The Crying Game

Babies cry. It’s just one of the things they do. Some cry a lot, some, not so much. It’s not much fun for anybody. But all parents need to learn to deal with it.

Why is she crying?

Lots of reasons. As a new parent, you’ll spend a fair bit of time pondering this question! But basically, crying is a baby’s distress signal. We are supposed to pay attention, go to the baby, try to figure out what baby needs and to help her feel better.

You can start with a quick check for physical causes.

Is she hungry?

Young babies nurse more often than many parents expect, so there’s nothing wrong with Mom offering her the breast. Some babies seem to need extra sucking, so they nurse for comfort even if they aren’t really hungry. Nothing wrong with that.

Other possibilities: Is a dirty diaper irritating her skin? Might she be too hot? Too cold? Is something poking her?

You can check all these things out, but often you won’t really know why she’s crying. Babies sometimes just cry from emotional distress – boredom, fear, a need for cuddling, tension, overstimulation, fatigue. These are all emotional needs and they are just as real as hunger, discomfort or pain.

If it’s your turn to be the soother, you’ve got three main tools to work with: physical contact, movement and sounds. You can try any one of them or all three at the same time.

Physical contact

In her Mom’s womb the baby was all snug and warm. It wasn’t so long ago that she was in there. Babies like physical contact and it’s good for them. In some cultures babies are held or strapped on an adult’s back almost all the time. Babies in those cultures cry less than babies in our culture. Try going for a walk with the little one in a baby carrier. This often calms little babies fairly quickly.

Rhythmic movement

Try rocking, walking, baby swings or car rides. Experiment: a mellow baby may drift off to sleep while having his back patted, while a more high-need baby might need a special walk with a jiggle every other step (or every step). Try putting her in the stroller and and pushing it back and forth in a place where there’s a little bump (like between a hardwood floor and a rug).


Try singing or humming or singing softly while holding your baby against your chest – he heard your voice before his birth. “White noise” types of sounds, like the dryer, a fan or a white noise recording might help. Try the shush technique. That means walking around saying shhh, shhh, shhh, over and over again. It sounds odd, but some parents say it works.

More strategies


Is he bored? Try something new to look at or listen to, a walk outside or a warm bath. Try going outside. The change in environment sometimes makes a difference.

Peace and quiet. A tired baby might also be overstimulated, making it hard for him to wind down. Try taking him to a darkened, quiet room.

Baby Burrito

Swaddling is practiced in many cultures and it often seems to almost contain babies so they don’t over-stimulate themselves with movement.

Here is the swaddling technique touted by Harvey Karp, paediatrician and author of The Happiest Baby on the Block.

  1. Spread out a receiving blanket in a diamond shape and fold the top corner down.
  2. Lay your baby on top, with her neck at the fold.
  3. Fold one top corner down and across her body, holding baby’s arm straight at her side, and tuck it under her.
  4. Fold the bottom corner on the same side up.
  5. Now fold the other top corner down, holding her second arm at her side, and pull it snugly to about the middle of baby’s chest.
  6. Bring the bottom of the blanket up and across your baby’s body, wrapping it snugly.
  7. Notice that your baby’s legs can still flex and move, but her arms are held still.
  8. When you pick her up, you’ll see that she’s now a fairly solid little bundle.

Some babies calm almost magically when they are swaddled. With other babies, or the same baby another time it might not work.

Note: Baby carriers often have almost the same affect as swaddling.

Any of the above techniques might or might not work on any given day. You just have to try and find out. If you try everything you can think of and it doesn’t work, go back to the beginning, because something that didn’t work on the first try might work on the second try. Or maybe she’ll be ready to nurse by now.

If you’re frustrated let someone else to take a turn. Or just put the baby in her crib. Maybe she’ll fall asleep. But it’s not a good idea to leave a newborn baby crying for a long time.

No Shaking!

No matter how frustrated you get, don’t shake your baby. It can cause serious brain injury.

Should we call somebody?

Inconsolable crying should always be checked out. But usually there’s nothing wrong – nothing that science has been able to figure out anyway. If your baby is a major, major crier, you might be told she has colic.


Colic refers to healthy babies who cry for a prolonged period each day, usually in the evening.

Colicky babies appear to be in pain, but in most cases, no medical problem is ever found, and they continue to thrive and grow. The one consolation is that it doesn’t last – colic generally disappears by three or four months of age. While there is no one cause of colic that we know of, here are a few things to check out.

  • First, have your baby seen by a doctor to rule out other health problems.
  • If your partner is breastfeeding, she might want to see a breastfeeding specialist to make sure your baby is latched on correctly and nursing well.
  • Some parents have found that eliminating milk products from Mom’s diet helps. She could try it for a week and see if it makes any difference.
  • Some bottle-fed babies can be sensitive to cow’s milk formulas. Ask your doctor about trying a soy-based or hypoallergenic formula.
  • Keeping baby in a front carrier for much of the day reduces evening crying in some babies.

In many cases, though, time is the only cure. In the meantime, comfort your baby as best you can. Even though you can’t fix colic, you may discover techniques that help at least a little. Take care of yourself and your partner too – this is a stressful experience, and you may need to ask for help so you can get some extra rest or a much-needed break.

And if you ever feel super frustrated or enraged, give the baby to someone else, or put her down and get some help.


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