I was looking through the book Baby Care Basics by Dr. Jeremy Friedman and Dr. Natasha Saunders who are pediatricians from The Hospital for Sick Children, and came across an important section entitled, “Interpreting Crying.”

Not knowing what to do with a crying baby or child is one of the most stressful experiences a parent goes through. I remember when my guys were babies and how helpless I felt when after I did all I could, they would still cry for a reason that was a mystery to me. I shake my head now at all the crazy things I tried to get my babies to stop crying: including walking laps around my house holding onto my baby in the middle of the night for hours on end. I now know that wasn’t in either of our best interests!

Babies and toddlers cry because they are experiencing a need or are upset, and require our help to meet that need or self-regulate. As babies become older, turning into toddlers and then young children, crying will be replaced with other sounds, facial expressions, gestures and eventually words to express those needs.

Deciphering those needs is our (sometimes daunting!) parenting task. I’m a fan of checklists so for my own sanity, I made a mental list of reasons my little one might be crying, which the authors of Baby Care Basics also did. I’m going to walk you through their list of “interpreting crying” points and add in information for toddlers, too.


  1. Are you hungry?

Baby signals for hunger are hands to the mouth, sucking on a finger/ pacifier, smacking lips or rooting. If you think your baby is hungry, try feeding him.

If your toddler is hungry, don’t ask, “are you hungry.” I find the best way to get food into an upset toddler is to quietly set a plate of finger food out without speaking about it. This reduces power struggles and gives your child space to eat when he is ready.

  1. Do you need a diaper change?

Babies vary in how long they will tolerate a wet or soiled diaper. A clean diaper might resolve their dislike of having a dirty bottom.

Have you ever sniffed your toddler’s bottom out in public?! I certainly have! I laugh now at all the times I lifted my guys high up into the air to sniff their rear-ends. I’d say trickery is the best way to change a toddler’s diaper: be fast and distracting. Again, don’t ask if they need a change, if you sense they do, just say, “It’s diaper changing time!” with a smile on your face and lots of hugs.

  1. Are you tired?

Babies and toddlers needs lots of rest, but often have a hard time falling asleep. They may need your help by providing a calm, dark, soothing and quiet environment. I made the mistake of not learning much about how little ones sleep (hence the 2am laps around the house) so I suggest taking the time to learn about this important topic. I recommend following Alanna McGinn, founder of Good Night Sleep Site and reading The Happy Sleeper if you can.

  1. Do you want to be held?

Young children love to be held. Contrary to what you may have heard, you cannot “spoil” a child with too much attention. Hold your little one as much as you both feel is right. Perhaps try using a sling or baby carrier if your child likes to be held a lot.


  1. Is your tummy bothering you?

Gas can make anyone uncomfortable! There are some maneuvers you can try with your little one to release the gas. The “toes to nose” move almost always made my guys toot. Friedman and Saunders recommend placing your baby on his belly, moving his legs back and forth in a bicycle motion or giving him a gentle tummy massage. They do recommend seeking help from your health-care provider if you little one’s tummy troubles persist.

  1. Do you need to burp?

Babies can swallow a lot of air when feeding and may need to burp that out. Some will burp on their own and some need help to do this. The authors of Baby Care Basics do provide baby burping techniques to try.

  1. Are you too warm or cold?

The general rule is to dress babies and toddlers in a layer more than what an adult is wearing. I used to check the comfortableness of my babies by touching the backs of their necks to see if they were too hot or too cold.

  1. Are you in pain?

Little things that can be hard to spot might be causing pain. Your little one might have a small cut, rough skin tag, or rubs from their clothing. If you have gone through the crying checklist and feel these questions have been addressed, give your child a good once over. Be sure to look for a hair wrapped around fingers, toes (and penises!).

  1. Are you teething?

The authors state that generally the first tooth arrives between six and ten months, but there is a huge variation. My firstborn had four teeth by the time he was six-months-old! Teething pain can be relieved by over-the-counter pain medication or by providing something cool to chew on. I found these cool things, which really helped my little chomper!

  1. Do you need stimulation or a break?

The sights, sounds, sensations and smells of the word can be either overwhelming or very interesting. Your baby or toddler’s cries might be telling you he needs more stimulation or a break. Finding the right amount of stimulation for your little one is a learning process, and that amount will change as your baby grows.

  1. Are you sick?

I can’t tell you how many times I was completely perplexed by my little one’s continual upset only to discover a few hours later he had a fever. Trust your instincts—a sick baby might be less active, not want to feed, or may feel hot. If you suspect your little one is sick, talk to your doctor.


If you have gone through this checklist and your baby or toddler is still crying, please know that you are not alone in your frustration, exhaustion, and distress. When I felt I did all I could for my little guys, and they’d still cry, I’d put them in a sling and whisper, “I hear you. I tried very hard to help you but I don’t know what else to do so let’s just be together.” Sometimes I would cry with my baby and other times I would hum softly, reminding myself how grateful I was to have this crying baby in my arms. Parenting is a continual learning process—we won’t always get it “right” or know what to do and that’s okay.

Would you like more information? I do post free parenting help on my Facebook page—I invite you over to join our positive parenting community.