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How to Understand and Decode Your Baby's Cries

How to Understand and Decode Your Baby's Cries

With a little practice—and patience—it is possible to discern your infants cries.

As a parent of a newborn, it can be hard to know exactly what your infant needs when she cries—but it is possible to learn to differentiate between your baby's cries and instantly know what she needs or wants. Experts weigh in, sharing tips for how you can decode infants' cries and sooth your crying infant quickly.

It's 2am, and you just woke up to your baby crying uncontrollably. Exhausted, you get up to tend to her. What could it be this time? Is she hungry? Does she need to be changed? At that hour, you're hoping it's an easy fix, so both of you can get back to bed.

Crying is a normal part of a baby’s development. It’s his way of communicating something is wrong. Hunger, tiredness, frustration, pain, and colic are among the reasons he brings on the tears. But wouldn't it be nice to hear a particular cry and know immediately which of these causes is making your baby so upset? Some parents and experts say it's possible.

“I have a two-year-old and six-month-old, and yes I can absolutely tell what is wrong when they cry,” says Brittany Bailey, of Atlanta. “The louder more desperate cry is the hungry or discomfort cry such as gas or a full diaper, but usually it's hunger. The pitiful whimper that grows to a nagging, impatient do-something-right-now cry is when they are sleepy.”

Although the sounds of the cries were the same for both of Bailey's children, the level of desperation she heard was different. “My daughter is mellow, so her hunger cry was nowhere near as loud as my son's,” she says. “And her tired cry was more desperate than his, but they had similar tones and sounds, just different passions.”

Of course, every baby is different. While Bailey’s children cried loudly when they wanted food, Melissa Petruzzi of Staten Island, has an infant son, Nick, who takes the quieter approach to getting fed.

“When we brought our son home, he was a quiet baby,” Petruzzi says. “He only fussed when he was hungry, and it was more like a whimper than a cry. Sometimes he’ll put his fist to his mouth, too, giving off another cue that he’s hungry.”

By the time her son turned 3 months, Petruzzi was able to start recognizing what his other cries meant. “The ‘pick me up’ cry would start as a normal cry, then go to full-on sob where his mouth was open, but no sound came out. His frustrated cry was a high-pitched scream,” she says.

Learning to Decipher the Cries

Some babies cry more than others, but research shows maximum crying occurs during the first three months of life. From birth to 6 weeks, babies cry approximately about 110-118 minutes total daily. And certain cries in that almost 2 hours of daily crying can be characteristic of a baby’s need, according to Terry Cralle, R.N., sleep educator, and author of Snoozby and the Great Big Bedtime Battle. And while your baby’s cries for exactly what’s going on will be unique to her, the following characteristics can help you learn those cries a little quicker:

He’s hungry: This is the most common reason babies cry, and crying is said to be a late sign of hunger, according to Cralle. “A hungry cry is described as usually short and low-pitched, and it rises and falls,” she says. “Hungry cries are sometimes described as repetitive and rhythmic.”

She’s tired: This cry is sometimes accompanied by physical signals, such as yawning, pulling on ears, restlessness, hand clenching, blinking, closed eyes, or eye rubbing, according to Cralle. 

He’s in pain. Cries from babies with colic last longer. Colic usually resolves when a baby turns 3 or 4 months old. Cries of a baby in pain have been described as harsh, sudden, shrill, loud, and long, followed by a quiet pause when your baby catches his breath. A high-pitched or very low-pitched cry that persists can be indicative of illness.

Don’t Give Up

Determining the reasons for your child’s cries doesn’t come easily, especially if you’re a first-time parent. It takes time to get to know the different sounds and signals that go along with each crying episode, so don’t be hard on yourself if you haven’t been able to quickly dry your baby’s tears yet.

“We learn in residency the different cries. Hunger, pain, obstinate, fear. Baby cries can be weak or strong and can have different pitches,” says Amy Luedemann-Lazar, D.D.S., a pediatric Waterlase dentist. “It would be hard for a first-time parent to understand or recognize the difference, but a well-seasoned provider and someone like myself who treats dozens of babies a day recognizes the cries right away.”

For many parents, deciphering their child’s cries is a learning curve. And sometimes, a baby will cry for reasons that remain a mystery to mom and dad.

“Each cry has a different nuance to it that you learn as you go,” says Ann-louise Brennan, a mother of two who lives in Bedford, U.K. “Sometimes it’s a cry you have never heard before, so you stand there begging this child to tell you what the problem is. Typically, it’s an ‘I have no idea why I am crying I just am’ type of cry. You change them, they still cry. You feed them, they still cry. You rock them, they still cry.”

Can You Spoil a Crying Child?

It’s a fact that babies will always cry. And not every parent will become a pro at recognizing the reason for each and every cry. Many experienced parents and medical experts disagree with the popular notion that constantly running to a crying baby spoils them.

Parents should always respond to a crying baby, even if they aren’t sure why she’s crying, according to Cralle. “It’s a myth that promptly picking up a baby every time he or she cries will spoil a child,” she says. 

“Toddlers can be spoiled and are smart and know how to manipulate to get their way,” Bailey says. “Babies aren’t being manipulative when they cry. It is their sole means of communication. They’re trying to tell us something is wrong.”

Bottom line? Don’t worry if you can’t immediately pinpoint the reason for your baby’s tears. Crying bouts are inevitable when you have an infant. But if you have any questions, doubts, or concerns, especially if the crying is sudden or lasts a long time or is accompanied with physical symptoms such as fever or diarrhea, contact your pediatrician.

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Barbara Russo

Author: Barbara Russo is a freelance writer who holds a bachelor's degree in communications from the City University of New York. She enjoys playing guitar, following current events, and hanging out with her pet rabbits. See More

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