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crying in infancy

Infants may cry for many reasons ranging from serious health problems to being hungry.

What is the information for this topic? 
Why do babies cry?

Crying is one of the few ways an infant has to signal to caretakers that he or she has unmet needs. Almost every parent finds it very difficult to not attend to a crying baby. This has probably evolved as a mechanism to protect the helpless infant. The task is for parents to decide just what the baby is saying through his or her crying.

A baby might cry if he or she:
  • is hungry
  • is tired
  • needs holding and comforting
  • is cold, hot, or uncomfortable
  • needs a nappy change
  • has a condition known as colic. This is when a baby has intense crying and fussing for no obvious reason.
  • is in pain
  • is sick or has another medical problem
Finding the reason for crying can be a stressful process for parents. But over time, parents usually learn to interpret what their infant's crying means. Infants vary in the amount of crying that they do. Some only cry when something is wrong. Others cry for no apparent reason for several hours each day.

What are some medical conditions that can cause a baby to cry?

There are some serious health conditions that can cause an infant to cry. These conditions usually have other symptoms associated with them. For instance, if a baby's bowels are obstructed, he or she may vomit or become dehydrated. These clues tell a parent that something is wrong and that a doctor should examine the baby.

For some infants, eating or drinking cow's milk can lead to pain in the belly, which causes the infant to cry. This can occur even in breast-fed infants whose mothers consume milk products. If there is a strong history of allergy in the immediate family, an infant should not be given foods containing cow's milk until after his or her first birthday. Breast-feeding may help protect some infants from developing food sensitivities.

Infections of the ears, nose, lungs, and throat might cause a baby to cry. These infections are more common in children who:
  • are not breast-fed
  • have school-aged siblings
  • are in day care
  • have parents who smoke
Symptoms of infection can include fever, runny nose, tugging on the ear, and cough. More serious infections such as meningitis, an infection around the brain, may also cause crying. Meningitis causes the child to vomit, lose his or her appetite, and become lethargic or "out of it."

There are other conditions that can make a child cry. The key is for parents to watch for symptoms or signs, along with the crying, that indicate that a child is not feeling well.

What are some other reasons a baby cries?

Sometimes an infant cries a lot when he or she is handled. It may be that the infant has an injury or broken bone that is not obvious. This might be caused by a birth injury or by child abuse. Large babies delivered naturally through the vagina are more likely to have birth injuries. A baby is more likely to be abused if he or she:
  • is born early
  • has a teenage mother
  • has a mother who is poor
  • is born into a family with a history of child or sexual abuse
  • has a parent who uses drugs and/or alcohol excessively
Babies who are over stimulated by their surroundings can cry a lot. This is especially true for infants who are highly sensitive to the environment. Some babies will cry excessively if there is a lot of tension in the family or if the baby's primary caregiver is under a lot of stress.

What can a parent or caregiver do for an infant's crying?

Parents and caregivers should keep in mind that infant crying, even if it is excessive, is not known to cause any adverse, long-term effects.

The first thing to do when a baby cries is to see if there is a simple reason why he or she is upset. Parents and caregivers may be able to soothe a crying infant by:
  • changing his or her nappy
  • feeding him or her
  • dressing him or her warmly in soft clothing
  • rocking him or her gently and soothingly
  • playing soft music
  • giving him or her a dummy
  • putting him or her in a wind-up baby swing
Babies up to about 5 months old will not become spoiled if their parents or caregivers hold them a lot. Some infants need frequent holding in order to feel comfortable and secure. If a young infant cries when alone and comforts readily when picked up, he or she may be one who needs a lot of holding. Parents and caregivers may find this easier to do if they wear soft, fabric infant carriers. This way the baby can be held close as the parent or caregiver performs their daily routines.

To determine if food sensitivity is causing crying, a soy formula can be substituted for cow's milk formula. For the breast-fed infant, the mother should eliminate milk and milk products from her diet. If this seems to relieve the problem, the baby or nursing mother should be started again on milk products to be sure that that was the cause of the crying.

If a doctor is consulted, he or she will want to know when and where the crying takes place. He or she will also want to examine the infant.

What are some things parents can do to handle the stress of a crying baby?

Living with a fussy, crying baby can be a challenge to one's patience and self-control. This is especially true when the parent is depressed, addicted, or alone. Parents in these cases should try to arrange some sort of support system. That way, if the crying is too much to handle, they can get someone to take the baby for a while. Not doing this may lead to child abuse.

Even in functional, intact families, crying babies can be stressful to the caregivers. This can also be hard on a marriage. Parents of young infants should try to find time for an evening out together, without the baby. The primary caregiver should also have a babysitter available, even if it's just for a few hours. This allows for a little rest or recreation.

Most parents gradually learn whether or not their baby's crying is something to worry about. If the baby's crying seems to be out of the ordinary, the parents should contact the child's doctor to discuss it. The doctor can usually tell from the history of the crying and an examination of the baby whether there is anything to be concerned about. They may want to do further testing or just offer reassurance that the child seems well.

Reviewer: eknowhow Medical Review Panel
Editor: Dr John Hearne
Last Updated: 6/1/2005
Potential conflict of interest information for reviewers available on request

This website and article is not a substitute for independent professional advice. Nothing contained in this website is intended to be used as medical advice and it is not intended to be used to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease, nor should it be used for therapeutic purposes or as a substitute for your own health professional's advice.  All Health and any associated parties do not accept any liability for any injury, loss or damage incurred by use of or reliance on the information.


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