Babies start crying to communicate their needs and wants. At a later stage, cooing, babbling, and then words may be used to communicate those needs and it becomes easier to understand and respond appropriately (although not necessarily “easy”).
It sounds like I am stating the obvious doesn’t it? In fact, it’s actually really easy to forget that crying is part of normal baby behaviour and end up medicalising something unnecessarily. What is expected depends on cultural and societal norms and your own expectations of baby behaviour, and how you respond to that.
When a baby cries, we run through a checklist of all the possible causes. You may be familiar with the well-known sitcom, Friends. There is an episode where the character, Rachel, is expecting a baby, and Ross (the father) invents a game where she has to guess the reason for the baby crying whilst he mimics the sound with increasing pitch and volume each time she guesses wrong. As she runs out of time he declares “you have been Bamboozled, you will be a terrible mother” and they all look on horrified.
Well, thankfully, not knowing why your baby is crying does not make you a terrible mother, but the feeling of urgency to find the cause is quite real. It can be frustrating and overwhelming when you aren’t sure why your baby is crying.
Crying Baby Checklist
These are the kind of questions that you may ask yourself:
- Do they need a nappy change?
- Do they need a feed?
- Are they too warm?
- Are they too cold?
- Are they in discomfort?
- Are they sleepy/overtired?
- Do they want a cuddle?
- Are they unhappy with the environment? Some babies don’t like too much noise, whereas others may prefer it.
You should seek medical advice if you think your baby is in pain and is unsettled as there are a number of causes that may need excluding through history and examination. Some examples of causes of discomfort are: needing winding, constipation, reflux, and – (I’m going to go into medic mode here) but if the crying was difficult to settle, I also did a quick check of the fingers and toes to make sure a stray hair hadn’t become tangled tightly around a finger or toe – it does happen.)
The healthy baby that is crying a lot
If your baby cries for more than 3 hours a day, 3 days week, for at least 1 week, they may be described as having “colic”. Colic is when a healthy baby cries a lot and there is no obvious cause. You can read more about infant colic in my post “Crying Babies Part 2: Infant Colic”.
When I was expecting my first baby, there was lots of advice given to me such as “Always put your baby down to sleep”, “Don’t go straight to him if he cries or he’ll never be able to self-settle”, and “He needs to transition to his own room at 6 months”, etc.
My baby did have some issues that needed management such as Cow’s Milk Protein Allergy, but even when those symptoms had resolved, he still had some periods of being unsettled with no obvious cause. I remember going for a drive because “all babies love to sleep in the car”. Well, unfortunately, it turned out that it was all babies except mine!
I would lovingly make sure he was nice and cosy in his buggy and go for a brisk walk in the fresh air. One day, it was pouring down with rain, but I went out anyway and I was drenched in the rain. “This is probably better, it’s natural white noise”, I convinced myself as I listened to the pitter-patter of raindrops on the plastic buggy raincover. Forget the fancy Moses basket with rocking feature – he hated it. I tried everything including all the anti-colic measures I could think of.
Then one day I gave up and I stopped trying to put my baby down to sleep and worrying about the other advice given to me. “You’ll make things difficult for yourself” came the warnings. Things didn’t become more difficult though. They became easier.
When I had my next baby, I learned how to use a stretchy-wrap sling so that I could comfortably babywear for longer. I co-slept – safely, and within the guidance of The Lullaby Trust, which you can read here.
I started babywearing before the typical age that colic sets in (usually a few weeks after birth) and I used my wrap frequently throughout the day. They never did get colic, but of course perhaps they were never going to, I can never know for sure. See my post Babywearing: Rocking The Stretchy Wrap Sling for other benefits of babywearing and if you think it may be too complicated to tie a sling then check out my post and video How To Tie And Use A Stretchy Wrap Sling: Love Your Baby Hold.
If you expect your baby to sleep through the night by a certain age, sleep happily in their cot (and lots of babies will without any problems), feed 3-4 hourly, etc, then it feels more frustrating or seem that “something must be wrong” if yours doesn’t.
Having a mantra can help. You may already have something that you say to yourself that helps. It could be something like “crying is communication”, “they are learning, it will get easier”, “just take a moment, and breathe”, etc.
The fourth trimester
The fourth trimester is the term commonly used to refer to the 3 month adjustment period after birth when a baby is getting used to life outside the womb. If we think about what life inside the womb might be like for a baby, then we can understand how we might be able to make that adjustment easier by mimicking some aspects of it. We should keep in mind that babies have different temperaments, like you or I have our own personalities, so one baby may adjust more easily than another.
My first baby was born post-dates via emergency c-section after an induction of labour. He was settled in the hospital cot near me and was quite happy to be put down to sleep initially. The fussiness started around 2 weeks of age but I was able to take him for walks in his buggy to help settle him.
My next two deliveries were elective c -sections in the 39th week of gestation and at 38 weeks. From the moment they were born, they would only be happy when held. I would put baby down in a cot and within a couple of minutes – no matter how long I waited to put them down, they would wake up crying. I felt quite sorry for the other mums in my bay.
When I had my second baby, a midwife came to check-up on things at my bedside as my baby was crying. I explained that after I fed baby he was so settled but would wake as soon as I tried to put him down. I had tried swaddling. She spent some time observing after a feed and also tried to put baby down a few times but he was not having any of it. The midwife smiled and said “yes, you’re right, my dear, you have one of those babies”. She told me that I would likely need to co-sleep when I got home. My husband was not with me, so she stayed with me so that my baby could be held whilst I got some sleep. With my third baby, it was the same.
I wondered if it was because they were born by elective c-sections, earlier than they would have wanted to, and without labour. Did that mean that the adjustment in this period after birth would be more challenging? My baby would curl up in this fetal position when held against me and I would think to myself, this certainly does look like the fourth trimester indeed.
Settling a crying baby
If we think about the environment of the womb, we can begin to think of ways that we can re-create familiarity to settle a baby. This is assuming all the other checks have been done, baby is healthy, nappy changed, fed, and no other concerns.
Babies are used to feeling movement when in the womb. Rocking, swaying, a brisk walk outside, or going for a drive in the car all create this movement that they may find settling. Moses baskets with rocking function and baby swings can also provide some gentle movement to settle (although my first baby wasn’t a fan of his Moses basket, some babies are).
We tried a few baby swings and by far the best for us was the Joie Serina swing. It has the option of different sound modes, a vibration mode, and the seat can be turned to move side to side or forwards and backwards according to preference, or lifted off completely if you needed to move it somewhere else.
Creating a cosy environment
Inside the womb is cosy. When you put a baby down, they have all this space around them. Spending some time skin-to-skin, babywearing, and swaddling all re-create a snug environment.
Swaddling is the practice of wrapping the baby’s body in a light, breathable blanket so that they feel settled to sleep – the blanket should never cover the head. It is thought by some that it may prevent a baby from “waking themselves up” when startling in their sleep, as their arms are kept contained in the blanket and can’t flail out.
Not all babies like swaddling. If you do choose to swaddle you need to make sure that you are doing it safely.
Using white noise aims to mimic some of the sounds of the womb. Baby products like Ewan the Sheep, baby swings with sound features, baby mobiles, or just playing white noise videos from YouTube may help settle a baby. Some babies respond better to white noise than lullabies.
We loved our Joie Serina Swing and Tiny Love Soothe ‘n’ Groove Baby Mobile which have a good variety of music and sounds. My babies seemed to like a strong sssssshhhhh sound whilst being rocked. White noise can be created by simply by turning a vacuum cleaner on. Pop baby in a baby carrier and vacuum those carpets. The gentle movement and closeness of babywearing with the sound of the vacuum can do wonders for settling.
You can help baby adjust to life outside the womb by taking them out in daylight, keeping normal daylight levels of light for daytime naps, and turning the lights low when it’s bedtime. If they seem overwhelmed though it may be worth creating a more dark space to relax regardless of time of day.
We found that holding baby in the Tiger in the Tree position helped with settling at times, almost as if by magic.
Non-nutritive sucking is when a baby is sucking for comfort. Breastfed babies will seek the breast for comfort even if they are full. They may find another way of non-nutritive sucking such as sucking a thumb or fingers, or you can provide another way by using a pacifier.
Pacifiers are often discouraged for the first 6 weeks if breastfeeding because you will be establishing your milk supply and because of worries about nipple confusion.
Babies are surrounded by warm fluid in the womb. Some babies may find bathing soothing. You can choose to bathe with your baby for the additional comfort of being skin-to-skin.
Lastly… you don’t need to be a superhero. If you are struggling to cope with a crying baby and feeling significantly stressed, it is better to put baby down in a safe space like their cot and leave the room for a breather than to continue to feel overwhelmed. If someone else is with you, ask if they can take over for a bit if they feel able to or call someone for support. You don’t need to struggle alone.
Call friends or family, speak to your doctor, health visitor, or midwife. The charity Cry-sis can offer support for parents who are struggling with infant crying and also have a helpline you can call.
Do you have any useful tips for settling a baby? How did you get through those early months?
I’d love to hear your thoughts and if you found this post useful, please share!
Amal is a paediatrician and mum/step-mum to four wonderful children. She started MedicMum101 to share tips and experiences on all things motherhood. She enjoys writing about parenting, health, and wellness, as well as other life musings from time to time. When she is not working, writing, or running after the kids, you can often find her working on a new piece of art.