Babies cry so the species will survive. They cry so their needs will be met. A baby's cry is their way of communicating to their parents that they need something. If you are a parent trying to cope with a crying, fretful baby, you will know how distressing their prolonged crying is to themselves, to you and to anyone nearby.
Picking up and cuddling or breastfeeding your fretful baby will not start bad habits or spoil them. If they cry, they need you and the more upset they are, the more they need a loving parent to make everything all right again.
Because you are a loving, caring mother you are distressed when your baby cries. When nothing you do seems to help them, you may find your motherly feelings turning to despair and even anger. Most mothers of colicky babies can recall these times, often with a needless sense of guilt.
Learning about the things that upset a baby can help you cope. It's easier to be patient with a constantly crying baby when you understand they have a reason for their distress.
Baby sleep-training programs are becoming popular, so it is worth reading the opinion of the Australian Association for Infant Mental Health Inc (AAIMHI) in its 2002 position paper (revised in 2013) on controlled crying: ‘AAIMHI is concerned that the widely practised technique of controlled crying is not consistent with what infants need for their optimal emotional and psychological health, and may have unintended negative consequences.' You can read the background to these concerns in a PDF document that can be downloaded from the AAIMHI's website before you make your own decisions on this issue.
Is it my milk?
The breastfeeding mother immediately worries about whether it's her milk. Family and friends often recommend a change to formula. But breastfeeding is hardly ever the reason for the crying. It's a simple matter to eliminate problems like poor positioning and attachment, the mother’s let-down reflex not working, or hunger.
Is it hunger?
If your baby is having breastmilk only (no formula, solids or water) and is having 6 really wet cloth nappies or 5 heavily wet disposables in 24 hours and regular soft bowel motions, then you know your baby is getting plenty of milk.
It may be that you are expecting your baby to ask for feeds every 4 hours. It is common for young babies to want to breastfeed between 8 to 12 times (or more) in 24 hours. Breastmilk is food and drink and comfort to babies. Babies don't know that they are hungry or thirsty. They just know they need you. As adults we help ourselves to a drink or snack many times a day and can quite happily manage a cup of coffee or tea straight after we've eaten. Your little baby has a tiny stomach that needs refilling very often. Offer them more breastfeeds and see our article on increasing your milk supply.
Look at the checklist in the ABA booklet Breastfeeding: and crying babies to investigate more reasons for crying. This booklet is available, digitally and in hard copy, to purchase from the Australian Breastfeeding Association.
What else could it be?
You need to eliminate illness as a cause of crying. If your baby cries inconsolably for long periods each day, you will want to make sure they are not sick by getting a thorough check-up from your medical adviser. Most crying babies are not sick. Talk to a friendly and knowledgeable ABA breastfeeding counsellor on the Breastfeeding Helpline. She is a mother who has breastfed and undergone extensive training. With a breastfeeding counsellor you can explore a lot of possibilities to do with breastfeeding and with mothering.
Many crying babies end up with the label ‘windy’ or ‘colicky’ because no reason can be found for their distress although they are almost always thrive. The problem typically disappears after 3–4 months, although that may seem like a very long time for some parents. The booklet Breastfeeding: and crying babies contains 20 different suggestions for soothing and comforting a baby, as well as ideas for how to manage everyday life with an unhappy baby.
It is very important that you eat well, take every chance to rest and ask for help from family and friends during the difficult weeks that the crying lasts. It also helps to talk to other mothers who are sharing this experience. You and your baby will be warmly welcomed at an Australian Breastfeeding Association local group get-together.
Breastfeeding: and crying babies booklet
Breastfeeding: and crying babies helps to give an understanding of why babies may cry and how to help soothe a crying baby.
© Australian Breastfeeding Association Reviewed December 2019