It’s one thing to know that all babies cry. It’s quite another to be up until four in the morning for the fifth night in a row, rocking a newborn who doesn’t seem able to sleep longer than half an hour. Sleep deprivation and concerns about their babies’ health can drive new parents into a panic.
New babies typically cycle through short sleep and wake schedules around the clock, but you may notice they seem more alert at night, not less. If you’ve taken a long plane ride, you’ve probably dealt with jet lag that altered your body’s normal sleep/wake schedule. It may be helpful to imagine that your newborn arrives in a similar condition. During pregnancy, your movement helped rock the baby to sleep in utero. You may have noticed more movement when you lay down, in part because the lack of movement may have roused the baby from a lull.
Crying and fussing usually peaks around 4-6 weeks. By about 3-4 months, most babies settle into sleeping for longer stretches.
When your baby is crying, first try checking for signs of:
If you can’t identify obvious causes of discomfort, your baby may simply need to be held. Touch and comfort are essential for healthy development. (We’ll get into strategies for you to get some rest in a moment!)
A dreaded phenomenon of new parenthood, colic is when your baby cries for:
- More than 3 hours a day,
- More than 3 times a week, and
- The pattern continues for more than 3 weeks
It’s hard to pinpoint a definitive cause for colic. Some babies have a harder time than others adjusting to life outside the womb. Others may react badly to something a breastfeeding parent ate (breast milk can take on flavors from the parent’s diet, and some foods can cause gas in a newborn even through breast milk).
If your baby’s wailing harder than usual and you’ve ruled out some obvious possibilities, you may need to do some sleuthing. Some scenarios are rare but serious, and it’s worth looking for warning signs:
- Trouble breathing. Probably, since your baby is crying nonstop, those lungs are working just fine! But if you notice that your baby’s having a hard time catching her breath, flaring her nostrils or using her chest muscles a lot, or if her mouth or tongue is turning bluish, call the pediatrician or 911.
- Swollen, rigid abdomen. Meningitis, obstructions, or other conditions can cause this symptom.
- Fever over 100.4 degrees Fahrenheit. Doctors take fever in newborns seriously, as it can appear for both mild and very serious conditions.
- Hair tourniquet. It happens more than you might think that a strand of hair can wrap very tightly around a baby’s finger or toe. The hair can cut off blood supply and cause pain and injury to the affected digit. A single hair is also not immediately apparent, so it’s understandably difficult to notice until it’s hurting the baby enough to make him cry.
What to Do With a Crying Baby
You’ll read differing opinions about just about every aspect of parenting. It can be so frustrating to deal with your family’s or even total stranger’s expectations for how you “should” care for your baby. Here are some tips that may be helpful to remember.
You cannot “spoil” new babies by picking them up too often. Your infant could go from one loving set of arms to another 24 hours a day and not get spoiled. Babies have not mastered the critical thinking necessary to “wrap you around their finger.” They just have needs. If anyone tells you you’re spoiling the baby, they are misinformed.
That said, it is okay to delegate. You are not a bad parent if you need to step out for an hour or two and let your partner or another trusted adult care for the baby. You’re also not going to harm your baby by putting him down in a safe place, like a crib, for a few minutes so you can use the bathroom or collect yourself.
Some tools parents use to soothe a crying baby include:
- White noise or shushing
- Drive in the car
- Make the room darker and quieter (some babies cry when overstimulated)
- Sing or whisper soothing things to the baby
- Offer the breast, a finger, or a pacifier to suck on for comfort
Take breaks when you need to and remember, this phase won’t last forever.