Parenting Series 3 - Baby's crying

Why do baby cry?

During the first few months after birth, a baby expresses his needs mainly through crying. He may cry to indicate:

  1. his physical needs
  2. his discomfort due to excessive external stimulation
  3. his lonely feeling and needs for company
  4. he is not well or in pain

How to distinguish the cries of a baby?

Babies have a whole range of cry sounds. Each baby is unique in his response. You will soon learn the meanings behind your baby's cries and identify her specific needs through repeated observations and prompt responses. Here are some examples:

  • A hungry cry is usually low-pitched.
  • An angry cry tends to be more violent.
  • A cry of pain generally comes on suddenly with a loud, long, high-pitched shriek followed by a long pause and then a flat wail.

Sometimes different types of cries overlap. For instance, the baby's hunger cry may give way to a wail of rage if parents do not attend to her.

How to console a crying baby?

When your baby cries, try to figure out why he cries and respond promptly. Let your baby see your face and hear your gentle voice as you go about checking out his needs. You may check whether there is a specific reason, e.g. his diaper is wet, or he is hungry. You may even consider other possibilities like whether his feet are being entangled or that he has been stung by a mosquito. By identifying and meeting his needs, you will have stopped his crying.

If your baby's crying is not due to the above reasons, he probably needs more soothing. You may try some of the suggestions below:

  • Caress him and talk to him gently.
  • Play some soft music.
  • Swaddle him in a soft blanket to give him comfort and security.
  • Rock him gently or walk around in a steady rhythmic motion while you are holding him. Hold him upright and close to your body, or lay him on your shoulder and chest.
  • Satisfying his need for sucking. You may consider giving your baby a pacifier. If you nurse your baby with breast milk, you can try to breastfeed him while you are in a lying position and let him suckle until he settles himself. In this way, you can also have a rest. Offering a pacifier too early to breast-fed babies will cause nipple confusion in them. If it is needed, consider giving it to your breast-fed baby only after one month of age.

Will I spoil the baby by holding him too much?

Baby's crying has the basic function of signaling needs. By picking her up when she needs your soothing, you show yourself to be sensitive to her needs. Your baby will feel your care and love and thus enhancing a secure relationship with you.

When your baby is calm and alert, this is the time for you to enjoy intimate interactions. Stroke, rock, or cuddle her gently. Talk or play music to her, play with her or show her interesting things. Your baby feels contented with your attention and learns that she will get this comfortable feeling when she is calm. You will not be spoiling your baby.

What to do if the baby is inconsolable?

If your baby continues crying intensely after you have tried the above methods of soothing, he may be crying because of the following reasons:

  1. Reasons for inconsolable Cry
    1. Slow in adapting to the environment
      Some babies are easily upset and take longer time to calm down when there are changes in the environment.
    2. Being over-stimulated
      Some babies are more sensitive to new experiences. For example, after encountering unfamiliar faces, the baby may cry and wail through the night.
    3. Feeling distressed
      The baby can feel the emotional changes in the caregiver. He may become distressed and cry a lot under the influence of the caregiver's tensions.
    4. Colic
      Colic is noted in invariably healthy babies. It typically appears at about 2 weeks of age and then disappears spontaneously at 3 or 4 months of age. About one-fifth of the babies develop colic. The baby usually has intense daily bouts of crying lasting for one to three hours between evening and midnight. There is no definite explanation for colic. Despite soothing measures, the baby cries inconsolably, often screaming, extending or pulling up his legs and passing gas.
    5. Being in pain or illness
      The baby may not stop crying if he is in pain or feels sick.
  2. Tips for managing the inconsolable baby
    1. Keep calm and avoid being too worried and hurried. Doing too many things at the same time to the baby would only over-stimulate her and make her feel even more tense and uncomfortable.
    2. Rule out the possibility of a medical condition. If your inconsolable baby refuses to suck, vomits or having a swollen tummy, you should consult the doctor immediately.
    3. Be systematic. Try one method at a time. Note the procedure you use and the duration of the crying that follows. This helps identify effective ways to manage your baby's crying.
    4. Getting to know your baby's characteristics. Understanding your baby's individual response style and degree of sensitivity to environmental stimuli helps you take action earlier to prevent her from escalating to intense crying. Introduce the stimuli or changes gradually. Remove her from the stress situation and let her take a rest when she starts being fussy.
    5. Sharing experiences with other parents
      Talk with other parents to learn about what they do. You may find some of the methods they have tried, such as taking the baby for a ride, going for a stroll or carrying her with a sling on the chest, to be feasible for you.
    6. Putting things into perspective
      For babies who have colic, there is still no well documented ways in managing their crying. Fortunately, colic usually disappears when the baby is 3 to 4 months old. Be patient. Tell yourself that the situations are only temporary and learn to accept that things are not perfect.
    7. Taking care of your own emotional needs
      Taking care of a crying baby can be very trying. When you feel exhausted, take a break and unwind the tension. You may sometimes feel desperate and even fear that you may hurt your baby.** At this point, find someone to baby-sit for you.
      If you have no one to call on for help, put the baby in her cot or any other safe place and leave her there for a while. Attend to your own emotional needs first. Go back to your baby as soon as you feel better.
    8. Getting support
      Getting support from your family, relatives and friends can help you overcoming the difficulties. You can also consult the healthcare personnel at the MCHCs or your family doctor.

** Footnote: Never shake the baby severely to avoid an accident. (Please see the appendix on "the Shaken Baby Syndrome".)

Appendix: "Shaken Baby Syndrome"

Shaken baby syndrome describes the serious injuries that can occur when a young baby is severely or violently shaken. When the baby is shaken, his fragile brain moves back and forth within the skull. The shock can cause serious injuries such as permanent brain damage, blindness, seizure or even death. The syndrome usually occurs when a caregiver shakes a baby vigorously by throwing him in air in fun or out of anger or frustration. This can be a serious form of child abuse. So, never shake a baby!

We have a series of "Happy Parenting!" workshops and leaflets for expectant parents, parents of infants and preschool children, Please contact our healthcare personnel for information.

(Content revised on 02-2014)