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What Your Crying Baby Is Trying to Tell You

Babies pretty much have two settings:  crying and not crying.

Being a parent is pretty easy when your baby is in “not crying” mode. You get to enjoy some smiles, bask in some giggles, and pretty much let your parental ego tank get filled to overflowing.

It’s when our babies are in “crying” mode that self-doubt starts creeping into our soul like dark fog in a horror flick. We start to wonder if we were really all that cut out for parenthood.  After all, he just keeps crying and we don’t. know. WHY?

Well, let me shine my Giant Ray Beam and burn the horror fog away.

Babies cry.  It’s kinda their thing.

It’s how they communicate.  It’s often, (unless you teach baby signs) their only way to communicate until past the first birthday.

In fact, if your baby NEVER cries (and I mean never, not “once-in-a-while”), you should be concerned enough to call a doctor. The Milestone Marker can provide you with the other “pink flag” signs to be aware of in catching (and treating) early developmental delays.

My Coffee Chat with Your Baby

Last week your baby and I sat down at Starbucks (he had a latte without the espresso) and had a real heart-to-heart. We really connected.

Anyway, he asked me to share (in confidence, of course) how this year was going so far.  Here were his main points:

  1. He thinks you totally rock.  You are BY FAR his favorite female.
  2. He really likes the guy who holds him…except for when his cheeks are sandpaper.
  3. Eating is his favorite sport.
  4. He’s had these bouts of sadness lately and wants you to know that it’s not you.  It’s him.

Like a good listening friend, I couldn’t let that last comment go by without digging a little deeper.  (It’s the social work degree. It compluses me.)

We spent the next hour talking about all the things he’s feeling and thinking on the inside while he’s wailing on the outside.

I have since, with his permission, taken those reasons and compiled them into a list of things you’ll want to be familiar with.  Then, when he starts crying, you can go through and start troubleshooting how best to intervene and give the relief.

Why So Sad?
Deciphering the Language of Cry

  1. I’m hot. Please take off one of my ten layers.
  2. I’m cold. Please wrap me in my favorite swaddle.
  3. I have a hair tourniquet.  It’s wrapped around my finger (or my penis!) and is cutting off circulation.
  4. This outfit is scratchy, put me in something softer.
  5. The tags on this outfit are scraping me, can you cut them off?
  6. My finger/foot/hand/arm/leg/head is stuck in something.
  7. The lights in this room are too bright.
  8. The TV is too loud.
  9. The dog keeps sniffing my crotch.
  10. My pacifier tastes funny.  How old is it again?
  11. The hole on the nipple for this bottle is too small and sucking is making my cheeks sore.
  12. The hole on the nipple for this bottle is too large and I’m practically drowning.
  13. My teeth feel like drill bits and I need something to make the pain go away.
  14. My tummy is rumblin’. Feed me, Seymour!
  15. I’m sitting on little brown pebbles.
  16. Uncle John’s laugh scared me so much that I wet myself.
  17. I’m sitting on clay, and the butt print I’ve been working on is no longer interesting.
  18. I’m beyond myself with exhaustion and I don’t remember what sleep is. Please teach me sleep skills!
  19. The rich scent of ammonia is making my eyes water and burn my bum.  Fresh linens would feel heavenly on my nether regions.
  20. I’m bored. Please take me on a walk, or read me a book, or show me an interesting toy.
  21. The cat keeps trying to sit on me.
  22. My throat burns after I eat.
  23. You turned on the hair dryer and it startled me.
  24. Big brother slipped me a lemon when you weren’t looking.
  25. The little red bumps covering my adorable tushie are throbbing. I need relief!
  26. I’m an introvert and overstimulated. Put me alone in my crib for a few minutes.
  27. My pacifier keeps falling out. I need something to hold it in place.
  28. These long things sticking out of my body keep flailing around.  I feel more secure when they are pinned tightly to my body.
  29. I want to be cuddled and rocked.
  30. I’m not sure I’ve ever told you this:  I hate hats.
  31. My limbs are itching for movement.  Put me in the bouncer or bounce with me on an exercise ball and let me get my squirms out.
  32. I need to listen to something mundane and repetitive, like running tap water, the vacuum, dryer, bathroom fan, or a white noise machine.
  33. I need to be surprised.  Take me with you into the shower and let me experience the soft warm rain on my back.
  34. My tummy is a Vesuvius of gas. Are you sure you don’t have any all-natural gripe water (stomach gas) or probiotics (intestinal gas) in the cabinet?
  35. I want to turn around and see what all the activity is BEHIND me. Hold me so I can look out!
  36. I’m frustrated.  I’m still hungry and you’re putting away the breast! I’m a Kermit Feeder!
  37. Teach me sign language so I can tell you when I want more.  (Movements are learned before language!)
  38. I’m sad at the state of the world. I mourn over the womb. Just use a few advanced soothing skills to help me get through it all.
  39. I’m uncomfortable.  Dad hates wearing a tie and so do I.
  40. You’ve just handed me to Great-Grandma Edna and she smells funny.
  41. You put me in the bathtub!  You are evil!
  42. You took me out of the bathtub! You are evil!
  43. I’m hungry.  Again. (Hint: This great book teaches what the normal sleeping & feeding requirements are for different ages.)
  44. I don’t like it when you and Dad fight.  I’m emotionally plugged-in to both of you, even though I’m so small.
  45. Pretty sure I swallowed a bowling ball.  Can you burp me to get it out?
  46. I can’t see you!  I need to bond with a lovey so I don’t feel so lonely when I can’t see your face.
  47. I just need a good cry.  Put in some good corded earplugs (so I can’t find and choke on them later), hold me tight, and let me wail out all my sorrows.

You’re in Good Company

I know right now things feel pretty overwhelming and desperate.

Know this, though, friend. This little person is growing a little more everyday. This isn’t your life for ever. Keep asking questions, trying options, and exploring ideas.

He will be smiling before you know it.

Have You Read These Yet?

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20 thoughts on “What Your Crying Baby Is Trying to Tell You

  1. Hi there. I’m in a similar boat to previous poster Erica (no family or close friends near by) and a first time mummy of twin girls in need of advice. Can you help? They just turned five months (31/2adjusted) and one of them has decided to start screeching SO loudly and angrily it frightens the other. She is constantly shouting and if I don’t see to her immediately (a difficulty with two sometimes) becomes hysterical. I’m at my wits end with trying to find new things to entertain her and wondered if this ‘shoutiness’ was normal for the age. Should I ignore the shouting or respond and if respond in what way? Any ideas would be gratefully appreciated.

    1. Melanie, it might be that she’s starting to move into her 4 month growth spurt. LOTS of changes at this time, sleep changes, developmental changes, it’s pretty much when the newborn phase moves away and “baby” kicks in. Is she crying like she’s sad? Or is she experimenting with noises?

  2. I think this article has some good suggestions and things to pay attention to. However, I would like to disagree with the premise of this article that babies have two modes: crying and not crying. I have seen friends newborns (0-2 months) and my own have a large variety of sounds, fusses, and cries which are consistent with specific discomforts and needs mentioned in this article. I think that babies can learn to develop more distinct cries and noises for different needs if you can learn to hear the differences early. Frustrated or complaining-sounding cries are probably due to some sort of physical discomfort–we can tell the difference between a wet diaper, a poopy one, and the cry for more stimulation. Gas pain has a scale of cries based on intensity, but all sharing a distinct character. This has pretty much been the case from day one. Try to pay attention to the subtle differences in your baby’s cries: the duration and pitch of each cry, the tone, whether it starts soft/slow and builds, or just starts off loud. Failing to respond to the differences in cries can teach our babies that they just need to make a lot of noise to get anything done. Good luck, and best wishes

    1. Thanks for commenting, Galen. I absolutely didn’t mean to imply there are only two types of modes for babies. They are people, so they make just as many noises as the rest of us, even if those aren’t in “speech” terms yet. Thanks for your helpful comment, and also for giving me the opportunity to clarify that point!

  3. I don’t know why, but my baby hates it when I dress her up every after bath. Could it be that she doesn’t want to get dressed? I bathe her everyday since we live in a tropical country and then wipe her with a wet and warm washcloth every night before going to sleep and putting on a fresh set of clothes.

    1. That actually may be exactly it. Some babies have sensitive skin and don’t like the feeling of certain fabrics. Perhaps you could experiment with different fabrics and see how she responds. Or, you could let her air dry and the dress her. Perhaps she doesn’t like the damp-clothing feeling that can happen if you’re not 100% dry. Gotta love these emerging little personalities! 🙂

  4. Well I sat here giggling with tears streaming down my face reading the list of what my baby told you on your coffee date is pissing her off. It probably would have just induced giggles had it not been for your “it’s not your fault” reassurance just beforehand, but what can I say? It spoke to my fearful first-time mom heart and gave me a relaxed, loved on moment to cry giggling tears of relief for a second! I don’t live near my family and I don’t have many close friends (we are new-ish to where we live), and it just came as such a relief to me, like a hug from a woman who’s ahead of you on the path. THANK YOU! I “know” many of these things of course, but having them said this way, w/ a poignant comment preceding them was just so powerful and comforting. We were not meant to be outside of a tribe when we are first timing it w/ our newbies! We are meant to be in community for many things, but especially babies. Thank you for providing me, and so many others mamas, some community while we brave the privilege of Mommyhood!

    1. Oh friend you are so very welcome! I moved away from my family to a new area and had to “start over” when my youngest was a baby. It can feel so isolating. It warms my heart to hear that you felt encouraged by the post. Thanks so much for commenting. I hope that you will continue to find the website uplifting and encouraging! xo

  5. I can’t help but smile as i read the post. And you’re thinking that your teaching them something, well, they’re teaching you something too but in their own bluhh bluhh bluhh ways 😉 . And that what makes the whole thing cute. My 1 year old baby cries when he wants to go out and he tells me by putting on his shoes. He usually do #46 when wakes up. Thanks for the post. You might want to see this A Piece of Heaven On Earth.

  6. My 6 week old crys when he wakes up like he’s never going to eat again. He also crys whenever I put him down. I also have a 27 month old and she needs me too but I can’t even give her just a few moments of mommy time because the 6 week old won’t let me put him down. I can’t seem to make him happy unless there a bottle in his mouth or I’m bouncing him.

    1. Aisha, I would encourage you to first look through this article at the signs of reflux and then talk with your doctor about what else could be going on. This way you’ll be able to rule out any physical issues that could be causing him pain and leading to all the crying.

  7. That’s quite a list lol I might’ve missed something in reading down it but I am after advice on why babies (12-13wks) cry when you put them down to change & dress them & more recently, & more wearing, why he would feel the need to cry/scream almost all morning & sometimes long stretches of the afternoon while refusing to settle for a nap after sleeping up to 10/11 hrs with 1 feed to break that time up? He is on 6 fl oz feeds 4-5 times a day & only stops howling when picked up or put in a sling – neither of which is done as soon as the crying starts….

    1. Tara, sounds like he may have some colic! I think we’ve talked about that on other posts, no? Or is that a dream I had last night? :-). Hang in there friend, he will calm down eventually. Keep thinking, “he won’t be screaming like this in preschool…”

    2. Thank you for getting back to me & sorry if it’s an old topic on here I only just came across your site.
      We have been dealing with his reflux most of his 13 week existence & he’s been on Gaviscon Infant (prescribed by our doctor it deals with regurgitation & gastric reflux) & Dentinox Infant Colic Drops which together have improved his feeding & what he does/doesn’t bring up after. The crying when changing his nappy & dressing has been going on for a bit & I know he’ll grow out of it when he starts to understand what’s happening it’s the sleeping up to 11 hours straight easily & then practically crying/screaming almost all morning & sometimes afternoon while refusing to settle for a nap.

    3. There are no old topics, Tara! Everything is relevant. 🙂 You’re right that he will grow out of it. Some babies really hate getting their diaper changed, and being naked for any length of time. You’re doing all the right things, it’s just a matter of waiting it out. Hang in there friend! Every day is closer to the “no longer has colic” life!

  8. For us, it would be: Hey, woman, why are you taking that diaper off and putting on a fresh one? Don’t you know that I can’t crawl around AND get my diaper changed?

    1. hahaha Yes, it’s highly annoying, Mom, that he has to stop moving in order to get something as PALTRY as a smelly, soaked-to-the-knees diaper changed. Surely that diaper can last one or two more good soaks… lol

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