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Infant Crying

Infant Crying – What’s it all about?

by Meg McNulty, Director of Outreach & Operations, Cooper House and Lisa Mennet, Ph.D., Cooper House

Baby crying loudlyAs a parent, the sound of your own newborn cries is one of the most powerful signals you can receive, a signal that a response--your response--is urgently needed. You feel compelled to do something in the moment and, as you notice what feels like an instinctual response in yourself, you might wonder about the role of infant crying: Is crying a learned behavior or an innate tendency? Can all crying be consoled? How can you tell if the baby’s crying is more extreme than typical crying? Researchers and child development specialists have considered those very questions for decades as well.

What is the function of infant crying?

Psychologist John Bowlby (1969) asserted that the cry signal in all mammals is meant to bring caregivers nearer, to increase and contact and care, thus enhancing odds of survival in a world with lots of dangers. No wonder we have evolved to leap into action when we hear our baby’s cry! Similarly, the infant cry also stimulates the mother’s “let-down” reflex and subsequent breastfeeding, also contributing to the infant’s survival.

We often think of babies as having several different “types” of crying, meant to signal the baby’s different needs. And it’s true that parents of older infants can often guess what their child requires based on the sound of the cry. In young babies, however, it may not be helpful for parents to try to distinguish “types” of early cries (hunger, fear, irritation, etc.). Early cries usually sound quite similar and parents may feel they are failing by not successfully interpreting—and then soothing—the cry. It’s OK to be unsure what the baby’s cry “means”; the important thing is that you are wondering, investigating (Is he hungry? Does she need a diaper change?) and responding as best you can. It’s also important to remember that your crying infant isn’t trying to manipulate you. She’s just using the only tool she has to signal that something doesn’t feel right.

What’s normal and what’s abnormal?

It is common for parents to search for information about what is normal in infants (and older children, too!). But the question of normalcy can become maddening, because babies vary quite a bit in how much they cry. However, researchers have found that infant crying typically tends to increase rapidly from 2-6 weeks, then drop off significantly by 12-16 weeks; this is known as the “crying curve.” So, if you find that your mellow newborn has turned into a fussy 3-month-old, take heart. Chances are excellent that his early evening meltdowns will soon start to taper off and eventually disappear.

For babies who seem to spend a lot of time crying, the term colic is often used. No one knows what causes colic—in fact, it is not a distinct medical condition but simply a word used to designate a baby who cries more often and with more intensity than usual. In 1954, Morris Wessel offered the “Rule of Three”: a colicky baby is one who cries for more than three hours per day, more than three days per week, for more than three weeks.

Ronald G. Barr, author of The Phenomenon of Early Infant Crying and Colic (2009) and the developer of the Period of PURPLE Crying program, described the “colic cry” as having 3 distinguishing features: beginning and ending suddenly, with no apparent cause, and tends to be unsoothable. He also made an important distinction; “colic is something a baby does, not something a baby has.” Barr made the case that there are can be negative implications for mislabeling colic as a pathological condition to be “treated.” For example, he described parents who stopped breastfeeding in response to increased crying, then switched formulas to a different brand, added vitamins, switched to soymilk, and finally experienced “success” with goat’s milk—which happened to coincide with the baby reaching the age at which crying typically decreases on its own. This isn’t to say you shouldn’t look for ways to soothe your fussy or colicky baby—just keep the normal crying curve in mind, and remember that while some babies cry inconsolably, it doesn’t mean you are doing anything wrong.

Responding to Crying - Strategies are great and support is even better.

Searching the internet for soothing strategies will likely provide hundreds of tips, books, CD, and devices. Often, one or a combination of strategies can bring a baby to calm; yet not all crying can be soothed. Some crying just may persist. And caring for a persistent, colicky crier is enormously stressful for parents. If possible, parents are wise to take a breath and take stock of their thoughts and beliefs about the baby’s distress, as well as their own capacity to manage the stress of the moment. It’s OK to leave your baby in a safe place for a few minutes while you take a break to read your mail or fix a cup of tea. Additionally, parents who feel extremely distressed or exhausted from excessive crying can consider asking a family member, friend, or neighbor to provide care so you can get away for an hour or two.

If you delivered your baby in a hospital in King County, it’s likely you were introduced to the notion of the Period of Purple Crying—reviewing the materials about PURPLE crying about may be helpful. If you’d like to talk to an infant specialist about your child’s fussiness or sleeping difficulties, you can also call the Fussy Baby Network—Seattle/King County. Phone consults and home visits are offered through the program, in English or Spanish, on a sliding fee scale (free to families who qualify for Medicaid coverage). For more information, go to

About Fussy Baby Network

Fussy Baby Network®  Seattle/King County

Fussy Baby Network® Seattle/King County is a program for parents who have concerns about their baby's temperament and behavior during the first year of life. It includes The Fussy Baby Warmline, Parent/Infant Program and Fussy Baby Clinic.

Fussy Baby Network® Seattle/King County is a project of Cooper House, in partnership with Erikson Institute, a graduate school in child development located in Chicago. Learn more about our launching of the Fussy Baby Network of Seattle/King County at

Fussy Baby Warm Line: Call (206)906-9622 or email

For support and resources: Read about more services, including information on in-home visits, and the Fussy Baby Clinic.

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