Decoding your baby’s cries

Newborns cry because they don’t have any other way to tell us what they need or if something is wrong. But how are you supposed to understand them when you don’t speak their language? Katie Thomas explains.

The first ever cry from your newborn is a relieving and joyous moment. It signifies a healthy baby with a strong set of lungs. But over the first few weeks of your baby’s, life this feeling of relief may grow into frustration and worry. Persistent and inconsolable newborn crying can quickly overwhelm your home and your sanity! Here are some vital points to understand about newborns and their cries that will help you and your baby to communicate with each other more effectively.

A newborn baby is unable to process his/her senses in the same way we adults can, meaning every slight change in their environment can be an overwhelming experience. Crying is a newborn’s top form of communication. It is the only way your newborn knows how to communicate his/her wants and needs; therefore, crying whenever they are feeling anything, be it hungry, tired, or just bored, is completely normal. Although crying is normal during this time, endless hours of unexplained crying is not. If your gut instinct is telling you something isn’t right, do not be embarrassed to ask for help. It takes time, patience, and practise to distinguish your baby’s cries and for you both to learn about each other.

Interpreter needed

Even if you are not first-time parents, each baby will display different cries and it will take time to differentiate them and figure out their needs. Some babies have a variety of cries for whatever they are trying to communicate, while others seem to have one angry scream for every occasion. Taking note of your baby’s activity and feeds during the day can help to figure out the root of the crying, as well as the actual cry itself. Here is a list of the most common reasons why your newborn will cry, and what they may be looking and sounding like.

“My nappy needs changing!”

Most babies are only really bothered by a dirty nappy if they are also tired. If they are particularly squirmy or grizzly, it is worth checking that their nappy is clean.

“I’m hangry!”

Hunger is generally the first and most obvious thought when a baby cries. When did they last feed? Could they be hungry? Having some sort of feeding schedule in place can help with this confusion. If the words “routine” and “schedule” scare you, even just taking note of the time and length of each feed can help you to figure out the cause of crying. A hunger cry might sound rhythmic, desperate, builds in intensity and at a medium pitch. Other common signs are rooting when something touches their cheek/face, sucking on fingers, opening and closing mouth, squirming around, and moving their head from side to side.

There is nothing wrong with offering your newborn a top-up feed if you are unsure if the cry is due to hunger or not. During the early days, it is vital for your milk supply to have your baby feeding from you frequently; but if every cry results in them being fed, you might be missing their tired cues. If they are just sucking for comfort and are not swallowing, it could be tired or overtiredness, which is commonly confused for hunger.

“I need sleep!”

A tired cry can start off with a little grizzle and build slowly in intensity, into quite a distressed cry. There are other signs to look out for when a baby is tired, such as yawning, an absent stare, eyes looking a little red, glassy, and puffy, rubbing of eyes, and jerky movements. Settle baby down to sleep when they show any tired signs, to prevent them becoming overtired.

“I’m overwhelmed!”

Newborns can only handle a certain amount of stimulation. They are very sensitive to noise, smell, and touch. With their senses on overdrive, it’s important to be aware of the environment they are in. An overwhelmed cry may begin as fussy-sounding and gradually escalate; a shrieking noise is common, as they try to block out all of the background noise, and in older babies, often they may start hysterically laughing. You may notice they turn their head and body away from the noise or stimulation. Moving them away from the environment before they become distressed is a good idea.

“I’m overtired!”

It will be harder to settle your baby to sleep if they are overtired. Their brain is on overdrive, and falling into a deep sleep is a lot harder to do. An overtired cry can start as irregular fussing, but if not settled to sleep, it can become similar to that of being in pain: Back arching, knees up, grabbing at ears/scratching face, and may appear very distressed. If your baby has been awake longer than the time they should be, make it a priority to settle them to sleep, to try to avoid a tricky cycle of overtiredness.

“I’m bored!”

It is important to ensure your baby is having the right amount of awake time and stimulation for their age. Talk to your healthcare provider if you are unsure about this timing. A “not tired enough” or bored cry might be a whiny and frustrated grizzle, rather than a distressed cry. A change of scenery should stop the fussing.

“I’ve got wind!”

Crying because of wind, reflux, or digestive pain – constipation, needing to poo, or having a bit of a sore tummy from overfeeding – will come on suddenly, being high volume, high pitched, panicked, rhythmic, and intense, causing baby to become breathless. It may be accompanied with an arched back, knees up, and grabbing at their face and ears. Soothing baby with cuddling and rocking, offering a finger or dummy to suck on, and holding them in an upright burping position should all be helpful for this.

“I’m too hot/cold!”

Newborn babies don’t have the ability to regulate their own temperatures. If your baby is too cold, they will cry in discomfort and you may notice a quivering bottom lip, goosebumps on their skin, shivering, and their extremities feel cold to touch. If your baby is too hot, they will whine and maybe start panting instead of regular breathing. They will feel hot to touch and may look red and blotchy. Take your baby’s temperature if you are concerned it could be a fever. A general rule to follow is to dress your baby in one layer more than you have on yourself.

“I need reassurance!”

If your baby has been startled by a loud noise or sensation, or is craving contact and cuddling, the usual baby coo noises become a fussy grizzle or sudden cry out, until your baby is picked up and cuddled.

“Something itches! Something hurts!”

If your baby is itchy, or has a mild pain, they’ll make a whiny, frustrated cry that builds in intensity if not solved. Check all over baby to ensure there are no visible physical issues, such as a hair caught/wrapped around a little finger or toe, a tag on clothing, itchy fabric, or even just the way they’re being held could have been causing discomfort.

“I’m seriously not feeling well.”

If your baby is seriously unwell or in pain, their cry will generally be inconsolable, panicked, and high-pitched from pain, but could also be a soft, endless whimpering sound if they are exhausted and ill. Look out for other symptoms that are out of the ordinary, check your baby’s temperature, and contact your health care provider immediately if you are concerned.

The process of elimination

Often it is a process of elimination to decode a newborn’s cries. Keeping track of feed and sleep times throughout the day will be a huge help in figuring out what your baby is trying to communicate. Here are some helpful soothing tips to try:

  • Massage their tummy in gentle clockwise circles
  • Try a dummy
  • Swaddle
  • Play white noise
  • Dim lights
  • Go for a walk in the pram
  • Run a warm bath
  • Cuddle

Most important is for YOU to take a deep breath. Babies are highly sensitive and pick up on panic and anxiety. Staying calm during and knowing when to ask for help are vital. A screaming, unsettled baby is extremely stressful for the carer, emotionally and physically, and it is important to realise your baby is just trying to communicate with you.

Postnatal depression (PND) is a serious and overwhelming form of depression that affects 10-15% of new mothers. If you ever feel like you have reached your limit and you are not coping, it is so important that you reach out for help. No one should suffer in silence. Put your baby down in a safe place and move away to take a breather and think about what to do next. Your partner, family, or friends can be a comforting ear and extra pair of hands, and talking to your healthcare provider (GP, midwife, or Plunket nurse) will be helpful.

Helplines for mums:

  • Plunketline – 0800 933 922
  • Healthline – 0800 611 116
  • Depression helpline – 0800 111 75

Online resources for mums:


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BUMP & baby is New Zealand’s only magazine for pregnancy and early babyhood. Our team of mums and mums-to-be understand what it’s like to be pregnant in this connected age, and that’s why BUMP & Baby online is geared toward what pregnant women and new mums really want to know.

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