Decoding your baby’s cries

How are you supposed to understand your newborn when you don’t speak their language? Katie Thomas explains.

The first ever cry from your newborn is a relieving and joyous moment. It signifies a healthy baby with a strong set of lungs. But over the first few weeks of your baby’s life, this feeling of relief may grow into frustration and worry. Persistent and inconsolable newborn crying can quickly overwhelm your home and your sanity! Here are some vital points to understand about newborns and their cries that will help you and your baby to communicate with each other more effectively.

“I’M HANGRY!”

Hunger is generally the first and most obvious thought when a baby cries. When did they last feed? Could they be hungry? Having some sort of feeding schedule in place can help with this confusion. If the words “routine” and “schedule” scare you, even just taking note of the time and length of each feed can help you to figure out the cause of crying. A hunger cry might sound rhythmic, desperate, builds in intensity, and is at a medium pitch. Other common signs are rooting when something touches their cheek/face, sucking on fingers, opening and closing mouth, squirming around, and moving their head from side to side. There is nothing wrong with offering your newborn a top-up feed if you are unsure if the cry is due to hunger or not. During the early days, it is vital for your milk supply to have your baby feeding from you frequently, but if every cry results in them being fed, you might be missing their tired cues. If they are just sucking for comfort and are not swallowing, it could be tired or overtiredness, which is commonly confused for hunger.

“My nappy needs changing!”

Most babies are only really bothered by a dirty nappy if they are also tired. If they are particularly squirmy or grizzly, it is worth checking that their nappy is clean.

“I NEED SLEEP!”

Being able to tell if your baby is hungry or tired is important. A tired cry can start off with a little grizzle and build slowly in intensity, into quite a distressed cry. There are other signs to look out for when a baby is tired, such as yawning, an absent stare, eyes looking a little red, glassy, and puffy, rubbing of eyes, and jerky movements. It is important to settle baby down to sleep when they show any tired signs, to prevent them becoming overtired.

“I’M OVERTIRED!”

It will be harder to settle your baby to sleep if they are overtired. Their brain is on overdrive, and falling into a deep sleep is a lot harder to do. An overtired cry can start as irregular fussing, but if not settled to sleep, it can become similar to that of being in pain; back arching, knees up, grabbing at ears/scratching face, and may appear very distressed. If your baby has been awake longer than the time they should be, make it a priority to settle them to sleep, to try and avoid a tricky cycle of overtiredness.

“I’M BORED!”

It is important to ensure your baby is having the right amount of awake time and stimulation for their age. Talk to your healthcare provider if you are unsure about this timing. A “not tired enough” or bored cry might be a whiny and frustrated grizzle, rather than a distressed cry. A change of scenery should stop the fussing if this is the cause.

“I’M OVERWHELMED!”

Newborns can only handle a certain amount of stimulation. They are very sensitive to noise, smell, and touch. With their senses on overdrive, it’s important to be aware of the environment they are in. An overwhelmed cry may begin as fussy-sounding and gradually escalate; a shrieking noise is common, as they try to block out background noise, and in older babies often they may start hysterically laughing. You may notice they turn their head and body away from the noise or stimulation. Moving them away from the environment before they become distressed is a good idea.

“I’VE GOT WIND!”

Crying because of wind, reflux, or digestive pain – constipation, needing to poo, or having a bit of a sore tummy from overfeeding – will come on suddenly, being high-volume, high-pitched, panicked, rhythmic, and intense, causing baby to become breathless. It may be accompanied with an arched back, knees up, and grabbing at their face and ears. Soothing baby with cuddling and rocking, offering a finger or dummy to suck on, and holding them in an upright burping position should all be helpful for this.

“I’M TOO HOT/COLD!”

Newborn babies don’t have the ability to regulate their own temperature. If baby is too cold, they will cry in discomfort and you may notice a quivering bottom lip, goosebumps on the skin, shivering, and their extremities feel cold to touch. If baby is too hot, they will whine and maybe start panting instead of regular breathing. They will feel hot to touch and may look red and blotchy. Take your baby’s temperature if you are concerned it could be a fever. A general rule to follow is to dress your baby in one layer more than you have on yourself.

“I NEED REASSURANCE!”

If your baby has been startled by a loud noise or sensation, or is craving contact and cuddling, the usual baby coo noises become a fussy grizzle or sudden cry out, until baby is picked up and cuddled.

“SOMETHING ITCHES! SOMETHING HURTS!”

If your baby is itchy, or has a mild pain, they’ll make a whiny, frustrated cry that builds in intensity if not solved. Check all over baby to ensure there are no visible physical issues such as a hair caught/wrapped around a little finger or toe, a tag on clothing, itchy fabric, or even just the way they’re being held could have been causing discomfort.

"I’M SERIOUSLY NOT FEELING WELL."

If your baby is seriously unwell or in pain, their cry will generally be inconsolable, panicked, and highpitched from pain, but could also be a soft, endless whimpering sound if they are exhausted and ill. Look out for other symptoms that are out of the ordinary, check your baby’s temperature, and contact your health care provider immediately if you are concerned.

Katie Thomas is an experienced maternity nanny and postnatal advisor. Find out more about her work at katiethomaschildcare.co.nz.
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