Crying is a normal and healthy way for babies and young children to communicate their needs and feelings. A baby’s cry might mean they are hungry, tired, cold, hot, uncomfortable, unwell, overwhelmed, bored or want to be close to you. Crying tends to peak at around 6 weeks and then reduce to around an hour a day by 3 months.
Some younger babies cry a lot (‘a lot’ being when the crying takes place for more than three hours a day, for more than three days, for more than three weeks). Often, there is no clear symptom or behaviour found in babies who cry excessively, and the causes are unclear. The amount that a baby cries may be linked to a range of factors, including their temperament, a normal lack of ability to regulate emotions, and parental characteristics and behaviours.
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.
- Impact of 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, changes to routines, increased anxiety and stress in parents and carers, and being separated from grandparents and their peers can all contribute to young children becoming unsettled and crying more than usual. For parents, it may understandably be harder to cope with crying when they are feeling anxious themselves.
- Supporting the parent-child relationship
Crying can be hard to hear, and this is by design – crying gets our attention and activates a response in adults to protect and to care. This two-way process helps to support the development of attachment relationships, in which the baby learns that the parent will respond and be there to help when they are feeling unsafe or vulnerable.
Sometimes, however, babies aren’t easily soothed, and this can be difficult to bear. Being very tired or worn out, or coping with other stresses in life, can also make it much harder to cope. A parent may feel panicked, useless or frustrated. Crying can then get in the way of parents responding to babies in a sensitive and attuned way. Parents or carers may have less emotional resources themselves to keep their baby’s emotional needs in mind, or they might feel less motivated to try.
In some cases, very complex and powerful feelings can be triggered in response to a baby crying. Where parents or carers have unprocessed trauma, as a result of experiencing violence, abuse, neglect, loss, ruptures in their own attachment relationships and other emotionally harmful experiences, a baby’s overt dependency – vocalised through crying - can provoke overwhelming feelings of fear and panic. This might lead to the desire to withdraw from a baby, or feelings of hostility and anger. From a baby’s perspective, their parent’s responses to their crying can be confusing, frightening and make them feel lonely. Over time, if a child doesn’t get then get the attuned and sensitive care she needs, it’s likely that an insecure attachment relationship will develop.
Like babies, toddlers rely on their parents and carers to help them recognise and manage their feelings, which are often communicated through crying. Being able to stay calm, wonder with a toddler about what might be upsetting them, and articulate how the toddler might be feeling, is a good soothing strategy. You might say: ‘You are feeling 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.’ But like babies, toddlers’ ‘big feelings’ – for example anger or frustration – can be hard to bear, especially if a parent is coping with their own unmet needs or stresses.
- How can you support parents and carers to cope with crying?
- Reassure parents or carers that while crying can be difficult to bear, it is normal and will reduce in time. Acknowledge with parents that it is common to feel frustrated and helpless, and support them to voice and articulate those feelings
- Watching and observing a baby is the key to understanding what they need and being able to respond in a sensitive and effective way. As a practitioner, you can model this with the baby and carer, and encourage parents or carers to wonder about their baby’s feelings. This will help to reframe the crying from being a problem that needs solving, to an opportunity to see the baby as an individual with specific needs.
- Recognise and praise what’s going well in the parent-child relationship. You may be able to boost parent or carers’ feelings of self-efficacy and self-confidence by supporting them to use soothing techniques (like rocking or singing) and encouraging their attempts.
- Supporting parents to tune into a baby’s feelings and put those feelings into words can help to make a baby feel safe and heard, even if she doesn’t stop crying. Babies are quickly overwhelmed by their emotions, and they rely on caregivers to manage those feelings for them.
- Although sometimes difficult, emphasise the importance of staying calm when trying to soothe a crying baby. Babies pick up on anxiety, and tension in your body, face or voice can unsettle them further.
- Think about what else is happening for the family and what might hinder their capacity to cope with a crying baby. Particularly risk factors that are linked to poorer outcomes for excessive baby criers and their families include parental mental health problems, substance misuse, low socio-economic status and difficulties in the couple relationship. Observing parents or carers with their babies when they cry can help you to identify when a parent or carer might need more support to care for their baby. Listen to your instincts and seek additional help when necessary.
For more information on coping with toddlers’ crying, see our sections on tantrums and physical aggression.
- Top tips (to share with parents and carers)
- Rest assured that crying is normal and healthy, and it will reduce in time. However, caring for a crying baby can be very stressful, and it is 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 she might be crying. Are there different times of day your baby cries more? Different places? Does it sound different when she’s hungry to when she wants a cuddle or when she’s bored?
- Sometimes, babies cry for no clear reason. Staying calm when trying to soothe your baby can help. Babies pick up on anxiety, and tension in your body, face or voice 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 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.