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Why is my baby crying?

Author Philippa Murphy

Why is my baby crying?

There is a common cycle of care that most parents fall into, either out of desperation as they don't know what to do for their baby but feed them, or they get told by other professionals 'that it's normal for baby to feed a lot and cluster feed at night' and 'newborns don't need to burp'. But unfortunately it is these care practices, and others that start the newborn on a common, daily cycle of digestive issues which often has parents asking, 'why is my baby crying?' Some newborns can cry for hours, arching backwards, they sleep for short periods, can have explosive bowel motions or constipation, among other symptoms. Starting to sound familiar? Read this common cycle of events and see if this further resonates with your baby's situation...

In the late afternoon to evening the newborn will become agitated. Parents are often told this happens because of a growth spurt and more milk is needed or it is a natural occurrence for newborns to be hungrier in the evening hours and therefore they normally cry and scream more.

This advice, and the heightened communication from their baby, has some parents increasing breast or formula feeds in the evening (labelled cluster feeding). Breastfeeding mothers may be guided to offer both breasts at one sitting, to introduce an expressed or formula bottle-feed or give ‘top-ups’ (offering expressed or formula milk after a breast feed) to help settle their newborn. If formula feeding, parents may be advised to increase the feed quantity. This often subdues the newborn by throwing their body into a sluggish state, making it look like this was the answer to solving the behaviour. However, this subdued effect is short-lived and the baby’s communication heightens because they are now even more digestively overloaded.

In addition to this, when a newborn is not helped to release air intake by burping to the degree necessary for their age, air accumulates over a few feeds and eventually creates spasms of pain through the digestive tract, and/or produces reflux. The behaviour resulting from this is often misread as hunger. Thus parents fall into feeding every two to three hours. Many postnatal organisations advocate this quick succession feeding saying it is ‘normal’. However, biology tells us that this is too short a gap for the newborns digestive system to function naturally.

Most parents know to burp their newborn after each feed, yet the amount of wind that parents are taught to release through burping is nowhere near what is needed. Parents sometimes feed bubs to sleep or are told that their baby does not need to burp; that retained air does not create discomfort, or that if babies have not burped in ten minutes then they have no more wind, but all of these things are physiologically untrue and non-beneficial.

Each time the newborn is put into the cot, they soon become agitated by the excessive wind or overload of waste moving through the intestines, and therefore whimper, cry or scream to be soothed. Finally, exhausted from the crying, lack of sleep, restless bodily responses, and all the feeding and possible refluxing, the bloated newborn falls asleep for a longer period. Baby then wakes, usually crying, rooting and looking to suck because of hunger and discomfort. Parents often ascribe this distress to hunger only and feed. The newborn can look ravenous, sucking hard at this time, gulping down the milk while feeding erratically. This lends more weight to the hunger assumption but newborns will always look to suck and often hard, when they feel uncomfortable in their digestion.

A couple of burps after the feed and possibly a few spills later, Mum and Dad try to settle bubs to sleep, sometimes being successful. Often, parents who are sleep-deprived take their baby to bed with them. This can happen several times a night, especially when Digestive Overload is at its height. Morning comes, baby is fed again. Parents are exhausted, especially if Mum is breastfeeding and Dad is working or other siblings are involved. A few burps are released and the newborn is put back to bed still feeling overloaded.

During the day, overloading continues with the newborn feeding beyond capacity and in an unbalanced manner, not swallowing enough enzymes and/or not burping to optimum levels. Daytime sleep becomes elusive, erratic or is achieved for only brief periods. As evening approaches, the newborn’s digestion reaches a heightened level of overload and they are again very unsettled; grizzling, crying and screaming in discomfort. Sadly, everyone begins the unpleasant night cycle once more, with some newborns reversing night and day sleep habits.

The common cycle described can happen at any time of the day. Newborns can be experiencing one of the digestive imbalances (colic, reflux, lactose or dairy overload), while others feel two or all of them simultaneously.  This results in varying levels of behaviours and communication at varying times.

If you would like to understand the biology of what is happening to your baby or infant during overload I suggest you read this blog on the witching hour.

Last Updated: 05 February 2014