Babies and Crying: Listening to Your Baby


Everyone from professionals to your mother has opinions about why your baby cries and what you should do about it. And, whether or not we are the baby’s parents, a crying baby often stirs up strong feelings in us: frustration, anxiety, irritation and helplessness. It is easy to be overwhelmed and confused by the intensity of emotion and the often contradictory opinions.
In this article I will talk about a particular way to understand baby’s crying. Although I, too, have an opinion as to how to respond to your baby, I would encourage you to connect with your deepest knowing of yourself and your baby and do what feels like the best match for your situation.

Crying as Communication

Crying is baby’s way of talking to you; of letting you know things are not okay. When your baby cries it does not mean you have done something wrong. Nor does it mean that your baby is spoiled. Crying is baby’s way of saying:
“I’m hungry.”
“I don’t like this.”
“My tummy hurts.”
“Hold me.”
“Everything is too much. Make it stop.”
“Let me tell you about this scary thing that happened.”
“I’m so angry I could spit.”
There are different kinds of messages or needs that your baby communicates by crying:
  •  Physical needs
Sometimes these physical needs are obvious e.g. a soiled diaper, or a bloated tummy. Other times, baby’s needs may be less visible. For example, baby may have pain from an ear or urinary tract infection. Or baby’s upset may be connected to allergies or food sensitivities. Certainly if you have any concerns about your baby’s physical well-being, check with your medical practitioner to explore possible physical causes for baby’s crying.
  • Emotional needs
Babies also have emotional needs. For example, crying may be a way of asking for more emotional contact and closeness. Being lovingly held or carried by a parent allows baby to experience movement, rhythm, the sound and feel of the parent’s heartbeat, skin-to-skin contact; all things which nourish baby.
  • Expressing emotions
Babies cry in order to express their emotions. I have observed babies who, when feeling safe, cry out their anger, their fear, their overwhelm. Sometimes this kind of crying feels as though the baby is telling a story. It’s almost as if he is saying “Then this loud noise happened and I was all alone. I got so scared.”
  • Releasing tension and stress
Perhaps less well understood is that baby’s crying may be a way for her to release stress. Adults, trying to balance the many pressures and responsibilities of work and family, may find it hard to understand that babies also experience tensions and frustrations in their daily activities. Consider that infants are constantly learning new skills: grasping, crawling, and walking to name only a few. Imagine that you are very interested in that red and blue fuzzy thing and despite using all your energy and power; despite trying again and again; your attempts at crawling only take you further away rather than towards the desired object; you can only crawl backwards not forwards. AAARRGGHH! Crying is a great way to express that built-up frustration.
Another source of tension and stress, especially for babies born prematurely, is over-stimulation. A trip to the mall, a walk in the park, a family get-together is loaded with stimulation. Babies can be easily confused and overwhelmed by what they see, hear, sense and feel. During the first few months it is not unusual for babies to have a crying spell at the end of an eventful and stimulating day. They may be crying even though their immediate needs have been met because crying allows them to release body tension and stress.
Babies may also release tension and stress from past events. It is not uncommon that stress may have accumulated from baby’s time in the womb and/or during the birthing process. Birth can be a frightening and painful process for babies. It can also be traumatic, not only for parents but also for the baby. Dr. Aletha Solter, developmental psychologist and author of several books on babies and crying, states “Researchers have found that babies whose mothers were extremely stressed during pregnancy or whose mothers experienced a difficult delivery, cried more and awakened more frequently at night than babies who did not have these traumatic experiences.” How events become traumatic and how birth events can be traumatic for baby, mother or father is a topic for another day. However, studies show that crying releases hormones that reduce tension and the arousal level of the nervous system. Vimala McClure, author of Infant Massage: A Handbook for Loving Parents, says, crying “is an inborn stress-management and healing mechanism”.

Listening to Babies

So why is it so difficult for us to be with babies who are crying and to let them cry? This, too, is a topic for another article. But let me briefly note one possibility. Many of us did not have parents who responded to us when we were upset by listening and holding us. Many of us were hushed, told to stop or distracted. Some of us were teased, shamed or left alone in our crib to cry it out. Often our parents were using strategies that they thought were the ‘right’ thing to do. Yet it has left us uncomfortable with our own emotions and pain and consequently, unable to stay present with our baby when they are crying and distressed. We use the strategies that we were taught, that we as babies experienced, often even if we are trying to parent differently than our own parents.
Over the last 100 years, professional advice has swung from letting baby cry it out alone to responding promptly to baby’s crying by rocking or nursing them. However, as McClure points out, we continually miss the point. Babies cry because they have needs and once immediate needs have been met, they may need to cry to express their emotions or release stress. She states, “We should begin to accept crying as simply another way we humans can cleanse our hearts of negative feelings and stress. We can acknowledge that it is okay to cry sometimes and that everyone eventually stops crying and finds relief, especially if their family and friends allow them to express their feelings, and love and respect them all the more for doing so.”

How to Listen to your Baby

When your baby cries, first, take a moment to settle yourself. Notice how you are breathing. It may help to take several long, slow breaths: breathing in and breathing out. If your energy is fluttering up in your chest or throat, imagine your energy sinking down and settling in your belly. Sense your legs and your feet. Feel connected to the earth. Remind yourself the baby is crying for his reasons. It is not about you. You are not a bad parent because your baby is crying.
Then go to your baby. Make eye contact if he is willing. If not, you could hold him or place your hands gently and firmly on him and connect to him through your hands. Let your love go to him.
Talk to him. Let him know you are there and interested in what he has to say. Take whatever action is necessary to meet his needs e.g. feed him; carry him with you for a while. If his immediate needs have been met, then remember he may need you to listen to him expressing what he is feeling or be with him while he releases built up tension.
Be with your baby while he cries. Listen and observe his body language and facial expressions. Watch his mouth and what he is saying with his eyes. Notice how he moves his arms and legs.
When you listen to your baby in this way, you are fulfilling their psychological needs in these early weeks and months. The underlying messages that you are communicating to your baby are “You are loveable and worthy of respect just the way you are. You have a right to express your emotions and to ask for what you need. I will stay in contact with you even when you are upset.”
You are deepening the bond and strengthening your attachment with your baby. You are building a solid foundation from which your child can grow into the world feeling secure, safe, worthy and loved.

Shari Bender is a Vancouver psychologist working with adults and children. You can reach her at 604. 221.9053 or A version of this article appeared in the Fall 2004 issue of Urbanbaby & Toddler magazine.