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Decoding Baby Crying: 8 Types of Crying You Might Hear

Medically Reviewed by Dr. Leah Alexander, MD, FAAP
Are those crocodile tears or a cry of hunger? Find out here.

Did you know there are several types of baby cries? We all know that babies can cry — during the first few weeks and months, it may seem like 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.

Key Takeaways

  • Babies use different cries to communicate needs such as hunger, tiredness, and discomfort.
  • Overstimulation and boredom can also cause a baby to cry, but these cries can be easily soothed.
  • Colic, or crying continuously for more than three hours, can be frustrating for parents but usually passes by 3 months of age.
  • If a baby is sick, they may cry softly and show other symptoms like fever or vomiting, in which case it’s important to consult a doctor.

Types of Baby Cries and What They Mean

Up until their first words, babies use crying as a way to communicate. 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 (1).

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 (2).

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 your baby’s clues, such as yawning, drowsiness, and fussiness (3).

Experts also recommend observing your baby’s sleep patterns, no matter how irregular they 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 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 (4)

It may seem as if your little one really enjoys watching videos and is adept at using 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. I suggest that parents 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 soothe and can even become 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 time to adapt before responding.

While giving your baby time to cope, you teach them how to self-soothe. A bored baby can become intrigued by something in the crib, their hands, and even their feet. So if you don’t rush to their side, don’t worry; it doesn’t mean you’re being cruel or unsympathetic (5).

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 (6). 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 their belly, or wearing a dirty diaper can make a baby pretty uncomfortable. This is another cry that is likely to wake you up for the sixth time during the night.

Infants don’t need multiple layers of clothing to stay warm at night. In most cases, a simple onesie is sufficient. If you check on your baby and their hands and feet feel very warm or almost look red, they are probably too warm. Also, keeping an infant too warm increases the risk of SIDS (7).
Headshot of Dr. Leah Alexander, MD, FAAP

Editor's Note:

Dr. Leah Alexander, MD, FAAP

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 (8). 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.

I recommend two burping positions: holding the infant over a shoulder or placing them belly down over your lap. You may have noticed others holding babies upright while supporting the chin to burp. 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 usually necessary.

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 that has traveled to the stomach. To avoid this, burp your baby after every feeding.

There are other reasons you may hear the pain cry. Occasionally, a piece of hair gets caught around a toe. This is called a hair tourniquet and can result in swelling and pain. If you have tried burping your baby and the crying hasn’t improved, check their toes. If there is lots of swelling, you may need to take your baby to a doctor to remove the hair (9).

Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease (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 them arching their back. Bedtime may become very difficult because the baby will cry every time they are placed in the crib. If you feel your little one is experiencing these symptoms, consult a doctor (10).

7. Colic

Colic is a condition in which a baby 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 also get colic (11).

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 a pain cry but more intense. 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 (12).

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, diarrhea, or 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 it’s normal for babies to cry — it’s how they 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 (13).

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 when everyone is naturally tired from the day’s activities. If you’re breastfeeding, your milk supply may also be running low, which can lead to hunger cries.

Sometimes a good cry is what your baby needs to unwind. It’s not bad to leave them for a couple of minutes. Experts suggest it’s beneficial and may even help some with sleeping (14).

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 it seems like that’s all they do during the first months. It can be frustrating, and even with the best intentions, it’s easy to react improperly. 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 (15).

If you need a timeout for a minute or two, put the baby in a safe place and take a breather (16).

2. Don’t Ignore

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

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 like 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 that they 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 OK to try to 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 (17).

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 most challenging 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 (18).

However, it’s essential to take time for yourself (19). Here are some tips to help you through some of the crying spells.

tips for dealing with a crying baby

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

During some of my baby’s longer crying spells, I clearly remember 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 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 (20).

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.

Decoding Baby Crying FAQs

What Does PURPLE Crying Mean In Babies?

PURPLE crying refers to a phase when babies cry more than usual, starting at about two weeks old and lasting till about three to four months. The acronym describes the common characteristics of this phase.

What Stage Do Babies Cry the Most?

Babies often cry the most between two weeks and three to four months, a period also known as the “colic” or “PURPLE crying” phase.

Do Babies Cry In Different Languages?

Babies don’t cry in different languages, but their cries can be influenced by the intonation and speech patterns they hear from their parents.

What Should You Not Say to a Crying Baby?

Avoid expressing frustration or anger. Instead, provide soothing, comforting words or sounds to calm the baby.

Is it OK to Let a Newborn Cry For 5 Minutes?

A brief period of crying is generally OK as you quickly attend to the baby’s needs or soothe them. However, prolonged crying without comfort can be distressing for the baby.

How Do I Teach My Baby to Self-Soothe?

Self-soothing can be encouraged by establishing routines, offering something comforting like a blanket or stuffed animal, and gradually allowing the baby to settle down on their own for short periods.

Hang in There

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

When babies cry, it can get overwhelming — remember 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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Headshot of Dr. Leah Alexander, MD, FAAP

Medically Reviewed by

Dr. Leah Alexander, MD, FAAP

Leah Alexander, M.D. FAAP is board certified in General Pediatrics and began practicing pediatrics at Elizabeth Pediatric Group of New Jersey in 2000. She has been an independently contracted pediatrician with Medical Doctors Associates at Pediatricare Associates of New Jersey since 2005. Outside of the field of medicine, she has an interest in culinary arts. Leah Alexander has been featured on Healthline, Verywell Fit, Romper, and other high profile publications.