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What Do My Baby's Cries Mean?

Danielle Haines | 8, September 2008


What Do My Baby's Cries Mean?

Your baby is born with the ability to cry, which is how he or she will be communicating for a while. Your baby's cries generally tell you that something is wrong in his or her world. Soon you'll be able to recognize which need your baby is expressing and respond accordingly.

Of all the infant emotions, crying is considered the most important. Through different types of cries, infants are capable of communication. Learning to recognize them is exciting and rewarding and can strengthen your bond with your baby. Here are some different types of cries:

Basic - A rhythmic pattern formed by a cry, then a brief silence, then a short whistle higher in pitch than the main cry, then another quick rest before the next cry.

Anger - A variation of the basic cry with more air forced through the vocal chords.

Hunger - A low pitched cry that rises and falls with a rhythm. The baby will usually root, suck on his or her hands and can't be calmed down.

Fatigue - A soft, rhythmic cry as the baby tries to pacify and go to sleep.

Boredom - A fake cry that stops when picked up.

Discomfort - A whiny sound like the fake cry, but doesn't stop when picked up. Baby usually needs a diaper change or is too hot or cold.

Pain - Differs from the other types of cries, and it stimulated by high-intensity stimuli. It is characterized by both a sudden loud cry without moaning, and a long initial cry followed by a breathing period.

A newborn can differentiate between the sound of a human voice and other sounds. Try to pay attention to how he or she responds to your voice. Your baby already associates your voice with care: food, warmth, touch. If your baby is crying in the bassinet, see how quickly your approaching voice quiets him or her. See how closely your baby listens when you are talking to him or her in loving tones. He or she may subtly adjust his or her body position or facial expression, or even move his or her arms and legs in time with your speech.

0 - 3 Months Old

Crying continues to be a baby's primary means of communication for many months. Aside from letting parents know that they need something, they might cry when overwhelmed by all of the sights and sounds of the world. Sometimes babies may cry for no apparent reason.

Your baby will respond to the sound of your voice by becoming quiet, smiling, or getting excited and moving his or her arms and legs. Babies this age begin smiling regularly at mom and dad but probably won't smile and act friendly with strangers, though they may warm up to them with coos and body talk.

There might be times when you have met all of your baby's needs, yet he or she continues to cry. Don't despair, your baby may be overly stimulated, have gastric distress, or may have too much energy and need a good cry.

4 - 8 Months Old

By 4 months old, your baby's physical signals will have become clearer as he begins to learn cause and effect and how to coordinate action and thought. Your baby use signals to indicate his needs and wants—raising his arms when he wants to be picked up, for example, or kicking his hair chair when he's tired of sitting. Babies this age may tend to use body language to indicate playtime is over. Such signals as turning away or breaking eye contact usually means your baby had enough stimulation or simply wants to play with his toys on his own.

Babies learn a language by picking up on stress patterns in words (to remember the sounds that they'll eventually associate with a person or object). To determine if your baby is beginning to understand the meaning of words, see if he differentiates his name from a name with similar and different stress patterns. If he recognizes his name, he may also react (turn his head toward you) to a name with a similar stress pattern. If he is beginning to remember stress patterns, he shouldn't turn toward you when you say a name with a different stress pattern. If he does acknowledge the name with the different stress pattern, it's possible he cannot yet differentiate his name from other names.

9 to 12 Months Old

During these months, your baby might say "mama" or "dada" for the first time, and will communicate using body language, like nodding and shaking his or her head. Your baby will pay even more attention to your words and will try very hard to imitate you—so be careful what you say! Babies begin to express likes and dislikes with body language, nodding in agreement or wrinkling their nose with displeasure. They'll also begin to communicate what they want by pointing, crawling, and gesturing.

Danielle Haines is a freelance writer for Baby Corner. She is currently married and is the mother of two girls.

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Showing 1 - 5 out of 5 Comments
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Guest Jun 29, 2018 12:30:42 PM ET

My grand baby cried for a lady he met for the first time during VBS. All 3 days, if he saw this young lady, he cries for her. He does not cry when his mom drops him off or pick him up. I'm so confused.

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Jess Nov 9, 2017 11:07:44 AM ET

My baby has just started to cry and it sounds like a kettle going off when he breathes in. Is this normal? He's never had this sort of cry, just started tonight. It's like having a new born cry but, breathing in. Not to sure if I should be worried or not.

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Jessica Aug 15, 2011 02:27:53 PM ET

Hello I have a 4 month old baby boy that sometimes makes a "mmm-gay" sound in his cry and was wondering if anyone might know what this means?

jp May 13, 2013 02:25:18 AM ET

Hmmmm my child makes thesame noise

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Rena Baxter Jul 26, 2010 07:31:26 PM ET

This article was extremely helpful in describing different forms of infant non verbal communication. Thank you for helping me understand what signs to look for to help soothe my baby.

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