Babies and young children often cry as a way to communicate their needs and feelings. This is normal and healthy. A baby’s cry might mean they are hungry, tired, cold, hot, uncomfortable, unwell, overwhelmed, bored or that they want to be close to you.
Toddlers cry for many of the same reasons as babies, but also as a way of communicating new and difficult emotions, like frustration or embarrassment.
How much does a baby normally cry, and will this change as they grow older?
A baby will generally cry the most when it hits six weeks old. After this the amount of crying will go down gradually, and by the time they’ve reached three months, a baby will often only cry for about an hour a day.
But when they are under three months, some babies will cry a lot. They could cry for more than three hours a day, and this could go on for more than three days, or even more than three weeks! Often, the causes of excessive crying are unclear.
The amount that a baby cries may be linked to a range of factors, including their nature and temperament. At times their amount of crying could just be down to the fact that they aren’t yet able to control their emotions. Sometimes it could be related to how their parents or carers act and behave.
(Sometimes excessive crying can be down to another factor such as injury, illness, or a digestive problems such as reflux. If you ever think crying could be down to a medical, health or safeguarding issue please seek professional assistance.)
- Helping babies and toddlers to feel more relaxed about the things that make them cry
Once you start to recognise a baby’s signs of discomfort, and understand what makes them upset, you can use words to help them start to fear the ‘negative’ situation less.
You can ‘label’ their problem with a word that they will soon begin to recognise. For instance, if you know that a baby often cries or reacts badly when they are forced to wait for food that is too hot, you could introduce to them the idea that something can be "too hot". For example, making an exaggerated blowing sound or gesture, and repeating the word: “hot”. In time, a baby should start to understand what ‘hot’ means, and that when food is ‘too hot’ they have to wait.
Likewise, if a baby is startled by a loud noise, you can give them a soothing hug whilst using words to comfort and explain. For instance, you might say: "Oh that was a loud noise! It gave you a shock! It’s ok, you're safe, I am here, it was just the wind blowing the door shut! See - here is the door and it went BANG!"
This does several important things, it explains what happened, whilst helping regulate the infant's shock by offering physical comfort and safety. Also, by using the word ‘noise’, or labelling their feeling as ‘shock/ fright’ will teach them the words that match their feelings, or the cause of their fear.
Acting in this way will help them to fear the same situation less, the next time it happens. They will therefore be less likely to cry about it. They will also feel that you are able recognise their discomfort and are there to help.
When toddlers are upset it can also help to put into words how they might be feeling about whatever it was that upset them. For example, if they were crying because they were missing their parent or carer, you could talk to them about what was happening.
For instance you could say: “Are you missing your mum? She’s gone shopping. After that she will come back. Shall we look at a picture of her and you together here on my phone? There she is. That’s your mum, she’ll be back soon”.
While doing this you could leave conversational gaps in between questions and use exaggerated facial expressions to show them that you understand where they are coming from, and are interested in their feelings.
- Things that you can do to support a crying child
It would be helpful if, from the outset, you could take active steps to create the kind of relationship where a child in your setting feels comfortable talking to you about the things that are worrying them. If you do this they will know that if they are upset in the future you will be there to listen to their concerns.
If a child starts crying about something in particular but they will not open up to you about what it was, you could encourage them to speak to you about the situation that bothered them. Or, if you already have an idea about what it was that set them off, you can bring up the subject yourself, and then speak to them how you think that situation might have made them feel.
It’s also good to encourage children to label their feelings, so they develop an understanding about different emotions. For instance you could say. When x happened, did it make you feel sad/angry/frightened? And you could talk about where they felt the feeling in their body. For instance: ‘Do you feel this feeling in your tummy? Or is it in your head?
When a small child is upset but is not yet able to speak, it’s important to follow their body language and other cues. Even though the child can’t talk it is still helpful to give their feeling a name for them and “be with it”.
Some young children may be able to speak, but still don’t quite have the ability to explain to someone why they are crying or feeling sad. If that’s the case you could say to them, ”Sometimes we feel sad and we don’t know why or we can’t remember why at the moment – and that’s ok.”
Sometimes children cry about things that adults find silly, or too ‘small’ to make a fuss about. Whatever it may be, always make them feel that you think their feelings are valid and that you acknowledge and understand why they are having them. If you don’t, they might feel less comfortable opening up to you in the future.
For instance if a child dissolves into tears because they were given a yellow plate instead of their preferred purple one you could say: ‘I know you really wanted the purple plate. Purple is a lovely colour, I love it too. But it wasn’t possible to give it to you this time because there weren’t enough of them! I bet that made you feel a bit sad, did it? But how lovely is this yellow plate that you have! Yellow is a lovely sunny colour, I think I would feel very lucky to get a yellow plate.”
If a child is crying because they have had an item that is important to them snatched away by another child, again, it’s important to support them and to acknowledge their feelings. You can also help them 'label' the emotions that they are feeling, before helping them find something else to play with.
When an episode of crying is prolonged and intense –it can be hard. If the child is being looked after by another member of staff, and you find yourself feeling stressed or understandably tetchy, you could try leaving the room for a few minutes.
- Ways to support parents and carers who are struggling with excess crying
When you encounter a parent or carer who is struggling with a baby that cries a lot, there are a few things you can do to help.
- Reassure them that, while crying can be difficult to bear, it is normal and will reduce in time! Let them know that it’s also normal for them to feel frustrated and helpless. You can help them recognise that they could be feeling like this, and try and make them feel comfortable to talk about those feelings.
- Advise a parent that watching and observing a baby is a good way to understand what they need and what may lead to them crying. Throughout the day they should keep wondering about what their baby’s feelings might be – even when they’re not crying. They can check whether there are different times of day that their baby cries more – or different places. They can also see if the crying sounds different when they have different needs ie. From when they are hungry to when they want a cuddle, or are feeling bored.
- Make sure they know to respond to crying in a calm and sensitive way, however stressed they may feel. Although sometimes difficult, emphasise the importance of staying calm when trying to soothe a crying baby because babies pick up on anxiety. If they become aware of tension in a body, face or voice, this can unsettle them further.
- You can support parents to tune into a baby’s feelings and then put those feelings into words. For instance “Are you feeling tired.. wet… hot?” This can help to make a baby feel safe and heard, even if it doesn’t stop the crying. Babies are quickly overwhelmed by their emotions, and they rely on caregivers to manage those feelings for them.
- Try to help them to look at the crying in a different way. You could explain that we all have needs, and when we do we are able to talk about them and express them in ways that work for us. Their baby has its own needs, but they can’t speak and don’t have the same tools we have to express what it is they need. This is why they cry. You could point out that Instead of being a ‘stressful problem that needs solving’, it’s just what happens when a little human is trying to explain that it needs something.
- Recognise and praise what is going well in the parent or carer’s relationship with their child and do what you can to boost their feelings of self-confidence.
- Support them with using soothing techniques (like rocking or singing) and encourage their attempts.
- Think about what else is happening for the family and what might be making it harder for them to cope with a crying baby. There are some particular ‘risk factors’ that you could look out for. The re linked to poorer outcomes for babies who cry excessively and their families. These include parental mental health problems, substance misuse, poverty and difficulties in the couple relationship. It helps to observe parents with their babies when they cry, because this can help you to identify when a parent might need extra support to care for their baby. Listen to your instincts, and seek additional help when necessary.
- How crying can affect a parent or carer’s relationship with their child
Generally the act of crying will help a baby form a relationship with their parent or carer, but this is not always the case.
Crying can be hard to hear, and this is by design. A baby cries to get attention and to prompt a response in adults to protect and care for them. Normally, this two-way process helps the baby build a relationship with the person caring for them. When the parent or carer responds to their needs consistently, the baby learns that they are likely to receive help if they have a need, or are feeling unsafe or vulnerable.
When this happens they will start to feel more secure, and form a strong relationship with their parent or carer. These kinds of relationships are important for the child’s development and known as ‘attachment relationships’.
But there are times when, babies aren’t easily soothed, and this can be a difficult thing to for a parent or carer to cope with. If they are feeling very tired or worn out, or also coping with other stresses in life, they can find it even harder to cope. They may feel panicked, useless or frustrated. In these cases crying can then get in the way of parents responding to babies in a sensitive way that’s in tune with their baby’s needs . Parents or carers may not have enough emotional resources themselves to keep their baby’s emotional needs in mind, or they might feel less motivated to try.
As with babies, a toddler’s crying can be hard to cope with, especially if a parent is coping with their own unmet needs or stresses.
When crying can trigger powerful feelings in a parent or carer
In some cases, a crying baby can trigger complex and powerful feelings in a parent or carer. This could happen if the parent or carer has experienced a trauma in the past which they haven’t fully processed. For instance, they might have experienced violence, abuse, neglect, loss, difficulties with their own attachment relationships or other emotionally harmful experiences.
When this is the case a the parent of carer can feel thrown by the fact that they now have baby who is completely dependent on them - as (which is being expressed by their crying). When this happens the parent or carer can start to experience overwhelming feelings of fear and panic. This might lead to the desire to withdraw from the baby, or it could create feelings of hostility and anger. From a baby’s perspective, their parent’s responses to their crying can be confusing or frightening, or it make them feel lonely. Over time, if a child doesn’t get then get the sensitive care they need, they are not likely to form a secure attachment relationship with their parent or carer.
- Top tips to share with parents
Try not to worry - crying is normal and healthy, and it will reduce in time. But, caring for a crying baby can be very stressful, and it’s common to feel frustrated and helpless at times. Try to tune in to how it makes you feel, and if you can, share that with someone you trust - like your partner, family or a professional.
Watching and observing your baby can help you learn about why he/she might be crying. Are there different times of day your baby cries more? Different places? Does it sound different when they are hungry to when they wants a cuddle or are feeling bored?
Sometimes, babies cry for no clear reason. It will help if you try and stay calm when trying to soothe your baby. This is because babies can pick up on anxiety. And if they become aware tension in your body, face, or voice it can unsettle them further.
Try wondering with your baby what you think might be upsetting her. Babies are quickly overwhelmed by their emotions and putting those feelings into words can help to make a baby feel safe and heard, even if he/she doesn’t stop crying straight away.
If you feel yourself getting angry, take a break. Put your baby somewhere safe, like in their cot or Moses basket, and go to another room for a bit of time out.
If you are worried about how much your baby cries, or you are struggling to cope, talk to someone you trust, like your health visitor, GP or a someone at the children’s centre.
Like babies, toddlers rely on their parents and carers to help them recognise and manage their feelings, which are often communicated through crying. Try to stay calm, wonder with a toddler about what might be upsetting them, and articulate how the toddler might be feeling, is an effective and soothing strategy. You might say: ‘You are feeling bad because you don’t want to get in the buggy. You’ve had a really nice time playing here today and you’re not ready to go home.’
- Impact of the health crisis
Although babies and young children can’t understand what’s happening, they feel the impact of the current health crisis all too keenly. For example, if a child experiences changes to routines, increased anxiety and stress in parents and carers, or separations from grandparents and peers, this can all contribute to young children becoming unsettled. This can mean that they cry more than usual. Parents may also be finding it harder to cope with crying when they are feeling anxious themselves.