New parents often wish they had a magic baby translator—especially when their little one is crying all through the night. Though you might start to figure out different baby cries sooner than you think, it isn't always easy when you're sleep-deprived and dealing with a little one who won't calm down!
That's why we're here to help - learn about the most common reasons for baby crying, how to tell the difference between types of baby cries, and how to calm them down so you can both get some sleep:
Common reasons babies cry and what they sound like
Tips for keeping your cool
How to soothe a crying baby
Commonly asked questions
Common reasons babies cry and what they sound like
As an adult, you usually associate crying with pain or sadness, but this isn't the case for babies, who cry for all sorts of reasons. This is because they don't have the ability to communicate using words yet - instead, your baby's cries have to get their needs and desires across to you.
Every baby is unique and therefore has their own unique cries; however, there are specific sounds that your baby might make when crying for a certain reason.
If you've already checked your baby's diaper, fed them, given them a cuddle, and they still won't stop crying, colic could be the cause. A colicky baby is never easy for a family to handle, as not only is your baby sleep deprived, but their constant crying is keeping other people in the home from sleeping too.
What colic looks and sounds like
Once you've ruled out any other cause of persistent crying by speaking to your doctor, you can start figuring out if your baby has colic. To do this, you can use the rule of three: your baby cries for more than three hours every day, for more than three days a week, and for more than three weeks in a row.
However, it isn't just the amount of crying that indicates colic - it's the look and sound of the crying too. Colic is characterized by an especially intense cry that's usually louder and higher pitched than normal - almost closer to screaming than crying. It may also be accompanied by your baby arching their back or tensing up their limbs as though they're in pain. This can be distressing for parents too, even if you already know that colic is usually temporary and harmless.
Timing of colic
As stated above, colic crying usually happens for more than three hours in a day, and crying sessions will usually happen at the same time of day; for most babies, this is in the evening, though can vary. In terms of age, colic can start when your baby is around three or four weeks old, and will most likely stop at three or four months at the latest.
What to do about colic
Colic is stressful for parents and babies alike, and for many people, the worst part isn't the crying - it's feeling like you aren't able to make your baby feel better. It's important to remember in tougher moments that colic is only temporary and can't do any harm to your baby.
Because scientists aren't completely sure what causes colic, there isn't a one size fits all solution - however, there are plenty of things you can do to soothe a colicky baby until it goes away. Many parents find the airplane hold helpful as it provides some gentle pressure on your baby's tummy that can soothe stomach pains - swaddling with sleepwear like our Zen Swaddle can help provide similar pressure while your baby is sleeping.
For more information on soothing a baby with colic, you can check out our blog here.
You might not notice your baby growing a tiny bit each day, but you will notice bigger changes like teeth coming in, which is why teething is such an exciting time for many parents! However, it can come with some challenges, especially when teething pains cause your little one to start crying through the night.
What teething looks and sounds like
Though the most obvious sign of teething is actually seeing new teeth cut through your baby's gums - usually the bottom incisors come first at around five or six months - there are some other symptoms to look out for. These include a slight fever, redness on one side of your baby's face, a rash on your baby's face, dribbling or chewing more than usual, and crying more than usual.
In terms of sound, a teething baby crying sounds high-pitched, though maybe not as intense as a baby with colic. They may also be more fussy than usual more generally, even when they aren't actively crying.
Timing of teething
Your baby will usually start teething at around five or six months, and will have all of their baby teeth by the time they're two or three. But don't worry - this doesn't mean that your baby will be fussy the whole time! Generally speaking, a baby will only be fussy for a few days each time a new tooth comes through and will calm down again in between.
What to do about teething
If you're wanting to soothe a baby who has a new tooth coming through, there are plenty of techniques and products you can try out. Many parents swear by teething rings, and putting them in the refrigerator can help cool your baby's sore gums (but don't put them in your freezer, as this will be too cold). In a pinch, just rubbing a clean finger onto your baby's gums can provide some similar relief.
If this doesn't seem to soothe your baby as much as you hoped it would, you may want to try some baby-safe medication such as paracetamol or ibuprofen, but make sure to speak to your pediatrician about this first.
When your baby is crying at night, all you want them to do is calm down and fall asleep - but what do you do when your baby gets too tired to sleep? Overtiredness happens because once your baby begins to be too fatigued, their body has a stress response, releasing chemicals like cortisol and adrenaline that lead to them becoming more alert and less likely to sleep.
What overtiredness looks and sounds like
There are a few different signs of overtiredness you can watch out for: struggling to fall asleep at night, falling asleep for short periods during the day, and being crankier than usual throughout the day, with older babies being more prone to meltdowns.
If you still aren't sure if your baby is overtired, you can listen out for an overtiredness cry - this sounds high-pitched and nasal, and usually increases in intensity over time, especially if they're only getting more and more tired!
Timing of overtired
The amount of sleep that a baby needs is dependent on their age - for example, a newborn baby needs between eighteen and fifteen hours of sleep per day, while a six-month-old only needs between twelve and fifteen. Your baby can also only be awake for a certain amount of time between periods of sleep - a newborn can only be awake for around 90 minutes at a time.
This means that you can work out whether your newborn is overtired without looking for certain symptoms, though it's understandable if overtired parents haven't been keeping track!
What to do
The solution for overtiredness might seem obvious, but as you probably know, it isn't easy to get a sleep-deprived baby to fall asleep! This is where certain sleep aids can be helpful, from blackout curtains to keep light out of their room to a baby-safe white noise machine that blocks out any noise that could be stopping them from sleeping.
But we think the best sleep aid for an overtired baby is our own Zen Swaddle - gently weighted to mimic your soothing touch even when you aren't in the room, this sleepwear can help both you and your little one get some sleep.
Once you've ruled out causes like a dirty diaper and know that you aren't hearing a hunger cry or a colic cry, you should check for other symptoms to see if your crying baby is actually suffering from some kind of illness or injury. Some common issues like chickenpox, ear infections, and colds can lead to your baby crying, and it's important to figure out the cause so you can give them the right treatment.
Signs of sickness
There are many different symptoms that your baby might experience from different illnesses, but generally speaking, these are some of the most common signs of sickness to watch out for: a runny or blocked nose, rashes or red splotches on their skin, lethargy, and a weak cry that sounds like a moan. Some signs of more serious illnesses include a fever, convulsions, crying for several hours without stopping, and going limp - if your baby shows any of these symptoms, consult your doctor immediately.
What to do
If your baby shows any sign of illness, you'll want to seek medical advice from your pediatrician. They may prescribe your little one some medication or recommend some at-home remedies to try.
Tips for Keeping your Cool
Every new and expecting parent knows that newborn babies cry for at least an hour or two each day, but that doesn't mean it's easy to handle! Your baby crying, especially at night, can have an impact on your own health and mental wellbeing, and it's important to take care of yourself as well as your little one.
Evaluate your own emotional state
When you're spending all of your time looking after somebody else, it can be easy to forget to stop for a moment and acknowledge how you're feeling, whether you're content and calm or in need of a break. Not only does this give you a chance to figure out whether you need a break or some help, but it also helps to emotionally ground you and put you in a more stable, empathetic frame of mind as you look after your baby.
Take a time out
If you find yourself in urgent need of a break for whatever reason, you shouldn't ignore your instincts - make sure you take some time for yourself and have a rest. Having a comfortable chair close to your baby's crib is perfect for this, as it means you can take a breather while still checking in on your little one as they lay down in a safe place.
Find a mantra
If you've found yourself feeling anxious as you look after your baby, having a mantra can help. This is just a short phrase you can repeat to yourself to help feel grounded and in control during stressful situations. For example, Nicole Schwarz from Imperfect Families recommends some of the following phrases:
'This is not an emergency'
'I am loving'
'I am confident'
'I can let go on this'
A mantra can include anything you want, as long as you find that it helps you feel calmer and more emotionally stable in tough situations.
Ask for help
As much as lots of parents might want to be, you aren't a super parenting machine - looking after a baby is hard work, and you need to make sure you get the breaks you need. Whether that means asking your partner to take an extra shift at night, having a parent stay over to watch over the baby for a day or two, or even just having a friend visit so you can take a nap, scheduling time for breaks is vital for your mental health.
If you've found yourself feeling especially low or anxious since having your baby, you may be suffering from postpartum depression - this is nothing to be ashamed of, and you should speak to your doctor to discuss your options and get the help you need.
Tips for Soothing a Crying Baby
Though it depends somewhat on why your baby is crying to begin with, there are plenty of tips and tricks you can try to calm down a crying baby, from cuddles and lullabies to sleep aids and swaddles.
Rhythmic noise and gentle movement have been known to help calm down babies who can't stop crying - rocking your baby or holding them while sitting in a rocking chair can help them settle, as can soothing, repetitive sounds like shushing or from white noise machines. If you can't hold your baby, you can try putting them in a baby swing for a similar effect, or giving them a pacifier to suck on.
You can also try out our Zen One, which works as both a swaddle and a wearable blanket thanks to its detachable mesh sleeves! Gently weighted to mimic your soothing touch, this sleepwear is perfect for helping your fussy little one fall asleep at night.
Hang in There
As a parent it can be hard to acknowledge your limits - you want to be the perfect parent for your little one and always put their needs above your own. But it's important to remember that, while you can't always be perfect, you are the perfect parent for your own baby, and that you have plenty of time to learn and grow as a parent. Just hang in there - you've got this!
Commonly asked questions about baby cries
Why do babies cry?
Though adults tend to cry when they're sad or in pain, this isn't always the case for babies. In fact, babies are stuck with crying as their only form of communication for the first few months of their life, so it can mean all kinds of things, from 'I'm hungry' or 'I'm teething' to 'I need some sleep!'
Crying for around two hours per day is considered normal for a newborn baby - if they're crying significantly more than this, you may want to speak to your doctor to rule out illnesses or any serious issues.
What does my baby's cry mean?
This is a hard question to answer, as babies use their cries to communicate and every baby is unique - therefore, only you can really know what your baby's cry means from spending time with them!
However, there are some common sounds associated with different cries; a high-pitched, intense cry might mean colic or pain from teething, while a quieter moan could mean illness.
Ultimately, your baby's cries are unique to them, and you'll learn what their cries mean as you spend more time bonding and getting to know them.
What does a hunger cry sound like?
There are many types of baby cries, but you're likely to be able to spot the subtle differences between them before you know it! For most babies, a hunger cry starts with a small whine or whimper, before building in intensity if you don't notice in time that they're hungry!
You might also see some specific behaviors: for example, if your baby's tongue sticks out or they're looking for a breast while they're crying, they're likely to be hungry.
Why is my newborn crying so much?
If your baby is crying excessively and between the ages of 3-4 weeks and 3-4 months, they may be suffering from colic. You can figure this out by using the rule of three: crying for more than three hours per day, at least three days a week, for at least three weeks in a row, often means colic.
Colic is tough to deal with, especially as doctors aren't sure about a cause, but it's only temporary and can be soothed with techniques like gentle rocking and the airplane hold - you can check out our blog on colic for more information.