Why Is Baby Crying? 8 Types of Crying You Might Hear

Did you know there are several types of baby cries? We all know how babies can cry — during the first few weeks and months, that’s all you hear.

What if we told you there might be a way to understand what your baby is trying to communicate? Decoding baby crying sounds like a job for a super nanny, but it’s not as hard as it seems. By the end of our post, you will know exactly what your baby’s cry means and how to soothe them — and your ears.

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    Types of Cries and What They Mean

    Up until their first words, babies use crying as a way to communicate (1). Did you know that crying isn’t always a bad thing?

    Sometimes, it’s merely a call for attention. However, this is usually not until the second or third month (2).

    Here are eight different cries and how to soothe them:

    1. Tired

    During the first six months, babies sleep a lot — unfortunately, it’s in irregular patterns, and they often confuse daytime with nighttime. Sleep is crucial for an infant as it helps them develop. As a newborn, your baby may sleep a total of ten to 18 hours every day (3).

    What to Listen for

    Every baby is different, but try to listen for a helpless, breathy, almost like an “owh” sound. Look for a cry that’s easily soothed with comfort.

    What to Do

    Try to help your baby sleep better, especially during the night. An excellent way to do that is to initiate sleep before they get overtired. Watch for clues that your baby is giving you such as yawning, drowsiness, and fussiness (4).

    Experts also recommend you observe your baby’s sleep patterns, no matter how irregular they may seem. Your little one is likely to get tired around the same time every day. Before they fall asleep, place them in their crib to help them sleep on their own.

    If your baby is nearing overtiredness, the area around the eyes might become red, and they may rub their eyes. They can also seem restless — your baby’s eyes might be closed, but they can’t sleep.

    In such cases, swaddling is a good solution, as it provides some extra comfort. It’s recommended to do a tight swaddle, keeping your little one snug.

    Swaddling doesn’t work on all babies, though — my little one hated it. Sometimes, your baby just needs to be left alone. Try to place them in their crib and observe them — perhaps sing a lullaby or use white noise.

    2. Overstimulated

    Babies love attention and comfort, but it gets overwhelming if you overdo it. Babies can quickly get overstimulated by being in a room full of people trying to hold them or making noise.

    What to Listen for

    The overstimulated cry is generally quite low toned and not as loud. It can quickly turn into shrieking and is not easily soothed. Listen for a whiny, almost fussy cry.

    What to Do

    An overstimulated baby needs some quiet. Watch out for the early cues such as fussing, turning their head away, or an angry face.

    Try removing or stopping the source of stimulation. If your little one is watching an iPad, turn it off — such devices can overstimulate a baby within minutes and aren’t recommended.

    The AAP has updated its recommendation on screen time usage for infants and toddlers. Aside from FaceTime or Skype social interactions, screened devices are not recommended under the age of 2 (5)

    It may seem as if your little one really enjoys watching videos and is very adept at figuring out how to use these devices. This does not mean that doing so is beneficial. In clinical practice, I support the AAP recommendations but understand that complete avoidance is not always practical. My suggestion to parents is to reserve screen time for situations such as plane rides, long car rides, or restaurants where fun distractions are often necessary.

    Headshot of Dr. Leah Alexander, MD, FAAP

    Editor's Note:

    Dr. Leah Alexander, MD, FAAP

    It can be a bit more challenging if your little one is overwhelmed while you’re out and about. On busy Saturday mornings at the grocery store, an infant can swiftly become overstimulated. Try to find a quiet area, or if possible, go outside to your car where no people or noises are around.

    If it happens at home, perhaps after play or too much interaction, try white noise. This can be a whirring fan, noise machine, or your shushing sounds. What helped me was the vacuum cleaner — my little one would calm down right away.

    You can try your own technique, such as running warm water over their hands and feet.

    3. Bored

    Although babies don’t do much, they do experience boredom when left alone for too long. A bored cry isn’t necessarily a bad one — it’s more of wailing for attention, saying they’re lonely.

    What to Listen for

    A bored cry can sound similar to the overstimulated one — it’s low toned and may come off as whiny. It’s simple to sooth, and it can even turn into laughter once your baby is old enough.

    What to Do

    When your baby is bored, your first instinct is likely to grab their favorite teddy or sing a song. However, some experts recommend you give your baby some time to adapt before responding.

    While you’re giving your baby time to cope, you’re teaching them how to self-sooth. A bored baby can become intrigued by something in the crib, their hands, and even feet. So if you don’t rush to their side, don’t worry, it doesn’t mean you’re being cruel or unsympathetic (6).

    4. Hungry

    When hunger calls, your baby will cry. During the first months, this becomes the cry you recognize even in your sleep.

    What to Listen for

    The “I am hungry” cry is distinctive. It has a desperate tone that’s repeated until it’s answered. Listen for a rhythmic, high-pitched squeal, and a “neh” sound.

    What to Do

    The only thing to do is feed your baby. Before your baby resorts to their hunger cry, they usually send signals. These can include turning toward the breast, smacking their lips, or fussing.

    You can also calculate how long it’s been since the last feeding — newborns usually eat every two to three hours (7). If you’re in doubt about the cry, offer your breast or a bottle — if it’s hunger, they won’t say no.

    However, if you’re using formula, ensure you’re not overfeeding — avoid offering the bottle before the two-hour mark. If you think your baby may be going through a growth spurt and might need extra formula, mix only two ounces and see if that helps the situation.

    5. Uncomfortable

    Feeling too warm or cold, having a burp stuck in your belly, or wearing a dirty diaper can make a baby pretty uncomfortable. This is another cry that will be likely to wake you up for the sixth time during the night.

    [edit0rs-note name=”leah”]Infants don’t need multiple layers of clothing to stay warm at night. In most cases, a simple onesie is all that is needed. If you check on your baby, and the hands and feet feel very warm or almost look red, he or she is probably too warm. Also, keeping an infant too warm increases the risk of SIDS (8).[/editors-note]

    What to Listen for

    An uncomfortable cry is whiny and high-pitched, almost like the sound is coming from the nose. It can be distressing to hear, especially if it happens while driving and you can’t get to your little one right away. Luckily, it’s pretty straightforward to solve.

    What to Do

    The first thing to do is to check the diaper. If it has been a while since the last change, try rebooting with a fresh one.

    If you’ve finished feeding, and your baby cries again, it’s likely to be a burp looking for an escape route (9). Try burping them, and the crying should stop.

    In practice, I emphasize the importance of burping. When infants feed, especially from a bottle, they tend to swallow air which can accumulate in the stomach. This also occurs when babies feed very quickly. If stomach air is not expelled in a burp, it passes to the intestines, resulting in abdominal distension and discomfort.

    There are two burping positions that I recommend: holding the infant over a shoulder or placing him or her belly down over your lap. You may have noticed that nurses held your baby in an upright position while supporting the chin to burp in the newborn nursery. Unfortunately, this is not the most effective position. The outer belly muscles are “crunched” in this position, and less air is expelled. This can result in a very fussy baby.

    Headshot of Dr. Leah Alexander, MD, FAAP

    Editor's Note:

    Dr. Leah Alexander, MD, FAAP

    6. Pain

    Pain is a difficult one — although it’s distinctive, it can be scary to hear. Most of the time, it’s due to gas, or your baby might be constipated.

    What to Listen for

    The pain cry is eerie — high-pitched, like grating and piercing. Your baby may make an “eairh” sound as if they’re trying to pass a bowel movement. It is easy to distinguish because the cry sounds urgent and distressed.

    What to Do

    It might seem like a cry worthy of a visit to the emergency room when you’re a new parent. However, that’s not likely.

    A pacifier works wonders to help your baby pass gas. The sucking reflex involved helps to calm your little one, which in turn, helps their intestines push the blockage along.

    If your baby doesn’t want to take a pacifier, try to burp them or otherwise soothe them until they find relief. Gas is essentially a trapped burp which has traveled to the stomach. To avoid this, burp your baby after every feeding.

    There are other reasons to hear this type of cry. Occasionally, a piece of hair gets caught around a toe, called a hair tourniquet, resulting in swelling and pain. If you have tried burping, and the crying hasn’t improved, check the toes. If there is lots of swelling, you may need to take your baby to a doctor for removal of the hair (10).

    Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease or GERD is a common reason for a “pain” cry. Infants with this condition cry during feedings, often pushing away from the breast or bottle. They have frequent spit ups associated with crying, and consistently cry when lying in a supine position. You may even notice arching of the back. Bedtime may become very difficult because the baby will cry every time he or she is placed in the crib. If you feel your little one is experiencing these symptoms, consult with a doctor (11).

    7. Colic

    Colic is defined as a baby who cries continuously for more than three hours. The exact cause remains a bit of a mystery to this day.

    It was long thought that it was due to an intolerance to cow’s milk. However, breastfed babies get colic too (12).

    Colic can be very frustrating for parents, but it is important to know that this phase will pass. Most infants “outgrow” colic by 3 months of age.

    What to Listen for

    A colicky cry will sound similar to the pain cry, but with higher intensity. Listen for screams and wails, followed by strained movements: pushing as if to pass stool or pulling the legs up toward the belly.

    What to Do

    It’s not easy dealing with a colicky baby due to the crying. Fortunately, there are ways to soothe them. Try the following:

    • Swaddle: Wrap them like a snug burrito with arms crossed — this should calm them. It gives a feeling of security.
    • Backrub: Place your baby on their belly across your lap. Then give them a gentle back rub. This will soothe and relieve some of the pain.
    • Walk or rock: Sometimes, movement is all it takes. If possible, walk around your home or sit with your little one in a rocking chair.
    • Swing: This is an ideal solution if you’re feeling tired or overwhelmed. Place your baby in their swing or vibrating seat, and let the device calm them.
    • White noise: Try the soothing sounds of a washer or dryer — it might be enough to calm them.

    Keep In Mind

    Parents can sometimes become overwhelmed during this colicky phase. It is important to seek help from others and to take breaks (13).

    8. Sick

    The sick cry can break a thousand hearts, and it can be frustrating for parents who don’t know what’s wrong.

    What to Listen for

    Listen for soft, low-pitched whimpers, almost like there’s no energy to make a louder sound. If pain is associated with an illness such as an ear infection, the cry can be high-pitched.

    What to Do

    Try your best to soothe your baby, but watch out for symptoms such as fever, vomiting, constipation or diarrhea, and rashes. If your baby shows any of these signs or is difficult to console, call the doctor for treatment options.

    Mystery Cries and What to Do

    It’s essential to remember that babies crying is normal — it’s their way to express themselves. Newborn babies cry for an average of two hours every day. Then from a few weeks old to around six weeks, the amount increases to three hours (14).

    This crying is spread throughout the day, and your baby may cry more than this. Some of these cries are nearly impossible to decode — and as long as your baby is healthy and otherwise happy, it’s completely normal.

    Crying sessions are commonplace during the evening. It’s the time where everyone is naturally tired and exhausted from the day’s activities. If you’re breastfeeding, your milk supply may be running low as well, which can lead to hunger cries.

    Sometimes a good cry is what your baby needs to unwind. It’s not a bad thing to leave them for a couple of minutes. Experts suggest it’s beneficial, and may even help some with sleeping (15).

    You could try offering them milk if it’s around feeding time. If not, try changing their diaper or even clothes. My little one would calm down after a warm bath.

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    The Don’ts of Baby Crying

    It’s not easy seeing your baby cry, but during the first months, it seems like that’s all they do. It can be frustrating, and even with the best intentions, it’s easy to react in improper ways. Here are some things you should not do when your baby is crying:

    1. Don’t Panic

    You’re not alone in feeling distressed or helpless when your baby cries and won’t stop, or cries for the 100th time that day. Try your best to stay calm and not panic. If you’re starting to cry too, getting frustrated, or even a little agitated, it can spook your baby further (16).

    If you need a timeout for a minute or two, put the baby in a safe place and take a breather (17).

    2. Don’t Ignore

    Without contradicting ourselves, it’s crucial to find the balance between ignoring and taking a breather. It’s okay to take a minute for yourself, but you should never ignore your baby’s calls, especially with infants (18).

    When your baby begins to cry, try to respond as quickly as possible, especially if you know there is a reason for it. They may be waking up from a nap and need food and a diaper change. By waiting, the hunger cry can swiftly escalate into distress or anger, making it worse.

    3. Don’t Punish

    A timeout doesn’t work on a baby the same way it does on an older kid. Your baby isn’t being demanding or having tantrums — they’re merely communicating distress and feelings. Try to keep your cool, and remind yourself that punishment doesn’t work.

    4. Don’t Get Angry

    Your baby doesn’t understand it should stop crying when mom gets angry. Instead, it will make them cry more, particularly if you shout at them. Take a deep breath and tell yourself that anger doesn’t solve the issue.

    5. Never Shake Your Baby

    Spending a lot of time with a crying baby can be heart wrenching and distressing. It’s fine to try and distract your baby with play. However, never shake your baby, either out of playfulness or anger.

    Shaken Baby Syndrome

    Because of their feeble neck muscles, shaking a baby can destroy their brain cells and decrease oxygen supply to the brain. This can lead to blindness, intellectual disabilities, cerebral palsy, and seizures. In severe cases, your baby could die from complications (19).

    Tips for Surviving a Crying Baby

    Becoming a parent can be one of the best experiences in life, but it’s also one of the toughest jobs. The first months are overwhelming. Between crying spells, changing diapers, and feeding, it’s not easy getting time to breathe. Research shows that excessive crying can take a psychological toll on parents (20).

    However, it’s important to take time for yourself (21). Here are some tips to help you through some of the crying spells.

    1. Take a Break

    You don’t have to be the super mom or dad who never leaves their baby’s side. When feeling tired or overcome, it’s a good idea to let someone else take your little one. This could be your partner, family member, or another caregiver — as long as they’re responsible and trusted.

    Taking a break, such as going outside by yourself, relaxing in a bath, or even having an undisrupted nap, can do wonders. It doesn’t mean you’re neglecting your baby, and may also make you a better parent.

    2. Remember to Breathe

    I clearly remember during some of my baby’s longer crying spells asking myself if it would ever end. They seem inconsolable, but what helped me was constant reminders that the crying would stop.

    If colic is what’s causing the crying, remember that it goes away around three months of age. This may sound like a lot, but time flies by with a newborn.

    3. Remember Yourself

    Taking care of yourself is just as important as caring for your baby. Eat a healthy diet to restore your energy, and try to do some exercise once in a while. You don’t have to do rigorous running — a brisk stroll with your baby is all you need.

    Exercising or taking walks can also enhance your mood and overall well being. It can help you deal with the crying spells (22).

    4. Call for Help

    If it’s getting too upsetting, don’t hesitate to call for help. You can contact your doctor, a support group, a therapist, or even a call service. Talking with someone who listens always helps, especially if you’re a single parent.


    Hang in There

    Decoding baby crying is an excellent way to respond faster to their needs and stop the tears. It’s fairly easy when you know what to listen for.

    When babies cry, it can get overwhelming — keep in mind that it won’t last forever, and try to stay calm. Take a break when you need to and prioritize your own needs once in a while when possible.

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