How to Calm a Fussy Baby

Crying is a baby's most basic mode of communication, and soothing a fussy baby can prove to be challenging for any parent.

By Deirdre Wilson

Crying. It is a powerful, gut-wrenching thing - an infant's wail. It demands immediate attention, and yet, for new parents, it can also easily prompt feelings of distress, frustration, even guilt or anger.

Crying is a baby's primary mode of communication. It is that child's practical method of conveying hunger, pain, discomfort, fatigue or boredom. Parents can eventually learn to identify their infant's cries to respond to their specific needs. But that doesn't always ease the frustration of trying to soothe those nonstop, escalating sobs.

Melissa Kane, who has survived her first year of parenting 12-month-old daughter Briana, knows all about that frustration.

"It makes you feel helpless," she says of her daughter's crying bouts, "like you don't know what to do. You don't know how to fix the problem. You don't know what the problem is. Sometimes I can tell when she's gone poo. Sometimes I can tell when she's hungry. But other times …"

Identifying Your Baby's Cry

Pediatricians believe that different needs distinguish an infant's cries; they generally agree that babies cry from hunger, discomfort, pain, fatigue, boredom or over-stimulation. Listen carefully to your baby's cries and you'll soon be able to distinguish at least some of her needs:

  • Pain - An infant in pain emits a sudden, piercing shriek followed by a pause and then a wail. Look for the source of the pain. Press around the baby's body gently to try to find where she's hurting. If you can't find a reason, you will probably need to ask your doctor for help.
  • Hunger - Hungry babies cry in short bursts that rise and fall. In their book Calming Your Fussy Baby, Brazelton and co-author Joshua Sparrow, M.D., note that a hungry baby will often move his head forward and side-to-side with his mouth open. He's looking for the bottle or breast. If you don't respond quickly enough to a hungry baby's cries, you'll soon hear a different tone in her much louder and stronger cry of anger, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), which has its own book for new parents, Caring for Your Baby and Young Child: Birth to Age Five.
  • Fatigue - Tired babies - those who've had too much handling, interaction or noise and stimulation - start with a soft cry or whimper that increases to loud, distressed crying. Put the baby down to sleep, and the cries usually dwindle to sobs and then stop.

  • Boredom - Conversely, a bored infant in need of interaction and attention whimpers off and on, sometimes waving his feet in the air while fussing and looking around blankly. You'll notice that picking him up, cuddling and talking to him calms him. It's your cue to play and interact with your baby.
  • Discomfort - Not quite as piercing as a cry of pain, discomfort does provoke a strong burst of loud crying. It could be that your baby has a bubble of gas, a wet diaper, or that a bowel movement is imminent. Try cuddling or talking to her, and carrying her around. Change her diaper if necessary. Offer her a feeding or water; then burp her and allow her to suck on a nipple or her fingers.

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