Why Infants Cry and How to Respond

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It’s 3:00 in the morning. For the past few weeks you’ve only gotten 2-3 hours of sleep at a time and you are exhausted. Your newborn baby won’t stop crying. You feel like you’ve tried everything to get her to stop and you don’t know what else to do. You can’t help but ask in frustration, “Why are you crying?” You are not alone in asking this question. For many years, parents and researchers alike have tried to answer the question “why do babies cry?” and the more important question, “what can I do about it?” This article will try to answer these questions, as well as give some useful suggestions to help calm your baby (and yourself) down. 

Why Babies Cry  

Many theories exist that try to explain why babies cry. A few of these theories will be presented here, and you are invited to decide for yourself which theory sounds the most correct to you, and which most seems to apply to your infant. You may even find that you agree with parts of each theory.  

Evolutionary Theory  

Evolutionary theory states that our traits, especially those we are born with, have evolved over thousands of years. According to this theory, there are characteristics in every species that make it more likely that an individual will survive. So an evolutionary perspective of infant’s crying tells us that crying is an adaptive trait and that its purpose is to help the baby survive. Crying accomplishes the purpose of survival by signaling to adult caregivers that the baby needs something.7  

Behaviorist Theory  

Behaviorism is the idea that all behavior is learned through rewards and punishments.14 The theory of behaviorism has been around for some time and is supported by many other studies. Behaviorism predicts that babies and children will learn behavior through rewards, like attention or food, and punishments, like getting a toy taken away. When applied to infants, behaviorism claims that as parents respond to their baby’s crying by feeding them, or giving them attention, the baby will learn to cry when they are hungry or need attention.  

Another aspect of behaviorism is how babies can influence their parents. Babies can train their parents to meet their needs by crying when they need something, and since the parents want them to stop, they will give the baby what they need, whether it be food, attention or fixing discomfort. Then the baby responds in a positive way, by smiling or cooing, or even just removing the negative stimulus of crying.  

Attachment Theory  

Attachment theory was developed by John Bowlby in the 1950s, and since then, this theory has been confirmed again and again by other researchers. Attachment theory claims that babies develop a secure attachment to their caregiver by consistently having their needs met.Attachment theory teaches that crying is adaptive because it keeps caregivers close so the baby can develop an attachment to them.3  

Research tells us that securely attached babies grow into securely attached children and there are a lot of positive outcomes including higher social ability, better thinking about symbolic things such as love, freedom, etc.,8 and being better at expressing and controlling their feelings.2,13  

How do you help your baby develop a secure attachment? It is important to be warm and responsive to your baby’s needs. If you quickly and consistently respond to your baby’s cues and clues with what they need, they will learn to count on you as their caregiver. They will feel safe and secure and confident that if they make their needs known, they will be met.  

The Crying Cycle  

Most experts believe that there is a normal developmental pattern of crying. Crying tends to consistently increase for the first month and a half or so and peaks around 6-8 weeks. Then crying tends to decline.1 Most babies cry on average between 110 and 118 minutes throughout one day (that’s almost 2 hours per day of crying) and they usually decrease to about 72 minutes throughout the day by about 3 months.16 This is to say that, crying is normal!  

How Do I as a Parent Appropriately Respond to My Baby?  

Newborns (birth to 3 months)

If your newborn is crying, respond promptly and consistently, especially when you know they are probably hungry. Babies have small stomachs that can only hold a couple of teaspoons at a time. Keep in mind that when it seems like you just barely fed your baby, they could be hungry again! You cannot “spoil” a newborn. You won’t teach a newborn patience by deliberately withholding food, comfort, etc. when they are crying. In fact, there is research that has found that if you respond quickly to your baby when they are younger, it may reduce crying when they are older.4  

If your baby just ate and you know they aren’t hungry, but they are still crying, you could try:

  • swaddling—wrapping your baby tightly in a blanket
  • offering a pacifier
  • standing up and holding them with their head on your shoulder
  • using white noise  

Above 3 months

As your baby gets older and becomes more capable of recognizing you as their parent, if you soothe them and comfort them, they will begin to form a mental picture of a parent who loves them, and over time they will believe that they are worthy of attention. They will begin to think of you as the main source of comfort and support.12 You don’t necessarily have to offer food every time they cry, but your baby still needs you to be responsive.  

At this point, if you always respond to your baby with food, your baby could start to realize that whenever they cry they will get food. They also may start to think that any time they are upset, they can be comforted with food. This might not be a good thing and could set them up for childhood obesity and negative patterns such as using food for comfort.5 If you know they aren’t hungry, you could try something else such as:  

  • Interacting by making faces, cooing, playing, etc.
  • Putting them in a swing
  • Offering a pacifier
  • Making sure their diaper is clean
  • Picking them up and walking them around, they may be bored.
  • Putting them in a quieter place, they could be overstimulated.

Sleep Training  

Sleep training is trying to help your baby sleep through the night. There are many effective techniques to sleep train your baby such as:  

The Cry-it-Out Method (also called Extinction), where the baby is placed in the crib and allowed to cry themselves to sleep with no other intervention. The goal here is to help babies fall asleep by themselves.

The Controlled Crying Method (also called Graduated Extinction), where parents allow the baby to cry for a predetermined amount of time (5 or 10 minutes) before going in to soothe the baby. The time between soothing is increased. The goal here is to help a baby learn to self-soothe and fall asleep themselves.

Positive Routines involve parents establishing a consistent routine every night that helps signal to the baby that it’s time to sleep.

Faded Bedtime is when parents start a bedtime routine at the time the baby naturally goes to sleep, and then every day they do the routine a little earlier until the baby starts going to sleep at the desired time.9

If you are sleep training but something isn’t working for you and your baby, adapt it, change it, and do what feels better to you. Remember, these are just suggestions. Every baby is different, and only you can know for sure what works and what doesn’t work for your baby.  


Colic is a term that gets applied to abroad category of negative infant emotion. Commonly, colic is defined as fussiness that persists over time. Colic is a diagnosis of exclusion which means that in order to diagnose colic all other factors have to be eliminated.Because of this, it’s hard to tell if your baby is colicky, or if they are in pain or sick. If your baby is crying more than you find normal, you may want to consult your doctor to check for the following

Acid reflux

Feeding difficulties such as problems latching, inverted nipples, etc.

Functional Lactose Overload (when breast milk doesn’t have enough fat, so the milk goes through the baby’s system too quickly. Undigested lactose can then ferment in the colon causing frothy stools, crying, and the desire to eat all the time).

Food allergy—if you are breastfeeding you may want to stop eating dairy products, soy, wheat, nuts, and fish.

Infection (especially urinary tract infection).6 

If there is nothing else wrong with your baby besides excessive crying, there is very little that can be done to treat colic besides soothing techniques that have already been explained. Keep in mind that your baby won’t be colicky forever. In fact, only 5% of babies continue to be excessively fussy by 5 months.10  

What To Do When Baby Won’t Stop Crying  

As frustrating as it is, sometimes a baby will cry for no obvious reason. If you have tried everything to soothe your baby, you may have to accept that they are just going to cry. If this becomes too stressful of an experience and you feel the need to hurt your baby, get out of the situation immediately. Give the baby to a spouse, or call a neighbor or family member so you can calm yourself down. NEVER SHAKE YOUR BABY. If no one is available to help you, put the baby in his crib, close the door and walkaway for a few minutes. Go where you can’t hear him crying and calm yourself down. Once you feel able to handle the situation, go back and try again.6 

You Are the Parent, You Know What To Do  

It is easy to feel inadequate as a parent and to feel frustrated if you don’t understand why your baby is crying. But remember, you are your child’s parent. You are the person who is best equipped to help them. It may take some practice, but soon you will learn what your infant wants and/or needs. Have confidence in your parenting. As you grow in your relationship with your baby you will know better than anyone.  

Additional Resources  

This chart shows you how big your baby’s stomach is at birth, at 3 days and at 10 days: http://www.ameda.com.au/breastfeeding/breastfeeding-benefits/your-newborns-stomach-day-110.html  

A step-by-step guide to swaddling:


 Zero to Three is a nonprofit website with many resources to help early child development: http://www.zerotothree.org/child-development/

Here is some more useful information about Colic:


This site gives some good advice about sleep training:


Written by Amberly Stevens, Research Assistant, edited by Chris Porter and Stephen F. Duncan, professors in the School of Family Life, Brigham Young University.


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