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Published November 09, 2010, 12:00 AM

Having a bawl: Baby cries convey a lot more than noise

New parents sometimes look at their wailing infants and think: “If only you could talk so I could figure out what was wrong.”

New parents sometimes look at their wailing infants and think: “If only you could talk so I could figure out what was wrong.”

In fact, babies do express themselves long before their brains develop enough to form words and sentences. Child-development, child care and speech experts say babies’ cries can tell us whether they are hungry or colicky, uncomfortable or just plain bored.

Not only does crying help children get their needs met, it allows them to develop an early understanding of language. Months before a baby utters “oooh” or “mamamaa,” he learns that certain cries will bring different results from his caretakers.

Barb Holter, speech language pathology coordinator with Sanford Health in Fargo, says crying is so important that she asks parents about it when conducting growth and development clinics for babies whose early life started in neonatal intensive care.

These questions help speech pathologist determine if babies are attaching meaning to sounds. “Is the baby getting the idea that if I vary my cry, I get this for this or that for that?” she says.

A baby’s cry may share some universal traits, but it may vary according to nationality. By 2 to 5 days of age, infants’ cries already bear the melodic patterns and pitch shifts of their parents’ native tongue, according to the online journal “Current Biology.”

And individual variations also enter the equation.

“So much has to do with personality,” says Mary Duggan, head teacher at the infant and toddler room of the NDSU Childcare Center. “If they have a more intense personality, you might get a stronger cry. Once you get to know the child’s personality, you can start to decipher what the cries mean.”

It’s also helpful to read the context of the cries. If your child last ate two hours ago, she’s probably crying out of hunger. If she’s rubbing her eyes, she might be tired.

With those caveats in mind, we offer this general guide to what different cries often mean.

‘I’m hungry. What’s for dinner?’

What it sounds like: Fairly desperate and unrelenting; usually rhythmic. The baby will often root or suck on his hands and can’t be calmed down. The cry will grow in intensity as he gets hungrier, Holter says.

Solution: When in doubt, feed the baby. It’s likely he is hungry if he was breast-fed more than one-and-a-half to three hours ago or bottle-fed two to four hours earlier. If the child has had formula, wait at least two hours to let him digest it before feeding again, or he may be uncomfortable, according to American Baby magazine.

For breast-fed babies, being held but not fed by Mom can be upsetting because the baby can smell the milk, according to American Baby. If that’s the case, let Dad step in.

‘Something is bugging me’

What it sounds like: A forced, whiny cry with a pattern of short repetitions (“uh-UH, uh-UH”) signals discomfort. Other clues: squirminess, batting with the hands, scrunched-up face, still cries when picked up.

Louise Rickford has run a home day care for 35 years. She tells how she cares for a 7-month-old girl who rarely cries – except when she’s hungry or has a soiled diaper. For the latter, “she’ll just sit and holler,” she says.

Solution: Check for signs of discomfort, such as whether baby needs changing or is too hot or cold.

‘I’m tired’

What it sounds like: A soft, helpless, rhythmic cry as the baby tries to pacify himself and go to sleep. May also sound irritated and occasionally belt out quick wails. May yawn, rub his eyes or turn away from you. Eyes may be red, glassy or puffy.

Solution: If baby seems tired yet seems restless in your arms, put him down. Sometimes, infants just want to be allowed some peace and quiet so they can doze off.

Giving the baby a pacifier and swaddling him snugly in a blanket also can help him sleep better.


What it sounds like: A sharp, piercing cry. If baby is experiencing colic or gas pain, she may bring her legs up toward her stomach. May be accompanied by arching back, clenched hands and feet and thrashing.

Solution: Babies can find the sucking reflex from a pacifier to be calming. Some childbirth experts swear “binkies” also help gas move through the baby’s system more quickly.

If a baby’s cries last at least three hours three or more nights of the week, she could have colic.

In those cases, you’ll want to try things such as walking with the baby, swaddling, holding her on her side or stomach, placing her in a swing for short periods, giving her a pacifier or making a “shhh” sound in her ear, which reminds her of the womb.

“Sometimes you just have to lay them down and let them cry for a while because if you don’t, you go nuts and they go nuts,” Rickford says.

‘I’m bored’

What it sounds like: Typically not as loud as other cries – often staccato. May even sound like a fake cry. Boredom can morph into laughter. Crying stops when child is picked up.

Rickford says the bored cry often doesn’t produce tears. She said it can sometimes turn into a “scream-y cry … it’s more like they’re screaming at you, ‘Look at me, look at me.’ ”

Solution: Delay your response by a few seconds or a minute, advises Dr. Marc Weissbluth, author of “Your Fussy Baby” in American Baby magazine. Weissbluth said you can’t spoil a child in the first few weeks of life, but you also don’t have to dash to the baby’s side for every sound he makes.

During a short delay like this, the baby may become engaged by something else, like the patterns of his crib bumpers, thus eliminating a need for constant attention. A short delay isn’t cruel; it just begins to teach the child to self-soothe.

This article contains information from Parents and American Baby magazines.

Parents: Tips for keeping your cool

Few things are harder on a parent than a baby on a marathon crying jag. Follow these tips to keep your cool during these stressful situations:

  • Slow down. Take a deep breath and count to 10. Repeat a calm word or phrase, such as “Take it easy.” Imagine yourself in a calm, relaxing place. Play soothing music in the background.
  • Take a break. If you’re alone, put your baby in a safe place, such as the crib. Let him cry while you take a few minutes to breathe and regroup in another room. Remind yourself that you’re not failing your baby if you can’t stop a crying jag. Sometimes babies just need to cry.
  • Get moving. Put your baby in a stroller and take a brisk walk. The exertion may take your mind off the tears. If you’re calm enough, you might even buckle the baby into his car seat and take a short drive.
  • Express yourself. When you’re getting frustrated, speak up. Saying the words out loud – either to yourself or to an understanding friend – can help ease the tension.
  • Ask for help. Let your partner or another loved one take over for a while. Take advantage of baby-sitting offers from trusted friends or neighbors. Use the time to take a nap or just relax.
  • Recognize your limits. If you’re worried about your ability to deal with a crying baby, contact your doctor, a local crisis intervention service or a mental health help line for support.

    Whatever you do, treat your baby gently. Remember that babies have weak neck muscles and struggle to support their heads. Shaking your baby out of sheer frustration may have devastating consequences – including brain damage and death.

    Remember: Taking care of yourself is the best way to take care of your baby.

Source: Mayoclinic.com