Decoding Your Baby's Cries: How to Figure Out What She Needs

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by: Rebecca Desfosse
Your baby can't talk to tell you what she needs, but if you listen to her cries very carefully, you sometimes can figure out what they mean. Here's how.
Crying Baby Girl

Suddenly, your baby starts wailing. Is she hungry? Overtired? In pain? Or does she just need to let out some steam? Figuring out the source of babies' cries can be tough, especially for first-time parents. Here's everything you need to know about your baby's cries (short of reading her mind):

1. I'm Hungry

You can tell your little one is hungry when she starts to let out a rhythmic, repetitive cry, such as "wah wah wah ." She'll also usually root around for the breast or start making sucking motions. Respond to hunger cries immediately. Crying is a late indicator of hunger and can lead to your baby getting too upset to eat or giving herself gas from gulping down her milk too fast. Try to soothe her first and, once she's calm, let her eat.

Baby with Bottle

2. I'm Tired

When your baby is tired, she'll usually let out a whiny, continuous cry, mixed in with yawns and eye rubbing. In fact, tired cries can often sound a lot like yawns, such as "owh owh owh." Respond by putting your little one down for a nap immediately. If you delay, those whiny cries could turn into a full-blown meltdown as she gets too overtired to fall asleep easily.

3. I'm In Pain

An urgent or distressed cry typically means that your little one is in pain. If it's gas, she'll scrunch up her face and pull her legs up. Try burping her or changing her position. One great way to relieve gas is to hold her in the "colic carry." Place her head in your hand and lay her body – stomach down – across your forearm. If she's sick, her cries will sound distressed, but weaker in volume and pitch – almost like she doesn't have the energy to cry. Check her temperature and contact her doctor if you're concerned.

Crying Newborn Baby

4. I Have Colic

Colic cries are categorized as intense screams for at least three hours, on three or more days a week for at least three weeks. Colic typically occurs at night and starts up around three weeks after birth. Usually, colic goes away by the time baby is three months old. (Just remember the rule of threes!) To sooth your little one, try the colic carry explained above, let her listen to some white noise, or give her a warm, relaxing bath.

5. I'm Uncomfortable

When your little one is uncomfortable, she'll typically let out a whiny cry like, "eh eh eh." Check her diaper and make sure she's not too warm or too cold. She might also be uncomfortable in her position, such as being strapped in a car seat or swing, so pick her up and move her around to see if that helps ease her discomfort.

Fussy Baby

6. I Just Need to Let it Out

Occasionally, there isn't a source for your baby's cries. Sometimes, babies need to let out some steam – just like adults can feel better after a good cry. Usually parents call this type of cry the "fussy" cry and can't find a reason behind the crankiness.

If you're still having trouble understanding your baby's cries, be patient. It will come in time. Also, don't be afraid to let your baby cry for a moment. Oftentimes, parents are so quick to soothe their baby's cries, hushing her or offering her a pacifier, that they miss what their baby is trying to say. Don't be afraid of your baby's cries. It's a normal part of her development and is essential for building communication.

Featured image source: Flickr