12 reasons why your newborn might be crying, and how to soothe them

It can be tricky to decipher exactly what your baby wants in the beginning. As you grow with your baby, you'll start to recognize what certain cries mean.

why is my baby crying

Congrats, mama! Your baby is here. But with a newborn comes new learning experiences, and that can be overwhelming for anyone. Babies, especially newborns, have limited ways of communicating—which means crying is a normal part of infancy. Infants may cry as much as one to three hours a day, in fact.

It can be tricky to decipher exactly what your baby wants in the beginning. As you grow with your baby, you'll start to recognize what certain cries mean.

As always, it's good to check with your pediatrician if you're worried, but if everything checks out, here are some reasons your newborn may be crying.

1. They're hungry

Most newborns eat about every two to three hours around the clock (and sometimes more), and crying can be a sign of hunger. This may make it harder for the baby to settle down during a feeding. Look for these hunger cues before the baby starts crying to make feedings a bit smoother for you, mama:

  • Licking lips
  • Sticking tongue out
  • Rooting (moving jaw and mouth or head in search of breast)
  • Putting their hand to mouth repeatedly
  • Opening mouth
  • Fussiness
  • Sucking on everything within reach (fingers, toes, toys)

2. They're tired

Newborns are asleep for most of the day and night (all that nonstop growing can really wear a baby out!). On average, they sleep eight to nine hours during the day and eight hours at night, waking up every few hours to eat.

Finding a consistent sleep schedule early on can help your baby differentiate day from night and get them into a routine. If this routine is altered in some way, that could be the reason your baby is crying. Here are some behaviors to look for that indicate a sleepy baby—before they start crying:

  • Rubbing eyes
  • Yawning
  • Looking away
  • Fussing

For more tips on newborns and sleeping, learn about newborn sleep patterns: what to expect + when to rest.

3. Their diaper is dirty

There's a good reason why so many experienced parents check their baby's diaper first thing when they start fussing: A crying baby is a sign that their diaper might need to be changed. A dirty diaper can cause irritation from poop or urine over time, making baby a bit uncomfortable.

Diaper rash, a common skin irritation for babies, presents as red patches on the area under (or near) your baby's diaper. But don't worry, mama: Diaper rash usually clears up within a few days with at-home treatments like ointments, air drying and more frequent diaper changes.

However, if the diaper rash doesn't go away after a few days of at-home care, you may need to talk to your baby's provider. Sometimes, you'll need a prescription medication to treat diaper rash.

Here are some ways to prevent diaper rash:

  • Change diapers often.
  • Rinse your baby's bottom with warm water as part of each diaper change.
  • Gently pat the skin dry with a clean towel or let it air dry.
  • Don't over tighten diapers.
  • Give your baby's bottom more time without a diaper.
  • Consider using diaper ointment regularly.
  • After changing diapers, wash your hands well.

4. They need to be burped

When babies are feeding, they take in air, which can build up in their bodies and make them uncomfortable. You may then find yourself with a fussy, squirmy baby. If your newborn is crying and they just finished being breastfed or bottle fed, try to burp them for a few minutes. This will help relieve that pressure and make the baby feel more comfortable.

5. Something is chafing or rubbing their skin

A baby's skin is very sensitive, especially for newborns. Diapers or clothing may start to chafe and rub, which can cause discomfort and lead to your baby fussing or crying. If you notice red rough skin on your baby, particularly in the diaper area, the material may be too tight or rough.

As always, if you're concerned about any rash or skin irritation, talk to your child's health care provider.

6. Overeating

Sometimes a baby can indulge a little too much. Newborns who are bottle feeding may be more likely to overeat because the milk may flow more freely from a bottle than a breast. Overfed babies can experience stomach pains, gas, spit up or vomit that could cause discomfort.

If you are worried that your baby may be overeating, try filling their bottle a bit less, cutting about half an ounce at a time. Feed them, give them a minute or two to see if they are still hungry, and then feed them another half ounce—that way they have enough time to realize they're full.

7. They want to be held

Sometimes your baby just wants to be near you, mama, and that's a good thing! Try holding your baby with some skin-to-skin contact. The warmth from your body, your heartbeat and your smell will help calm them, creating comforting sensations similar to the womb.

Don't worry about holding your baby "too much," mama. During the fourth trimester, when you and your baby are growing and learning the ropes together, it's common for babies to seek the comfort they had in your womb. Holding them recreates those familiar comforts.

And know that it is scientifically impossible to spoil a newborn!

8. They're too hot or cold

Newborns can't adjust to temperature changes like adults. They lose heat rapidly, about four times faster than an adult. When a baby is too cold, they use energy and oxygen to generate warmth. When they are too hot, they can risk overheating.

Keeping your baby at a steady temperature, neither too hot or too cold, can help them reserve their energy and use it elsewhere. This is particularly important for babies that are sick or premature.

Using wearable blankets, or sleep sacks, are a safer alternative to blankets if your baby is cold, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP). Using a wearable blanket can reduce the likelihood of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS).

Be sure to watch out for overheating too. While you may want to bundle your baby up, be sure to dress your baby for the right environment. Signs your baby may be too hot are if they become red in the face or begin to breathe faster and deeper. It's important to note that not all infants are capable of sweating, so it's best not to look for that as an indicator.

Last thing: An ideal temperature for a home with a newborn is 68 to 78 degrees Fahrenheit.

9. They're overstimulated

Your newborn will see and hear lots of new sights and sounds: Sometimes this can be a bit overwhelming. If you notice your baby getting fussy or crying in a more chaotic environment, that's a sign that the baby is overstimulated. Find a calmer environment or put your baby in their crib. White noise, like ocean sounds or the sound of a fan, might also help your crying baby relax.

10. The "period of PURPLE crying"

If your newborn is crying very hard and seems inconsolable, and you've ruled out the options above, the first step is to touch base with your pediatrician to check that everything is okay. If your pediatrician confirms that there is no other cause for concern, then your baby may be experiencing the "period of PURPLE crying."

Don't be alarmed at the use of the word purple, it is an acronym that stands for:

Peak of crying
Unexpected
Resists soothing
Pain-like face
Long lasting
Evening

"The Period of PURPLE Crying" is a relatively new term, coined by Canadian developmental pediatrician, Ronald Barr, to describe a period of time when infants cry a lot. It has nothing to do with them turning purple (which would be an emergency).

This type of crying usually starts around week 2 and lasts for a few months. The child simply cannot be soothed during this period, though parents will try everything to relieve them. It may last up to 5 hours and begin during the late afternoon or evening.

In the absence of illness or injury, purple crying is normal—but very difficult for parents. For more, visit dontshake.org.

11. Colic

Colic is defined as crying for 3 or more hours per day, 3 or more days per week, for 3 or more weeks. There are many theories as to the cause of colic, which is more common for premature babies. It may be due to tummy troubles or even baby migraines. If you have a baby who cries a lot, talk to their health care provider. They can help determine if the cause is medical or developmental.

12. Pain

If none of the above reasons help your baby to stop crying, and you believe them to be in pain, seek medical help from your doctor.

It can be incredibly stressful when your baby won't stop crying. If you find yourself getting frustrated, put the baby down in a safe space and take a few minutes to breathe and take care of yourself—it's really good parenting to admit when you need a minute to calm down.

Remember that you are not in this alone. Your pediatrician is an invaluable part of your team, so do not hesitate to reach out to them (even at 2 am).

You are the most important soother your baby has; but sometimes, mama needs a little help.

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A portion of this article appears in 'The Motherly Guide to Becoming Mama.'

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