Editor's note: This article originally appeared on UNC Health Care's HealthTalk blog.
Becoming a new parent is a thrilling and scary time. You’ve just welcomed a beautiful baby into the world, and now you get the joy of watching him or her grow.
But then the cries come, and they don’t stop coming. It can be heartbreaking and make you feel like the worst parent in the world. But take a deep breath—it’s OK!
Dealing with a fussy baby is one of the first major challenges of parenthood. It’s almost like a rite of passage, especially for first-time parents who are shocked to learn just how much a baby can cry. To comfort new parents, Dr. Ty Bristol, a pediatrician at UNC Health Care, explained what normal crying looks like, how to console a seemingly inconsolable baby and when you should consider taking your fussy baby to see a doctor.
Crying: What Is Normal?
During the first few weeks of your newborn’s life, don’t be surprised if your baby cries for up to two hours a day. This is normal. “The crying will be spaced out, and it will add up,” Dr. Bristol says. “It’s how they communicate. If they’re hungry, have wet diapers or have pooped themselves, they’ll let you know by crying.”
Be patient with yourself. As time passes, you’ll be able to tell the difference between the cries. The hungry cry will differ from the tired cry, and the tired cry will differ from the “I need a diaper change!” cry.
If you’ve tried feeding your baby and checking his or her diaper, consider other potential causes for the crying. Check your baby’s temperature, look for scratches on the skin or eyes—babies will scratch their eyes with their nails more often than you think—and check to make sure the baby doesn’t have a “hair tourniquet” (a stray hair that has wrapped around a finger, arm or leg).
Crying from Colic
When your baby is 2 to 3 weeks old, the issue of colic may arise and may be a problem until he or she is about 3 months old. Colic is the term doctors use for an otherwise healthy baby who cries uncontrollably and inconsolably for more than three hours per day. According to Dr. Bristol, “This behavior usually peaks around six weeks and begins to taper off by month three or four. Colic isn’t a disease and isn’t harmful to the baby, but it can understandably be difficult for both parents and babies to endure.”
Doctors aren’t sure what causes colic, but it is most likely due to the baby’s temperament, Dr. Bristol says. Other things associated with colic symptoms are overstimulation, gastrointestinal issues, acid reflux and food sensitivity. To determine whether it is colic or ordinary crying, there are a few key indicators for colic:
Crying seems to occur for no reason (meaning you have checked the diaper, the baby is fed and isn’t tired).
Crying starts at about the same time every day. Although not a hard and fast rule, the crying will usually start in the late afternoon or evening.
The baby closes his or her eyes or opens them wide, creases his or her brow or even holds his or her breath briefly.
The baby clenches his or her fists and seems to move the legs and arms more.
Calming a Fussy Baby
If you have a fussy baby, Dr. Bristol suggests starting with the “5 S’s” to help calm the child down. You may be pleasantly surprised to find that you naturally do these things.
Sucking: Give your child a pacifier to suck on.
Swaddling: Swaddling babies can remind them of the snug, comfortable space inside the womb. Wrap your baby’s arms snug near the side and allow the hips to be loose.
“Shhh” sounds: While babies are in the womb, they hear a loud rushing sound that is louder than a vacuum cleaner. Mimicking that sound with your voice or a white noise machine can remind your baby of the womb and promote calm.
Swinging motion: Again, imagine what a baby feels in the womb. A light, quick swinging motion is often what your child needs. Remember to support the head and neck when you do so, and never shake a baby.
Stomach: Babies should never sleep on their stomachs, but laying a fussy baby on his or her stomach for supervised periods can often help.
“If these don’t work, a baby may be overstimulated by the environment—lights, noises and movement—so putting them in a dim, quiet space might do the trick,” Dr. Bristol says. “Sometimes, going for a walk in the stroller or for a drive will help, too.”
Parents sometimes try over-the-counter remedies, Dr. Bristol doesn’t recommend medicines because there is no evidence that they work, and some can be harmful.
How to Know When to Seek Help
Sometimes no matter how much swaddling or swinging you provide, the crying won’t cease. Many parents are concerned that excessive crying could be harmful for the baby. Dr. Bristol assures parents this is not the case.
“Assuming there are no medical issues, there is no harm in a baby’s excessive crying,” he says. “They may get a hoarse voice, but they will eventually get tired and stop crying. Your baby may also get a little gassy from swallowing air while crying, but that’s OK. If your baby won’t stop crying, you’re not a bad parent for letting them cry it out. But this is easier said than done.”
That said, there are times you’ll want to consult your pediatrician.
“If your baby’s crying is accompanied by fever, vomiting or diarrhea, or you feel like they might be injured, you should bring them to see a doctor,” Dr. Bristol says. If everything seems normal and your baby is still inconsolable, you can still turn to your pediatrician for help. Doctors can provide other techniques or remedies you may not have tried.
Taking Care of Yourself, Too
To take the best care of your baby, you have to take care of yourself. If your baby won’t stop crying, it’s OK to leave him or her in the crib or bassinet for a few minutes to see if he or she will cry it out (the amount of time this takes depends on the baby’s age). And don’t hesitate to enlist help. It’s important to remember that mothers who have recently given birth are experiencing the “fourth trimester,” when they are healing from the emotional and physical changes they have gone through. Sometimes you need a break, so ask your partner, a family member or a friend to step in so you can step out for a few hours to get a break.
And perspective always helps, Dr. Bristol says.
“The fussy, crying stage won’t last forever. It may not feel like it at 2 a.m. when your baby has been crying since midnight, but there is a light at the end of the tunnel.”
Ty G. Bristol, MD, MPH, is medical director of UNC Pediatrics at Panther Creek, which is part of UNC Physicians Network. He is also a clinical professor of pediatrics in the Department of Pediatrics at UNC School of Medicine.