Five types of baby cries and what they might mean

Not sure why your newborn is crying? Whether it's due to hunger, pain, fussiness, or something else, this guide to different baby cries can help.

young baby crying
Photo credit: Veer

Before they learn to speak, babies cry to communicate. If you listen closely, your baby may be sending you clues about their needs with each sound they make.

There are lots of reasons babies cry and many different types of cries, but each can usually be grouped into one of five main buckets: hunger, fussiness/discomfort, illness, pain, or colic. Here's how to identify these different types of cries and what to do when you hear them.

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Types of baby cries

Hungry cry

What it sounds like: At first, a hungry baby's cries are long, low-pitched, and repetitive, broken up by long pauses. As your baby gets hungrier, their cries will gradually build up, getting longer and louder with shorter pauses.

Before your baby gets too worked up, you'll usually notice other signs of hunger. If your baby is under 5 months old, watch for them to:

  • clench their fists
  • smack their lips
  • turn their head toward anything that touches their face and open their mouth
  • put their hands in their mouth

What it means: It's time to eat! Newborns usually breastfeed or formula-feed every two to four hours.

What to do: Offer your baby the breast or bottle, and let them eat until they're full (babies may close their mouth and turn their head away when they've had enough). In general, try to respond to your baby's early hunger cues as soon as you spot them, since crying is often a late sign of hunger. Once your baby's crying, getting them to settle down and eat can be more difficult. Crying can also cause a baby to swallow air, causing discomfort – and leading to even more crying.

Discomfort/fussy cry

What it sounds like: Babies who are fussy cry mildly, on and off. As with other types of cries, crying will increase in intensity the longer it goes on.

What it means: Fussiness can happen because your baby's tired or uncomfortable. They may have a dirty diaper, feel too hot or cold, or be over- or under-stimulated. Fussing is especially common during the baby "witching hour," which usually occurs in the late afternoon or early evening.

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What to do: See if your baby's ready for a nap. Fussy babies are often tired, and newborns need a lot of sleep (about 16 hours per day). If it's not nap time, check for any causes of discomfort – make sure your baby's diaper is dry and they're not too hot or too cold. You can also try switching up your baby's environment: Hold them close while you walk around the house, go for a stroll outside with the baby carrier or stroller, or set them down in a bouncer or swing.

Also, try to observe your baby and when they tend to get upset. Is it at a certain time of day, after feeding, in loud and noisy places? Sometimes you can spot trends. For example, you may notice that your baby usually cries during and after feeding, which may point to reflux.

Sick cry

What it sounds like: A sick cry won't sound like your baby's normal cries – and your baby usually won't stop crying no matter what you do. Your baby may sound tired and weak.

What it means: Any crying that's persistent and unusual – no matter the sound or pattern – could indicate severe illness.

What to do: If your baby's cries just don't seem right, it's worth contacting their healthcare provider. Trust your gut. Know the signs to call the doctor – and go ahead and call if you feel concerned for any reason. Warning signs include refusing to eat for multiple feedings, lethargy, rash, or a fever over 100.4 degrees F (in newborns), among others.

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Pain cry

What it sounds like: A baby who's in pain may suddenly shriek a single, long, and high-pitched cry. This may repeat as they continue to feel waves of pain.

What it means: Pain-related crying may be linked to a specific cause, such as an ear infection (in which case your baby will usually rub at the affected ear), gas, or a blistering diaper rash.

What to do: Look for obvious causes for pain and check in with your baby's doctor.  

Colic cry

What it sounds like: If your baby has colic, listen for painful cries that begin suddenly, usually around the same time of day, and continue for hours. Your baby might sound miserable and distressed and stiffen their legs and arms, clench their fists, and arch their back.

What it means: Babies cry a lot (two hours per day for the first three months or so, on average). But babies who have colic cry even more: for at least three hours per day, at least three days a week, over at least three weeks.

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The cause of colic is unknown. It may be related to an underdeveloped digestive system, overfeeding, underfeeding, or not enough burping (or a combination of these or other factors). Know that gas in babies is extremely common and can cause discomfort that aggravates colic. But while babies who are colicky are often also gassy, your baby can be gassy without having colic.

What to do: If you think your baby has colic, there's not a lot you can do except comfort your baby and wait for the pain to pass. For babies who tend to get gassy, be sure to burp them after every feeding. You can also determine whether your baby's distress may be caused by a cow's milk protein allergy (if so, you can consider switching formulas or changing your breastfeeding diet). The good news is, colic improves significantly in most babies when they're about 3 to 4 months old.

Different baby sounds

Some researchers have theorized that babies have a mini library of sounds they use to communicate their needs before they cry. One of the best-known of these theories is the Dunstan Baby LanguageOpens a new window, which proposes a set of "words" that all babies under 3 months old use to express their needs before they start crying. This theory isn't scientifically proven, but has gained traction.

The five universal baby sounds are:

  • "Neh" (hunger)
  • "Eh" (need to burp)
  • "Owh/Oah" (tired)
  • "Eair/Eargghh" (cramps/low belly pain)
  • "Heh" (physical discomfort; feel hot or wet)
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Researchers have found some evidence that the Dunstan Baby Language works, using a voice-based emotion recognition computer program. One study fed a computer program 250 Dunstan recordings and their meanings, then used the program to test 65 more recordings for accuracy. It found the Dunstan method was correct at classifying cries 89 percent of the time.

Another study used the same data on a similar but more robust computer model and found that the Dunstan method accurately classified cries about 95 percent of the time. These studies were small and limited, however.

Understanding different baby cries

While it might feel hard in the beginning, understanding your baby's cries will get much easier as you get to know your baby and their daily routines and needs. You don't have to study various sounds and cries to figure your little one out.

In fact, the authors of one study concluded that the ability to decode a baby's cries develops quite naturally. They found that people who spend a lot of time around babies – especially parents of very young children – become acutely aware of baby sounds and can often even accurately identify when a baby they've never met is crying due to pain versus discomfort.

If you want to take out the guesswork, researchers have developed apps that promise to decode your baby's cries for you. One free app (released by researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles) compares a baby's crying to a database of more than 20,000 baby sounds. The app promises to predict whether your baby is hungry, tired, or in pain with roughly 90 percent accuracy.

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One of the hardest things about having a baby who has colic or just cries a lot is not knowing how to soothe them and make the crying stop. If your baby's crying for no reason (or at least no reason that you can figure out), try offering a pacifier, wearing them in a carrier or sling, swaddling them, taking a walk together, or playing white noise.

If none of these strategies helps, it's perfectly normal to feel frustrated and upset. Most parents reach a breaking point when caring for an inconsolable baby. Take care of yourself, too. This may mean placing your baby in a safe space (like on their back, in their crib) for 10 minutes and going into another room to do something that calms you, such as listening to music or practicing deep breathing.

Taking a break is crucial if you become overwhelmed and feel like you're losing control. Never shake or strike your baby: Doing so can result in brain damage or even death. Call a friend or relative for help. You can also try the National Parent HelplineOpens a new window at 1-855-427-2736, or, if you're concerned about your child's safety, 1-800-4-A-CHILD (1-800-422-4453).

For some parents, reading about the types of baby cries really helps. For others, it doesn't. Keep in mind that you'll get in sync with your baby the more time you spend together – so hang out with your little one and trust your instincts.

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Colleen de Bellefonds
Colleen de Bellefonds is a freelance health and lifestyle journalist. She's raising her toddler daughter and newborn son with her French husband in Paris.