Learning to interpret your baby’s cries

You can become an expert on interpreting your child’s cries. It will take time, experience, patience, and quite a few mistakes, but it will be worth it. With experience, we can develop really accurate intuition when the environment gives clear and immediate feedback (1). I believe this is the case with babies. The following are based on my experience, and things I have read in books, not scientifically tested assertions. I’ve also left space for you to add in your own. Imagine you have put your baby in their cot, they are crying. On the left you have possible actions you could take, in the middle you have what you find or how your baby reacts, and on the right a likely interpretation of the cry.

Parent’s ActionFeedbackProbable need
Smell, lookDirty nappyDiscomfort cry
Feed milkBaby drinks hungrily and settlesHunger or thirst
Feed milkBaby drinks lightly and settlesNeed for comfort
Go in to comfortMore intense cryingTired settling cry
Go in to comfortSettlesNeed for comfort
Don’t go inCrying increases in intensityNeed for comfort
Don’t go inCrying on and off, and/or decreasing in intensityTired settling cry
Pick upBurpDiscomfort cry

You will learn to interpret your baby’s cries probably better than anyone, but some sounds are more likely to indicate certain problems:

MeaningSound of cry
I’m HungryRhythmic and repetitive
I’m Fed UpLouder and more prolonged
I’m in painStarts suddenly, persistent and high pitched, punctuated by holding breath

The information in this second table is from The Sensible Sleep Solution by Sarah Blunden and Angie Willcocks. If you haven’t read it, I highly recommend it for anyone who is pregnant or has a child under 1.


  1. Kahneman D & Klein G. (2009) Conditions for intuitive expertise: a failure to disagree. American Psychologist. 64(6):515.
  2. Blunden, S & Willcocks, A. (2012) The Sensible Sleep Solution.

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