You probably learned early on – perhaps the first time you held your brand new little one – that babies communicate through crying. And boy, do they have a lot to say! As an only child and the youngest of “the cousins,” my experience with babies was negligible. So, when my son came along in 2012, I was at a bit of a loss when it came to understanding what he was trying to express.
Through my own experience and many conversations with experts at our events, here’s what I’ve learned over the years about the language of babies’ cries.
Tuning in to Baby’s Emotional Needs
Understanding your baby’s cries is not just about addressing physical needs. It’s also about tuning in to their emotional state. Babies communicate a range of emotions through their cries – from fear and surprise to a deep need for connection and comfort. Being responsive to these cries helps build a secure emotional foundation for your baby.
The Different Tunes of Baby Cries
As you scroll down, remember – each baby is different, and so is their way of expressing their feelings. As you spend more time with your little one, you’ll get better at understanding the nuances of their cries, so you can more confidently respond to their needs. You may also start to recognize cues that can precede some of these cries as their feelings build (like hunger, tiredness, or overstimulation), giving you the opportunity to address their need before they even start to cry. Or, if the cues show up only after crying begins, they may give you additional clues about what they’re trying to tell you.
- The Hunger Cry: Think of this as ringing the dinner bell, and it’s just their way of saying, “I’m hungry, please feed me.” This usually starts with a rhythmic and repetitive cry, escalating until their hunger is satisfied. You might notice them smacking their lips or sucking on their hands as an extra hint.
- The Discomfort Cry: This one might sound a bit fussy. It’s their way of saying, “I’m not feeling great over here.” Maybe it’s a wet diaper or a scratchy tag in their onesie. Look out for cues like squirming or kicking, which are their additional ways of expressing discomfort.
- The Tired Cry: This cry has a more plaintive, whiny quality to it. It’s softer than the hunger cry but has an underlying note of distress. It’s their way of saying, “I really need to sleep, but I can’t seem to do it on my own!” Yawning, rubbing eyes, or pulling ears often come hand in hand with this type of cry.
- The Pain Cry: This is a high-pitched, intense cry, and it often comes without warning. It’s sharp and can be quite distressing to hear. The baby might arch their back, clench their fists, or become very stiff. It’s an urgent call for help, signaling that they are in discomfort or pain. This could be as simple as having hair wrapped tightly around a finger, gas / digestive discomfort, or teething pain. But it could also mean something more serious like an illness or infection. If it’s not something you’re able to identify and resolve, consider contacting your pediatrician for guidance – they’re there to help!
- The Overstimulation Cry: In a world where everything is new, it’s easy for babies to get overwhelmed. This cry is more erratic, mixed with fussiness, and it happens when there’s too much noise, movement, or activity. You might notice them turning their head away from the source of overstimulation or flailing their arms and legs.
- The Startled or Scared Cry: This is sudden and sharp, often in response to an unexpected noise or a quick change in the environment. This cry is like an alarm bell, followed by a period of fussiness as they try to settle back down. Another reaction may be wide eyes, followed by a period of silence, and then the “needing comfort” cry below. Either way, clenched fists, a tense body, or quick movements of the arms are legs are typical responses to being scared or startled.
- The Lonely or Needing Comfort Cry: This begins as a soft whimper or moan, escalating to a full cry if they feel ignored. It’s a plea for attention and closeness. This cry is all about emotional needs – wanting to be held, soothed, or simply reassured by your presence. You may notice baby looking around for you or reaching out to search for presence and touch.
The Learning Curve
Figuring out what each cry means is a bit of a learning curve. It’s about tuning in not only to the sound, but also to the context and their body language. And the reality is, sometimes you just won’t get it right away, and that’s perfectly OK. Remember to give yourself some grace – you’re learning a brand-new language here!
Over time, you’ll start to understand your baby’s cries, and you’ll notice a beautiful thing happening. Your bond with your baby strengthens, and you’ll feel more confident in your parenting. It’s like unlocking a secret language that brings you closer to your little one.
Sharing and Support
One thing that really helped me was talking with other parents. It’s amazing how sharing experiences and tips can make this journey a bit easier. And yes, there are apps and forums that can offer advice, but nothing beats real-life interactions with other parents.
If you’re in the early days of new parenthood and haven’t found your mom squad yet, you could find a postpartum doula to be helpful, too! These incredible professionals can do so much to help as you welcome your new baby home and adjust to your new life together, not the least of which is working with you to understand baby’s cries.
Embracing the Journey
While it’s easy to look back and realize that each cry and little fuss is an opportunity to connect and understand your little one better, it certainly doesn’t feel like that when you’re in the thick of it and unable to sooth them.
But remember – you’re not alone. Every new parent goes through this. It’s OK to need a break or feel like you have to escape. It’s OK to ask for help. It’s OK to feel like you’re failing (but know that you’re not!). Your baby loves you, you are enough, and you’re doing the best you can, and this season will not last forever.
While the journey can be challenging, it’s also filled with love. Those cries, and how you respond to them, are your first conversations with your baby and the foundation of your relationship. Which, in the end, is a beautiful thing.