During your pregnancy, you might’ve heard about the importance of your baby’s first cry as they enter the world. However, not all babies cry, and this can be worrying to new parents.
We’re always told that during the first six months, all you’ll be doing is feeding, changing diapers, and soothing cries. So what does it mean when your newborn doesn’t cry? Should you be concerned or enjoy the peace and quiet few parents have?
You can find a lot of theories that less crying points to conditions such as autism, Down syndrome, or apnea. We’ll help ease your mind and make some sense of these newborn cries, or lack of them.
Why Newborns Cry
During delivery, your baby encounters hormonal changes that encourage them to take their first breath. This is usually when parents will hear their baby’s first cry.
Up until this point, your baby’s lungs were filled with fluid from the womb. As your baby breathes, the lungs expand, forcing the liquid out through the blood and lymph system (1).
The first breaths your newborn takes are likely to be irregular and shallow, but this is only for a moment. Soon they’ll become deeper and more regular, as they work to exchange oxygen for carbon dioxide. Next, blood will circulate the lungs.
Your baby’s first breaths are probably the hardest, which is why some need help. This is why you may see a nurse or neonatologist vigorously wiping the baby’s skin with a blanket or towel at birth. This stimulation encourages deep breathing and crying.
Generally, newborns will cry until they’re soothed, usually by being placed onto their mother’s chest. Following birth, your infant will cry whenever they need something, like feeding, a diaper change, or some attention. However, not all babies will cry — some cry significantly less.
A baby’s cry has an impact on many of the adults who hear it. Even if the baby isn’t yours, you may still feel somewhat distressed by the sound. Whenever we hear an infant cry, there’s something in our brain that makes it nearly impossible to ignore.
The effects of an infant’s cry aren’t as significant on non-parents as they are on parents. One study showed that when mothers hear their baby cry, it triggers an alarm, telling moms to care for them. In fathers, the cries caused more irritation than a need to provide care (2).
Either way, ignoring the cry isn’t easy.
Why Some Newborns Don’t Cry
At birth, most babies will cry due to the trauma of being born. If your labor was quick or you had a cesarean section, the hormonal changes might not have occurred.
Being heavily sedated can also affect your baby, too (3). If you receive pain medication, your unborn baby is likely to feel the effects as well, causing them to feel sleepy.
In such cases, your newborn may need some help getting their lungs going. Doctors and nurses can encourage your baby to breathe by physical stimulation. This will clear their airways so they can breathe on their own.
Babies born through cesarean section will typically cough or yawn instead of crying. Still, not crying during birth raises alarms, which is why doctors will examine your baby to check for abnormalities.
A doctor performs an Apgar test to evaluate your baby immediately after birth, usually within the first minute. The Apgar test will determine how well your baby tolerated birth and how they adapt to the outside world. Your doctor will look at five criteria, giving each a score of zero, one, or two.
The criteria are:
- Breathing efforts.
- Heart rate.
- Muscle tone.
- Skin color.
If your newborn isn’t breathing, for instance, doctors will give a score of 0 in that category. If they’re breathing well, they score a two.
After the initial Apgar test, another test is done five minutes post-birth to see how they’re adapting (4). If your baby’s score is low, doctors know to administer oxygen and will evaluate if further treatment is necessary.
Even with a low score at the first minute, most infants attain an expected score of 9 by five minutes after birth. Although the Apgar scoring system allows for a possible score of 10, infants are never given a score higher than 9. There is typically some residual cyanosis (blue color to the hands and feet), so 9 is always the maximum score given (meaning 1 for skin color). In other words, there is no need to worry about your baby not having a “perfect score of 10.” The AAP discusses variations in Apgar scores further.
Consult Your Doctor
Reasons Why Some Babies Don’t Cry
Most babies have a natural crying instinct — they’re programmed to announce their arrival with a big “Waah.” Since newborns can’t talk yet, crying is simply the best way for them to communicate.
Still, as long as your baby’s needs are met, there’s no issue with them not crying as much. Every baby is different — some might feel hungry or cold but aren’t able to express it by crying.
If your pediatrician has determined everything is fine with your newborn, they may simply still be learning how to cry. If so, you must discover other gestures your little one might use to let you know what they need.
Clinically, I find that the amount of crying varies with the temperament of the baby. This is best seen with twins; one twin may seem to cry and vocalize often, while the other is calm, quieter, and cries less.
Editor's Note:Dr. Leah Alexander, MD, FAAP
This is also why it’s so tough for parents with babies who cry less. How do you know if their needs are met? It’s common to label a baby who cries less as an “easy baby” — but chances are it’s the opposite.
Here are some ways your newborn might communicate with you without crying (5):
1. Signs of Hunger
Crying isn’t the only way a baby signals their hunger — it’s typically their last resort (6). Once your baby begins to cry from hunger, it’s usually a violent, irritated cry as if they’re telling you off for ignoring the other cues. Here are some early hunger signals to look for:
- Turning their head toward your chest: Newborns will naturally seek their mother’s breast when hungry, even if you’re the dad. You can easily spot it when they open their mouths and turn toward you.
- Clicking tongue: Clicking or sucking the tongue is another early clue of hunger, along with licking lips. You may hear a sound similar to when they’re nursing.
- Hands in the mouth: Your baby may put their hands to their mouth when they’re feeling hungry.
2. Clues to Sleepiness
Knowing the signs of a sleepy baby isn’t always easy. Older babies may rub their eyes, yawn, or become irritable. However, newborns aren’t that advanced, and not all will rub their eyes.
Try to observe your little one’s fists. If they look closed and your baby has them near their face, it could be a clue. Your baby may also appear tense or paralyzed, yawn, or struggle to keep their eyes open.
It’s important that you respond to these signals as soon as possible. Not all newborns can lull themselves to sleep, and it can quickly escalate into a full-blown cry.
3. Needing a Diaper Change
Alright, so you may think this one is easy. However, because a newborn’s poop doesn’t have a distinct smell yet, it can be tricky (7). So, how can you tell when they’ve done the deed in their diaper?
Your baby might look uncomfortable, restless, or even irritated. Having a dirty diaper can make them cranky and moody.
If your little one falls asleep while wearing a soiled diaper, they may wake up suddenly. Another clue is if it’s been a while since the last diaper change — then it’s probably time to check.
What a Crybaby
When most of us think of babies, we instantly think of that constant cry every time they need something. Almost all babies are born with a natural crying instinct, designed to affect the adults around them. It’s a sound we associate with a healthy childbirth, an indicator that baby arrived well and is breathing.
So when your newborn doesn’t cry, it’s bound to raise some alarms. However, there are several reasons why some babies don’t cry. If the labor was quick, you had a cesarean section, or received pain medicine, then it can affect your baby. Nemour’s Hospital offers some additional tips, including when crying is excessive and abnormal.
If you have any worries, always consult your baby’s pediatrician.