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.

The Myth of Spoiling

Most pediatricians and child-development experts will tell you not to ignore a crying baby - but none so adamantly as William Sears, M.D., and his wife, Martha Sears, R.N. Well known for their "attachment parenting" philosophy, the two have co-authored numerous parenting and child-development books.

They call advice that you simply let your baby cry it out "misguided," asserting that it fails to recognize the importance of communication in a baby's cry and that it "devalues" a mother's sensitivity. They dispute the notion that parents who always respond to an infant's cries are somehow spoiling him or that the child will never learn how to calm and settle himself.

Sears and other pediatricians also point to the 1970s research of Sylvia Bell and Mary Ainsworth, who studied two groups of children - those whose mothers promptly and caringly responded to their infants' cries, and those whose mothers were more restrained. Bell and Ainsworth found that the children in that first group were more securely attached to their mothers and had better communication skills than the children in the second group.

"Can you hear a small baby's cry without feeling your heart speed up, without an urge to pick that baby up and comfort her?"
- Calming Your Fussy Baby, by T. Berry Brazelton, M.D., and Joshua D. Sparrow, M.D.

Soothing Strategies

Some babies can frazzle even the calmest of parents with weeks of daily inconsolable crying or screaming, often worsening in the late afternoon and evening. Your physician can tell you if the cause is colic, a condition that usually starts between the baby's second and fourth weeks of life. While there is no definitive explanation for why colic occurs, it usually decreases with age, and rarely continues beyond 4 or 5 months. (See "Help for Colicky Babies")

Still, all babies have crying spells that aren't necessarily due to colic. They cry out of some sort of need; they want to communicate with you. So how do you go about communicating with them? How do you soothe them and restore peace when they keep crying, no matter how you respond? If you've tried feeding your baby, changing her diaper, putting her down for a nap, making sure she's not in pain, and nothing seems to work, here's what experts advise:

  • If she has eaten very recently, try letting your baby suck on your finger. Sucking is often very soothing for infants and it's a strategy that often works when other attempts prove futile.
  • Hold your baby's arms and body, and talk comfortingly until there's a break in the crying. Then slowly lower your voice to try to bring the infant's crying volume down as well. Try rocking him, or stroking his head or patting his back gently.
  • Try swaddling your infant. Fold a baby blanket into a large triangle; bring the bottom point up over the baby's feet, and then fold the side points one at a time across the baby's length, so that you are securing her arms and legs. Lay the child on her back and watch her to be sure she doesn't move down inside the blanket where she might not be able to breathe.
  • Try singing, playing soft music or turning on rhythmic noise (such as a vacuum or washing machine).
  • Take your baby for a walk or a ride in the car. A change of scene and the motion itself can distract an infant's cries.
  • Take preventative steps to avoid over stimulating your baby. Try to keep things calm in the evening before bedtime. Rock him; nurse or bottle-feed him to sleep.

Just as important as addressing your infant's needs is addressing your own. Crying babies can create tense, irritable parents. If you need a break, find a friend or relative to watch your baby while you head out for a while.

More Resources:

Calming Your Fussy Baby The Brazelton Way: Advice from America's Favorite Pediatrician, by T. Berry Brazelton, M.D., and Joshua D. Sparrow, M.D., Perseus Publishing, 2003. Features reassuring, practical advice from two renowned child-development experts.

Caring for Your Baby and Young Child: Birth to Age Five, from the American Association of Pediatrics, Bantam Books, 2004.

Parenting the Fussy Baby and High-Need Child: Everything You Need to Know - From Birth to Age Five, by William Sears, M.D., and Martha Sears, R.N.; Little, Brown and Co., 1996. The Provides comforting advice and great tips for calming fussy babies, based on the authors' years of medical practice and "attachment parenting" philosophy.

Why Is My Baby Crying? The 7-Minute Program for Soothing the Fussy Baby, by Bruce Taubman, M.D., White Hat Communications, 2000. The author, affiliated with Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, pinpoints five basic needs that babies communicate through crying and how parents can soothe the distressed infant.

Your Baby & Child: From Birth to Age Five, by Penelope Leach, Knopf, 1997. A classic from the renowned British child-development expert.

Deirdre Wilson is national senior editor for Cominion Parenting Media.