What Is Your Crying Newborn Trying to Tell You?

December 2016 By: Wendy Palmer, MS, RDN, LD, CHES Registered Dietitian, Children's Healthcare of Atlanta
mom holding crying baby
0-4 Months

It took a while for my boys to tell me exactly what they wanted using words. And now, they're at the age where expressing themselves comes oh, so naturally (maybe a little too naturally). But I still remember when the boys weren't talking yet, and we had to resort to reading their body language and cues in order to meet their needs, but fortunately we started learning when they were newborns. Learning your baby’s cues as early as possible will make everyone happier and less stressed during those first few exciting, hectic and sometimes scary months of parenthood.

Here are a few common situations where you might miss what baby is trying to tell you:

1. Baby has been up for nearly three hours. She’s been fed, burped and played with, yet she’s crying again. You try to feed her more, but she turns away and continues to cry while tugging her ears.

  • You might think: She is still hungry and just needs a little coaxing to accept the bottle or breast.
  • In reality: She’s probably tired and needs you to soothe her before she falls asleep. After all, she has been up for more than two hours. You can tell it’s not hunger because she isn’t showing any hunger cues (like sucking her hands or turning toward the bottle).

2. Baby’s grandparents visit, and grandpa takes a turn feeding, burping and playing with her. After several minutes, your baby starts to cry. By this point, grandma starts to lend a helping hand, but she doesn’t have any luck either—not even the bottle helps. It seems like the more her grandparents try to soothe her, the more she cries and turns away from them with her fists clenched.

  • You might think: She is still hungry and is more likely to accept the bottle from you than anyone else.
  • In reality: She is likely overstimulated and needs quiet time with you—away from distractions. Most babies are sensitive to their surroundings, and too much noise or visual stimulation can be overwhelming. (I bet there are times when you might feel the same way about your parents coming to visit, too.)

Instead of using food to soothe baby, try to remove the stimulations, such as lights, sounds or other people. Once baby is calm, it will be easier to see if she is actually hungry by watching for hunger cues—like putting fingers in her mouth or grabbing for the breast or bottle.

3. Baby has been making sucking noises for the last few minutes. She then begins to cry while she sucks on her hands.

  • You might think: Her fussiness just comes with the territory, and sucking on her fingers is just one of her ways to self-soothe.
  • In reality: This time she is actually hungry. Keep in mind that there’s always a reason for your baby’s actions, even if you don’t know it at the time. In this case, your baby’s sucking noises are probably an early sign of hunger. Once the crying and sucking follow, it means she is hungry—and now upset. If it has been more than two hours since you last fed her, try again. If she eagerly accepts the bottle, then you’ve found your solution.

Crying is probably your baby’s main form of communication, and there are multiple reasons why babies cry that have nothing to do with hunger. Some babies cry when they are too hot or too cold, or need to burp or be held. For this reason, it’s important to pay attention to your baby’s cues to help determine the cause of her crying. And remember, no parent ever has it down to a complete science, not even healthcare professionals like me.

mom holding crying baby

About The Author

Wendy Palmer, MS, RDN, LD, CHES
Registered Dietitian, Children's Healthcare of Atlanta

Wendy Palmer has been a member of the Strong4Life team since 2011. As a registered dietitian and manager of child wellness, Wendy has been instrumental in the development of many of Strong4Life’s initiatives aiming to impact child wellness in Georgia.

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Wendy Palmer, MS, RDN, LD, CHES
Registered Dietitian, Children's Healthcare of Atlanta


Wendy Palmer has been a member of the Strong4Life team since 2011. As a registered dietitian and manager of child wellness, Wendy has been instrumental in the development of many of Strong4Life’s initiatives aiming to impact child wellness in Georgia. 

As a mom to Caden (age 7) and Kellen (age 5), Wendy’s biggest parenting challenge is that her youngest son is a carbohydrate addict. He prefers bread, cereal, crackers, waffles, pancakes—you name it! Even though her oldest son eats veggies and fruits happily, it’s a daily battle to get Kellen to eat his veggies.

She received a Master of Science in health care policy and management and completed a dietetic internship at Stony Brook University in 2005. She earned a Bachelor of Science from Ithaca College in community health education in 2003.

Wendy lives in Dacula, Georgia, with her husband, two sons and three dogs. When she is not working, she enjoys running, cooking and spending time being active with her kids.