,” says Dr Chilton.
“It happens to about half of babies and when it does, it makes up about 5 per cent (that is, less than 15–20 minutes a day) of their total crying.
“For this kind of crying there is nothing the parents or anyone else can do about it except hold them and comfort them, and try not to get too concerned about it or take it personally.
“Nobody is quite sure why these bouts of intense crying occur but it is speculated that it is part of babies’ neurodevelopment; that is, the effect on the baby’s mood when brain connections are being made.
It peaks at six weeks and tends to diminish greatly beyond eight to ten weeks.
5. Colicky Crying
Babies are defined as having colic when they cry more than three hours a day for more than three days a week. By that definition it occurs in up to 20 per cent of babies.
“Starting at about four weeks of age, the baby has increasingly prolonged periods of agonised screaming, drawing up his knees, screwing up his face, and looking for all the world as if he has a terrible tummy ache. These bursts of crying wax and wane without apparent cause or pattern.
“In the throes of an episode the baby’s movements are jerky and erratic, his stricken gaze darts about the room, his hands grasp the air, fists tight, and his screams cut the air like a knife.”
According to Dr Chilton, over 90 per cent of babies with excessive crying have no organic disease whatever.
“Logic tells us that the colic syndrome is a mostly behavioural matter, not a physical one.
“Babies emerge from the womb in an immature state. Within the womb they are cocooned in a warm, snug but visually boring environment.
“Suddenly they emerge into the light of day. From a quiet meditative state they emerge to the screams and smiles of delighted family members.
“How babies cope with the transition depends, mostly, on their temperament.”
After a few weeks mothers will start to recognise the different cries the baby makes depending on his needs.
“The incessant repetitive cry of the hungry baby is different from the whinge of the baby who just needs a cuddle,” says Dr Chilton.
“Very soon the mother also recognises her baby’s particular body rhythms so knows when he is crying because he is tired or overstimulated or hungry because of her knowledge of his day-to-day behavior.
Regardless of the reason, Dr Chilton says it’s important not to ignore your baby’s cries.
“Once a baby is crying for whatever reason, he doesn’t necessarily have an off switch, unless his carers help him. Tension and stress then build up in the baby’s body from the cause and as he tries to cope.”
Like adults, babies’ temperaments vary.
About 15 out of 100 of babies are ‘self-soothers’.
“These are wonderful babies who sleep when unattended, feed enthusiastically when their mother has the time, and generally are laid-back and calm.”
At the other end of the scale there are 15 per cent of babies who are ‘supersensitive’. “These babies emerge from the womb and immediately react to their environment. Their eyes dart around, they frown a lot and find it hard to relax, and if they meet one other person besides Mum and Dad, they scream for the next several hours.”
Most babies, however, lie within these two extremes.
In the early weeks, they are usually upset about two days out of seven. But as the parents slowly tune in to their needs, they instinctively recognise that there is a limit to the amount of environmental stimulation that their baby can cope with.
When in doubt always assume that they are hungry, says Dr Chilton.
“Then check the nappy, see that they are not too hot or too cold then put and them against your body and try to calm them down in a low stimulus environment.
“If that doesn’t work and they are a few weeks old, see if a song, some music and conversation can interest them enough to calm them.
“If nothing seems to work, hold them against your body and stay as calm as you can and try not to take it personally.
“If the incessant noise is driving you crazy (and this happens to many parents with very unsettled babies at some time) get some respite help from a friend or relative or as a last resort put the baby in a safe place in the cot and vacate the area until you are calm enough to deal with it again.”
“Unfortunately babies in their first few months are not very good at switching off their cry,” says Dr Chilton.
“They need help from their parents and loved ones.
“If babies are left to cry they can get into such a distressed state that they can literally overload and though they may stop crying they remain deeply stressed.
“This mechanism evolved from prehistory so that abandoned babies would silence themselves to avoid attracting predators. But they still remain stressed.
“Such stress if it is repeated and becomes part of the baby’s life can have long-term effects on their feelings of security and self-confidence.”
Constant crying doesn’t necessarily mean pain or health problems.
“Even the so-called healthy ‘colicky’ baby sounds in extreme pain (though he is not) so it is not usually the cry itself, which suggests serious health problems.
“It is the rest of the baby’s body. The lethargic, feverish or unwell baby who won’t feed is an example.”
Babies never cry to manipulate or anger their parents.
“They do not have a concept of cause and effect and do not learn habits (bad or good) until they are several months old.”
At the end of the day, it’s important to trust your instincts, and remember that crying is your baby’s only way to communicate with you.