Decode your baby's cries

From a weak whine to all-out screaming - your newborn is trying to tell you something. 

It is easy to get frustrated when your baby cries. He cannot tell you what is wrong and will just keep bawling until his needs are met.

But crying is, in itself, a form of communication for your newborn, said Dr Simon Ng from Babies and Children Specialist Clinic at Mount Alvernia Hospital.

He may be hungry, frightened, in pain or experiencing some discomfort, and craves your attention.

And, contrary to popular belief, babies do not cry to be "difficult" or to irritate their parents and caregivers, said the consultant neonatologist and paediatrician.

Babies have different types of cries, from the soft whine to the loud, wild scream. The crying can last for a couple of minutes or go on for hours. There may be plenty of tears, or none at all.

Each is an indication of a problem that your child is experiencing. Here is how to decode them.


What it sounds like: Your baby's cry may range from weak to high-pitched, depending on his level of hunger. He may open his mouth wide, stick out his tongue and pucker his lips, as if anticipating a feed, said Dr Ng.

He may also move his head from side to side, as if searching for your breast. Or, if you touch the side of his face with your finger, he may turn his head in that direction.

He may also suck on his fingers, toys or clothing.

What to do: A newborn's feeding schedule can be unpredictable, so it is worth getting to know his hunger cues, such as the stirring and sucking motions. Offer him milk before he gets to the frantic crying stage, said Dr Ng. As he gets older, you will not have to feed him as frequently.


What it sounds like: Your baby may give a weak cry, whine and fret a little if his diaper is wet or soiled. His skin may have become irritated as a result, said Dr Shiv Gill, a general practitioner at My Health Partners Medical Clinic.

What to do: Clean and change his diapers immediately, advised Dr Gill.

However, not all babies cry when their diapers are dirty. So, check his diaper regularly throughout the day, such as after feeding, to make sure that he has not soiled himself. The longer you leave him unchanged, the more likely he will develop diaper rash.

Give him a warm bath too; he will enjoy the sensation of being buoyant. Dry and wrap him immediately to prolong the feeling of comfort.


What it sounds like: Your little one may cry soon after a feed and the episode may be accompanied by regurgitation or repeated vomiting, said Dr Ng. He will also look like he is in extreme discomfort.

What to do: Dr Ng suggested burping your baby and propping him up for 30 minutes or so after feeding him.


What it sounds like: The infant may look afraid and bawl intermittently, said Dr Gill. He may also put his hands together as if he is attempting to protect himself. Perhaps he was startled by a loud noise or heard a unfamiliar voice.

What to do: Your baby wants to feel safe and protected, so comfort him by holding him close to your chest.

Gently pat his back while whispering reassuring words in his ear. You can also try rocking him slowly from side to side until he stops crying. He will find comfort in that repetitive motion.


What it sounds like: If your bub has been crying non-stop for more than an hour, then he is likely to be in pain or unwell. This type of crying is also loud, intense and frantic. Look out for symptoms of illness, such as fever, vomiting, coughing, diarrhoea or constipation, said Dr Ng.

Sometimes, it is the less obvious issues that may have led to his protests. For example, he could have been bitten by an insect or the buttons on his outfit are pressing into his skin, said Dr Gill. Or, maybe, he is just feeling too warm or cold.

What to do: Take him to the doctor for a check-up. Any underlying illness should be treated as soon as possible, said Dr Ng.


What it sounds like: Colic typically affects newborns in the first two months. When all the other causes of crying have been excluded, then your child's cries may be attributed to colic, said Dr Ng.

This condition refers to a severe and often fluctuating pain in the abdomen. As his digestive system is still developing, he may have issues with gas passing through his intestines. The muscles there start to spasm, causing him discomfort and pain, and he may cry for hours.

If your baby is being bottle-fed, watch that he is not sucking in air as this can cause tummy trouble too, said Dr Gill.

What to do: Dr Ng suggested burping or cuddling your baby. Try massaging him as well. Use baby oil or lotion to gently rub his back, tummy, arms and legs. This is also a great way to bond with your child.

If none of these methods work, discuss with the paediatrician if you should give your little one probiotics or a wind drop.

This article first appeared in Young Parents magazine. Young Parents, published by SPH Magazines, is available in both digital and print formats. Log on to scription to subscribe and for more parenting stories

This article was first published on Feb 19, 2015.
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