The Meaning Behind Your Baby's Cries

Whether it's high-pitched, low-pitched, loud or soft, as a parent you always want to be able to soothe your baby's cries. If they're crying, you know that means that something's wrong and of course you want to relieve their pain or discomfort right away. But it can be difficult to know what's wrong since they can't actually tell you. This is where learning what your baby's different cries can be helpful. Of course, it's never foolproof, but with a little bit of careful listening and using all of the other clues your baby's giving you, you can figure out how to calm your baby sooner rather later!

At one point or another, your baby will go through all of the following discomforts:

  • hunger
  • upset stomach/gas
  • overstimulation
  • sleepiness
  • boredom
  • sickness

We'll tell you what to listen for to determine which of these your baby is feeling. Additionally, we'll talk about crying that comes from colic and how to determine if that's what your baby is going through.

Types of Cries You'll Hear From Your Baby

Becoming a parent is all about on-the-job training. You have no idea what you're doing when you have your first, but you know you have to figure it all out real quick! And you will.

One part of that is determining what your baby's cries mean. It's not realistic to expect that your baby won't cry - that's they're way of communicating after all! (Plus, you know what it's like to be moody, right??!) To some extent it's universal, and babies do have different types of cries depending on the reason (as shown in this video with a guest on Oprah). But every baby is different. As you spend time with your baby it will become easier to determine their needs so you can help them.

The hope is that we can help you distinguish between the sounds of your baby's cries in order to spend less time wondering what the heck is wrong and get right to making them feel better ASAP.

Hunger Cry

Sounds like: Rhythmic crying with an "neh" sound. This specific sound comes from baby sucking and putting their tongue to the roof of their mouth while simultaneously crying. The sound will intensify as your baby gets more and more hungry but can come on suddenly especially for younger babies.

Other signs of hunger: Consider when you last fed your baby and you'll often realize, yep, it's about feeding time when those "neh" cries kick in. But you also may look at the clock and think, "Already?!!" I remember reading all the baby books telling me my baby would want to eat every 3 hours, but this would often happen starting around the 2-hour mark. That's completely normal for a newborn. Schedules at this age are not recommended and babies can be ready for their next meal sooner than you'd think.

If you're still not sure, the rooting and sucking your baby is doing are telltale signs.

The solution: Feed them as quickly as possible. Don't wait for a certain time on the clock. This is your baby's way of letting you know that they are hungry and it's time to eat!

Upset Stomach or Gas

Sounds like: High-pitched, sometimes wailing or screechy sounding. You can also listen for an "eair" or "eh" sound. It sounds very different from a hungry or tired cry since your baby is in pain. This can sound similar to "colic" but a baby with gas doesn't necessarily have colic. We'll talk more about that condition coming up.

Other signs to look for: Babies who have gas built up and need to burp will often pull up their legs and scrunch their knees toward their stomach. They will likely be squirmy and refuse the bottle or breast if you try to continue feeding them.

The solution: Usually all you need to do is burp your baby and it's fixed! You can do this by holding them to your shoulder and tapping with your hand on their upper back or you can sit them up and lean them forward with the same motion (be sure to support their head!) Once the burp comes out (or often spit up in younger babies) they'll immediately feel better and the cry will be gone.

The Tired Cry

Sounds like: Slow and rhythmic. It may be softer as they begin to tire and intensify the more exhausted they become. Listen for an "owh" sound - formed by an "o" shaped mouth similar to the way yours looks when you yawn.

Other signs of sleepiness: As newborns, it's especially helpful to know how long a baby can stay awake before needing to sleep again. In those first several weeks, it's not very long! It can seem surprising that they are already tired again, but little ones' brains and bodies are on overdrive and sleep is the way they grow and learn. Not sure how long your little one can stay awake before tiring? Read: "Newborn Sleep Patterns and Schedules for the First Year."

You may see your baby pulling on their ears, yawning and having difficulty focusing. Jerky movements are another physical sign to take note of.

The solution: Getting your baby swaddled as soon as you see those first tired signs will help immensely. Most babies do very well from being swaddled since it mimics the security they felt when in their mother's womb. The weighted swaddle from Dreamland Baby works especially well with its added benefit of weight that increases melatonin and serotonin to help your baby sleep. If your baby is truly sleepy, wrapping them tightly in this swaddle will often calm them immediately.

Then be sure to follow a bedtime routine - you can see what we recommend to follow here.

Boredom Cry

Sounds like: If your baby is feeling bored or ignored they may start by whimpering in hopes that someone will pay attention to them. These cries are usually less intense and at a lower frequency. Though they may develop into a more persistent cry if they aren't getting the attention they are seeking.

Other signs of boredom: We all know how busy you are as a parent! Often this means you are multitasking when caring for your little one and that is completely ok. But your baby might see it otherwise. If your baby has been laying on a playmat or hanging out in a playpen for an extended period or hasn't been held in awhile, they probably just want to be with you for some cuddle time.

The solution: Hold your baby! This will often get them back to their happy self. Don't worry about spoiling your baby - there's no such thing. And if you still need to get stuff done around the house, carrying your baby in a sling or carrier is a great way to keep your baby content while also managing your to-do list.

Sickness or Discomfort

Sounds like: Think about how you feel when you are sick or uncomfortable. You don't have a lot of energy, right? Well, neither does your baby which means vocally, a cry out of sickness often comes out more as a whimper. Getting their volume up requires the energy that they don't necessarily have to give. You may hear it as a "heh" sound.

Other signs of sickness or discomfort: The mildest signs of discomfort may come from a dirty diaper, being too hot/cold or from being in an uncomfortable position. Refusing to eat or a fever are other signs that your baby isn't feeling well.

The solution: Whatever it is that's bothering your baby, you'll want to get to the root cause as soon as possible. Usually it will be something minor that is quickly fixed, but babies do get sick from time to time. If you suspect your baby might be sick, you should call your baby's doctor. This article from She Knows gives a list of some signs and symptoms to look for that would warrant a doctor's visit.

What about colic?

Colicky babies will often wail for what seems like hours with no end in sight. The cry often sounds like what is associated with gas or stomach discomfort - many colicky babies do suffer from these ailments. 

Colic, however, is defined as: "episodes of crying for more than three hours per day, for more than three days per week, for a period of three weeks." According to the American Pregnancy Association, approximately 20 - 25% of babies fit this definition. If you think your baby is suffering from colic, we recommend your read, "Helping a Baby with Colic: Identifying Symptoms and 10 Soothing Tips." We know how hard it can be and want you to be able to help comfort your baby in the best way that you can.

Staying Calm Through Your Baby's Cries

When your baby cries, using these signs and solutions will usually be enough to soothe your little one. But we know it's not always that simple.

As a parent, listening to your baby cry without a way to solve it can be heartbreaking. It can make you feel helpless...leaving you questioning your capabilities as a parent. We want you to know you are not alone in this! In fact, every parent feels this way at one time or another.

Make sure you are taking care of yourself and taking advantage of a break when you need it. Reaching out for help is always ok, and if you need to put your baby down safely in a crib to take a moment for yourself, there is nothing wrong with that. Usually this is enough to relax and calm yourself and figure out what your baby needs - getting your baby's precious smile back in no time.

*Featured Image: cry-baby Creative Commons Generic License