No one likes listening to a baby cry, but for parents, it’s often even more distressing. Endless uncontrollable crying can be incredibly frustrating and exhausting.
For many, this can lead to a lengthy process of trying to figure out what’s the matter with your child and testing various soothing techniques until something works. But isn’t there a better way?
While decoding the baby's cry and discerning exactly how to stop it isn’t always possible, parents can get much better at determining what their child needs if they first understand what crying is and the various messages your little one is trying to communicate to you when they cry.
In this post, we explore some of the underlying reasons for your baby crying at night that can help you find the right solution, faster.
The Crying Reflex - What is It?
Crying is one of the only methods of communication your baby has when they need something from you. When witnessing a bout of crying from your little one, try first to think of it as a message that you need to decode.
Sometimes there is no message, which we discuss in the next section, but at other times there will be a specific thing (object or activity) that your child wants when they cry, and giving this to them can help soothe them.
Being hungry, tired, in pain, anxious or just too hot are all things that babies feel, just as adults do. And the only way they can change their situation until they've developed more sophisticated communication abilities is to cry and hope an adult will remedy their predicament.
Crying is part of the normal development of the central nervous system and as you gain more experience with your newborn, you’ll probably be able to hear a difference in tone between a cry for feeding and a cry caused by pain, for example.
Premature infants may not have a cry reflex until they’re older. Therefore, parents must be extra diligent in monitoring their babies for things such as hunger, pain or overheating.
Crying is one of the only methods of communication your baby has when they need something from you.
Is Your Baby Crying at Night Because of Colic?
The term colic has been used for a long time to describe a condition when a healthy baby cries for no apparent reason, for extended periods of time. During this time, they will be hard to console or comfort.
Despite ‘colic’ sounding like some kind of illness, it’s just a default way of explaining something that can’t really be explained with a specific condition or medical diagnosis.
More recently, child experts are moving away from the term colic as a way of describing what is happening with children in their earliest months. This is partly because colic conjures an image of an abnormality, or something “wrong” rather than just a normal phase of development.
For instance, studies have shown that 20% of infants cry for long periods without an apparent reason during the first four months.
The PURPLE Crying Phase
Another way of referring to crying caused by colic is PURPLE, which is an acronym that stands for:
- Peak of crying – peaks around 2 months of age and lessens by 3 or 4 months
- Unexpected – crying comes and goes without an apparent reason
- Resists soothing – your attempts to comfort your baby may not work
- Pain-like face – baby may look like they are in pain
- Long-lasting – crying may persist for 5 hours a day or more
- Evening – often occurs in the late afternoon or evening
Regardless of what you call it, it’s evident that not all crying can be neatly categorized and addressed by parents and a few tears here and there is just part of growing up.
If you suspect that your child is colicky, we recommend visiting your child’s doctor to eliminate the chance of illness or other conditions that might be troubling your child. This should hopefully offer some peace of mind when your child continues to cry and you must simply wait patiently for them to tire themselves out.
Decoding Your Baby's Messages - What Your Baby Is Really Saying
Luckily, there are a few common reasons for your baby crying at night, which can be discerned from listening to the sound of your baby’s cries and anticipating their needs. We’ve outlined them below for you.
Babies cry when they wake up and realize their bellies are empty again. Very young infants need to be fed every 2-4 hours and this is a primary cause for their wake-ups. They can’t hold too much milk in their tummies, so you’ll be forced to let them feed in order to get them to sleep once again.
There are other signs of being tired such as droopy eyes and fussiness, but crying is a definite response to being overtired that parents will become accustomed to. The trick is helping your child to soothe and nod off to sleep before their crying becomes uncontrollable.
You might think that crying is a sign that your child isn’t actually tired when you put them in their cot and needs something else, but it can just as often be the case that they do want to get to sleep, but that they just need your help to do it, whether that’s in the form of nursing, rocking, or simply being close by to them.
I Need to be Changed
As babies can’t hold food and liquids in their bodies for too long, you might feel like you are changing their diapers when you’ve literally just done it. However, no one likes lying in solid underwear, so you’ll need to be quick off the mark if you smell that your baby needs a change.
If you’re not, you can be sure that they’ll let you know with their crying. Just remember to use sensitive products and fabrics so that your child’s skin does not become too irritated from regular cleaning and changing. Nappy rash is something that only leads to more crying...
The position you put your baby to sleep in as well as the clothes you wrap them in all influence their comfort levels. As babies are much more sensitive to these kinds of things, it’s normal for them to cry out when they’re not feeling comfortable and need you to do something to change their situation.
This could mean dressing them in something more appropriate like our Zipadee-Zip, crafted with babies in mind to help offer them absolutely everything they need to get good sleep, especially when they’re transitioning out of the swaddle stage and need some extra comfort.
I Need A Hug
Babies have incredibly strong attachments to their parents, especially their mothers who they have been attached to for nine months of their life.
Sometimes, they can feel anxious and needy when they’ve been left alone for too long. They’ll often cry out for attention and comfort in some form and offering a hug is one of the simplest ways to stop your baby from crying.
Obviously, you’ll have to limit the times you simply pick your baby up when they cry as you are sleep training them, so they become less dependent on you, but sometimes there’s nothing else that will work when you find your baby crying at night.
I’m too Hot, or Cold
If your baby’s clothing is not right for the weather, don't be surprised if they wake up crying at night. When it’s hot and sunny, look for cool breathable fabrics. And when it’s cold, avoid blankets and choose more insulating baby-friendly materials that help to regulate their temperature, rather than suffocate them with too much warmth.
The mistake would be to assume that babies only get too hot in summer, as many will become overheated and unhappy in winter due to clothes that are too stuffy and heating that is ramped up way too high for them.
I’m In Pain Or Suffering from an Illness
Perhaps one of the hardest cries to discern is the crying from illness or physical pain. If you’ve ruled out other potential causes of crying, it’s worth visiting your child’s doctor for clues about what’s causing your child’s distress.
Whether it's a common cold or something more serious, addressing the underlying issue might be what's needed when you find that your baby is crying at night.
I’m Feeling Stressed Or Worked Up
Similar to being overtired, a cause for crying could be that your baby is just feeling overwhelmed or worked up due to too much happening in their days. Babies only have a small tank for dealing with new activities and experiences and stimulation throughout the day from various noises and interactions can cause them to feel stressed.
If you suspect this to be the case, try your best to introduce some calm into your household and reduce the amount of exposure they have to any technology or loud noises. This might be impossible if you have other kids running around, but do your best to block out stimulators when your child is getting settled for bed.
Tips for Handling a Crying Baby
Depending on why your baby is crying at night in the first place, you’ll need to implement different remedies to soothe them. However, there are also a few general tips and strategies that all parents can use to improve nighttime sleep and prevent unnecessary wake ups.
Strengthen Nighttime Routines
Without strong nighttime routines and healthy sleeping habits, it can be hard for any baby to feel completely settled and ready to soothe themselves to sleep when they wake up suddenly for whatever reason.
To prevent them from crying out for help, rather than settling themselves back to sleep, you should actively implement a consistent sleep routine involving set times for various activities like bathtime, story time, and even baby massages.
Manage Your Diet
If you're breastfeeding, try to reduce caffeine. This can be problematic, as babies have a hard time breaking down and getting rid of caffeine. According to the CDC, mothers who are breastfeeding are recommended to consume no more than 300 mg of caffeine per day, which is equivalent to two or three cups of coffee.
In general, no foods are off-limits. Instead, women are recommended to eat a balanced, varied diet, but some ingredients like onions and certain processed foods have been said to disturb your child’s digestion.
Mothers who are breastfeeding are recommended to consume no more than 300 mg of caffeine per day.
Choose a Sleep Training Method
When your baby is younger than 4 months, it’s not worth trying to actively train your baby to sleep with a particular approach. However, after they have developed more consistent sleep patterns, it can really help your child to implement some kind of plan of action for gradually improving their sleep independence.
A child who is sleep independent is less likely to cry out and seek their parent’s help and comfort when they wake up at night, and more likely to soothe themselves back to dreamland. Potential methods range from the controversial “cry it out method” to the “no cry sleep training method”.
Learn About the No Cry Sleep Training Method and Why We Recommend It
Baby Still Crying At Night? What To Do When Babies Won't Stop Crying
If your baby’s crying persists and nothing seems to help, don’t be afraid to visit a doctor. They may tell you that it’s because of colic or the PURPLE crying phase, but at least you’ll know it's not because of something serious.
If you’re on the fence about whether you should call your pediatrician, take a look at the below symptoms as signs that something might be the matter with your little one and you should seek advice from a professional.
Your baby is:
- not feeding well
- running a fever with a temperature of 100.4 degrees F. or higher
- crying for more than two hours at a time
- vomiting or has diarrhea
Your baby crying at night might just be the worst part of parenting for you, but it will surely end. And hopefully, if you can see it more as your child talking to you in the only language they know, it will be easier to manage those 4 am wake-ups to soothe your child who is wailing for some unknown reason.
We wouldn't recommend completely trying to eliminate crying from your life, but to be aware of why it happens and anticipate your child’s needs before crying gets out of control. A few tears here and there are just a natural part of having a baby.