Crying: What to do

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Key points to remember

  • crying is normal - it's your baby's way of communicating
  • babies often need a lot of soothing and holding when they are very upset
  • play safe - pick up and comfort your baby
  • your baby won't develop bad habits or become spoilt if they are comforted and soothed
  • you can't always stop the crying but you can still comfort your baby
  • try different ways to settle your baby and give each one time to see if it works
  • you'll probably get a lot of advice - the best advice to take is usually what feels right to you

The crying baby

Crying is normal and is the only way your baby can let you know that something is upsetting them and that they need you. When babies cry they may be:

  • hungry
  • thirsty
  • too hot
  • too cold
  • unwell 
  • in pain
  • over-tired, or
  • uncomfortable

They may have been startled and just need to be resettled by holding close and cuddling for a while.

There are some babies who cry a lot from the time they are born. They pull up their legs, clench their fists, go red in the face and become very distressed. The problem may be worse in the afternoons and evenings. Other babies may develop severe attacks of crying when they are a few weeks old. After six to eight weeks, these severe periods of crying usually become less intense and most babies become more settled at about four to five months old. But some babies may continue to cry for longer than that. If this happens, remember your baby has a lot of growing and developing to do and will eventually be able to stay calm for longer.

It can be worrying when your baby won't stop crying or has terrible attacks of crying, especially when you can't find what is wrong. Something is upsetting your baby but you may not be able to find out what it is. It's not necessary to ignore the crying because you can't find a reason for it. Your baby is not "being naughty", "getting spoiled" or  "trying to get their own way".

Babies often need a lot of soothing and holding when they are very upset. Some babies, especially those who are very alert and physically active, may need more help than others to settle. Babies will not develop bad habits or become spoilt if they are comforted and soothed when they are distressed.

What to do

The following ideas will help with most babies. Try them and over time you will learn what works best for you. Give each strategy you use time to see if it works and try not to switch too quickly from one to another. Some things will work some times and not at others. When something doesn't appear to be working, it often helps to change your settling strategy and then go back and try it again a day or two later, or even a week or two later.

Hold and comfort your baby

At this time in your baby's life, they are learning that they can trust you to meet their needs. The best way to do this when your bbay is crying is to hold them.

  • hold and comfort your crying baby if you can
  • hold your baby close and snuggled in to you. Try to keep your baby still
  • avoid constantly changing your baby from one position to another or continually picking up and putting them down
  • you can rock or sway gently, or walk around slowly with your baby if it helps, but avoid fast, frantic or rough movement. Remind yourself that you can't make your baby stop crying

It's not always easy. Some babies push away and won't be held closely. If this happens, try holding your baby close but facing away from you and give them a chance to calm down.

Use movement to calm your baby

  • pick up your crying baby. Carry, or gently rock your baby or use any kind of slow, rhythmical movement. Try not to do too many things at once. If you realise your are patting and jigging and shooshing and swaying all at the same time, try to slow down
  • try putting your baby in a pouch or sling. Walk around and see if you can get on with your daily routine
  • put your baby in a pram and walk around outside. First wrap your baby in a sheet or other wrap and then put the pram harness on. This will keep your baby safe and still while the pram is moving. Babies like the feel of a gentle breeze; they like to see the movement of trees and shadows but don't like the sun in their eyes. Go for a walk in a quiet place where you can feel more relaxed. Stay away from people who are likely to be critical of your baby's crying because their comments may increase your anxiety 
  • use a bouncinette for short periods. Make sure to use the harness or belt and use the bouncinette on the floor, not on a table, or bench
  • you may like oto try going for a drive in the car in an attempt to settle your baby. Make sure your baby is in a child restraint approved for use in New Zealand (see fact sheet on Car seats on this website)

Try letting your baby suck on something

  • sucking can help calm your baby and reduce the crying. Let your baby suck on their fist, fingers or thumb. Try giving a dummy. One trick is to place the dummy just on your baby's lips - the lips will automatically latch on to the dummy. If your baby is breast-fed try to avoid giving a dummy during the first two to four weeks as it may affect your baby's suckling ability and have an effect on your milk supply
  • if breast feeding, try offering the breast. If formula feeding, try giving a drink of cool boiled water. Sometimes it might help to give the next feed a little earlier but try not to give formula more often than every three hours as this may encourage snacking or your baby using the bottle as a dummy

Give your baby a soothing bath

A bath may help your baby calm down. Some babies will relax and enjoy a bath but others will become tense and more distressed. Make sure to run the cold water first, then add hot water. Always check it isn't too hot before putting your baby in the water. Never leave your baby alone in the bath, even for a moment.

Give your baby a gentle massage

Rub your baby's tummy gently and firmly in a circular clockwise motion. You can find more information about baby massage in most baby books.

Try playing

Try distracting your baby with a favourite toy. This will not work if your baby is very upset or overtired and may even make things worse. If it doesn't work, stop.

What to do when nothing seems to be working

It is very hard to cope with a baby who seems to be crying all the time.

  • you may feel helpless when your baby keeps on crying. Just think - it's not always easy for you to calm down if you're very upset. It's the same for your baby. Try to remember that you can't always stop the crying but you can still comfort your baby
  • tune in to your baby's cry. Don't let the distress become too great before you decide to comfort your baby. Take a few deep breaths first if it helps you to slow/calm down   
  • if your baby continues to cry and you are starting to feel desperate, put your baby down in a safe place and walk into another room for a short break, or if available, ask somebody to take over the settling for a while. Remember, you are doing the best you can. When you go back, you may find your baby is easier to calm 

There is something called "the period of PURPLE crying" which refers to a time period when some babies begin crying more and may be hard to settle. This usually starts at about two weeks of age and peaks at eight weeks. It usually ends by 12 weeks of age. The letters in PURPLE stand for the common parts of non-stop crying in babies:

P – peak pattern (crying peaks around two months of age, then decreases)
U – unpredictable (crying can come and go for no reason)
R – resistant to soothing (baby may keep crying no matter what you do to try to soothe them)
P – pain-like look on baby's face
L – long bouts of crying (crying can go on for hours)
E – evening crying (baby cries more in the afternoon and evening)

Parents may feel guilty and angry if they can't soothe their baby. The period of PURPLE crying tells us that if a baby is not ill and parents have tried to soothe baby, it is alright if they cannot stop baby from crying. Some babies are going to cry no matter what. The good news is that the period of PURPLE crying will end!

At times you may feel you are failing at being a parent. Most parents feel like this at one time or another. It may be difficult to ask for help, but it's easier if someone can help you. Things will improve with time, but you have to survive in the meantime! It is important to look after and be kind to yourself.

You will probably get a lot of advice from many different people. This can be very confusing and you may wonder what to do. The best advice to take is usually what feels right to you. You may decide that the best thing to do is to pick up and cuddle your baby. Be prepared for well-meaning people to tell you that you are giving in and that your baby has got their own way. Be reassured that your baby is far too young to think like that.

If your baby is crying a lot and is fed on infant formula, friends or relatives may suggest you change this use medications or herbal preparations. You might like to talk to your doctor or Plunket nurse about this.

If the sound of your baby's crying changes or you think your baby may be sick, or have a physical problem, see your doctor or go to your local hospital.

If you are finding it difficult to cope, or find that you are not enjoying being a parent at all, try contacting PlunketLine or see your doctor for help and advice.

Telephone advice - Healthline and PlunketLine

  • ring PlunketLine on 0800 933 922 if you have child health and parenting questions or queries. For example, if you have questions about such issues as parenting, crying, sleeping, your child's growth, development, behaviour, immunisation, breastfeeding, nutrition, oral health, safety or want to know more about the Well Child / Tamariki Ora programme
  • call Healthline on 0800 611 116 if you need advice about a child of any age who is unwell or hurt, or has any symptoms of sickness. Healthline provides a full range of telephone triage and health advice for children (and adults)
  • both services are available 24 hours and are free to callers throughout New Zealand, including from a mobile phone

Acknowledgements

Starship Foundation and the Paediatric Society of New Zealand acknowledge the co-operation of The Children's Hospital at Westmead, Sydney Children's Hospital at Randwick, and Kaleidoscope - Hunter Children's Health Network in making this fact sheet available to patients and families.

This page last reviewed 27 September 2012
© Paediatric Society of New Zealand and Starship Foundation 2005 – 2014
Printed on 20 April 2014. Content is regularly updated so please refer to www.kidshealth.org.nz for the most up-to-date version
Content endorsed by the Paediatric Society of New Zealand