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Crying or Colic? Understanding the Hidden Signals in Newborns’ Crying




It’s 2 a.m. and your little one is up and is yet again in tears. You feel like you’ve tried everything, but nothing seems to work. While it may be true that your baby has colic, a lot of newborns’ crying can be attributed to simple causes that are easy to adjust.  The key is in understanding the non-verbal cues your baby provides in the stages when he or she is first starting to fuss.

If you wait too long before addressing the cries of a newborn, your baby may become inconsolable, no matter what the original cause of the crying. For cries that start in the middle of the night, it can be helpful to have a baby monitor. Adjusted to the proper volume you will be able to hear your baby’s first signs of distress, rather than being awakened by the crying of a little one who is so upset that comforting him or her is difficult at best.

Here are some of the most common reasons your baby may be crying, and ways to address the problem:

  • “I’m hungry.”

Hunger cries are usually the first ones that mothers and fathers learn to recognize. Hungry babies may root around for the breast or bottle, and they may also gnaw on their fist in the middle of their “pre-cry” stage. Hunger cries tend to sound grumpy rather than piercingly loud.

  • I’m wet/dirty.”

Another of those grumpy-sounding cries, your newborn may be restless and squirmy due to the discomfort of a wet or dirty diaper. Discomfort from a dirty diaper may also interfere with your baby’s ability to enjoy his or her feeding, so be sure to check the diaper before you nurse the baby or offer a bottle.

  • “I’m sleepy.”

This is yet another “grumpy” sort of cry, but sleepy babies often give other cues such as rubbing their eyes or yawning. Babies who have been awake for a while, and who have been recently fed are most likely to be sleepy. It’s important to address this cry as quickly as possible, since it becomes very difficult to soothe a baby to sleep if he or she has gotten to the point of crying loudly in frustration.

  • “I’m in pain!”

Babies who are hurting, either from gas pain or more serious issues cry with a piercing wail. There is generally no build up – if the pain is sudden, the crying will be sudden as well. This means that you could go from having a peaceful little one to one that is crying inexplicably.  If your little one is not visibly hurt, the problem may be gassiness – try a warm bath or a tummy massage to ease the discomfort.

  • “I’m stressed!”

This is not as piercing as a pain cry, but it can also come out of nowhere or with very little preamble. Babies who have been overstimulated (too many guests to visit, too many new noises, lights, etc.) may become agitated and cry for what seems like no reason at all. While it may be lovely to have all of the baby’s relatives over for a visit, keep in mind that baby may not be able to process so much social interaction without getting upset. In general, moving your little one to a calm, quiet environment will help.

There are no guarantees that your little one won’t have colic or colicky symptoms, but if you address these types of cries first, you stand a better chance of resolving these tearful moments sooner rather than later. Newborns’ crying can signal many different things, and it’s important to remember that colic is only one of those.


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