How long to let baby cry?

Hudson Valley pediatricians provide their advice

How long should you let your baby cry

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, newborns, on average, cry up to two hours a day and over the first few months may cry more. There’s a great debate surrounding the question of how long to let baby cry before intervening.

“New parents are probably the most challenged with the infant cry,” says Dr. J. Keith Festa, vice president of medical affairs and family physician at MidHudson Regional Hospital in Poughkeepsie.  “Unfortunately,” he adds, “[the cry] is really the only way to communicate so you have to learn about it.”

As you get to know your baby better, you get a sense of what the different cries mean. Cries are often age-dependent. “Infants do not have the ability to calm themselves,” says Dr. Lin-Lin Remenar, pediatrician at Crystal Run Healthcare in Middletown. “If it is a hunger cry you want to react, but as they get older, if it is a cry to get attention, you do not always want to react if it is something that has already been recognized.”

Try the five S’s: 
The American Academy of Pediatrics suggests a practical approach to calming crying babies, developed by Dr. Harvey Karp, a physician who wrote the book "Happiest Baby on the Block". He calls them the five S’s: 

  • swaddling, 
  • side/stomach positioning while awake,
  • shushing, swinging and sucking,
  • singing a song, and 
  • not shaking the baby

Turning on a calming sound may be helpful as well as keeping a diary of when the baby cries so you know what to expect. If the toddler is having a hard time getting into a good sleep routine, do not re-enter the room every time he calls out because this will not give him the chance to fall asleep on his own. Try to wait a few seconds before answering and make sure you wait longer to respond each time he calls out.  This way he is reassured you are there but he gets to work on building good sleep habits. 

Be in-tune to your baby. “The most concerning cry is a weak cry with signs of illness,” says Dr. Remenar. Any cries that you have not heard before should be investigated. “Within the first couple weeks, parents get used to a cry and recognize whether it is hunger, thirst or overtiredness, so one that has never been heard before could indicate illness or pain.” A persistent cry can mean the baby is in pain or suffering some discomfort.

It may be as simple as your baby needs something
Remember that your baby has needs. “Infants eat around the clock, every few hours, and if you do not respond, sometimes they get frantic and worked up which causes them to cry more,” says Dr. Festa. Try to figure out what the baby wants by paying attention to the clues or signals. “Crying can mean feeling uncomfortable, a wet or soiled diaper, gas, needing to be burped during and after feeding time, tiredness or a position thing,” says Dr. Festa. Remember that babies have to adjust from being snuggled in the womb, going out to a new world, and being placed in new positions. “They feel more comfortable snuggled up early on and position changes associated with that might cause them to cry,” Dr. Festa adds.  

Babies sometimes just get fussy
Sometimes general fussiness can come on a daily basis so you have to consider all of the possibilities. “Over time you learn your infant’s patterns; sometimes he has a fussy time of day which may happen in the afternoon or early evening or he may not need to eat or sleep and may just want to be held and walked around a bit,” says Dr. Festa. 

Don’t be afraid to ask your pediatrician if you’re unsure about how to respond. “Inconsolable crying that you cannot console no matter what you seem to do is often a false alarm but you do not want to ignore it until you know your baby’s patterns,” says Dr. Festa. Some babies have colic which is a major cause of crying. “It seems to start often a few weeks after birth and for some infants it can go on up to three or four months and they just outgrow it,” Dr. Festa explains.

Parents really do know their child best, especially if something is wrong, has changed or is abnormal. Have your baby close on hand and just be there for him. Like most growing stages, the crying will pass.

READ MORE: Should you let your baby cry it out?

Jamie Lober writes frequently for HVParent magazine.