Why is my baby crying?

In the newborn phase, crying is the main way your child communicates with you. And as a parent, it can be overwhelming to decipher what needs to be addressed. As time goes by, you will be able to tell between the different cries — whether your baby is hungry, needs to be held, needs a diaper change, or is sleepy.

But what if you’ve tried everything and your baby still continues to cry?

As a pediatrician, one of the most common reasons parents bring newborns to my office is persistent fussiness and crying, despite taking care of their other needs. In these cases, we have to consider other causes.

Here are three of the most common:

1. Colic

My own child suffered through colic, so I understand that what feels like endless hours of crying can bring you to your knees!

Medically, colic is defined as frequent crying in an otherwise healthy baby. Babies with colic cry for three hours a day, for more than three days a week, lasting for three weeks or more. They often bring their legs up to their tummy, clench their fists, and tense up their abdominal muscles. While there is no definitive cause of colic, it’s thought that these babies are overly sensitive to stimulation and simply have difficulty self-soothing.

Colic affects about one in five babies and starts early, within the first few weeks of life. And although it may not feel like it to parents, it’s relatively short-lived, resolving by about three to four months of age.

2. Cow’s milk allergy

There are babies who are mistakenly diagnosed with colic who actually have a cow’s milk protein allergy instead. Cow’s milk protein allergy is the most common allergy in the first year of life and can affect about 2-3 percent of babies. An allergy to cow’s milk occurs when the immune system mistakenly identifies the protein in cow’s milk as dangerous. This prompts the release of chemicals such as histamine, which triggers an allergic reaction.

Babies with cow’s milk allergy often have similar symptoms as colic, but can have additional symptoms such as vomiting, diarrhea, blood in stools, and/or eczema.

In breastfed babies, the pediatrician may recommend that the mother follow a completely dairy-free diet, as even a small amount of cow’s milk could trigger an allergic reaction. For formula-fed babies, pediatricians often recommend hydrolyzed formulas. These formulas have cow’s milk protein, but it’s broken down into small pieces so that the baby’s immune system does not detect the protein and cause an allergic reaction. If your baby is both formula-fed and breastfed, then you will most likely need to follow both recommendations outlined above.

3. Lactose intolerance

While cow’s milk allergy involves the immune system, lactose intolerance is linked to the digestive system. It’s triggered when the lactose (a type of sugar) in cow’s milk cannot be fully digested due to a lack of the lactase enzyme that breaks down the milk sugar. The lactose then causes bacteria in the gut to release acid and gas. The symptoms of lactose intolerance in babies can be similar to colic, but these babies can also have diarrhea shortly after consuming cow’s milk.

There are two types of lactose intolerance; congenital and transient.  Congenital lactose intolerance is often diagnosed in the first weeks or months of life, while transient lactose intolerance is diagnosed after a bout of diarrhea or gastrointestinal illness.

For breastfeeding babies, it’s recommended mothers avoid dairy altogether. For formula-fed babies, pediatricians often recommend switching to a lactose-free formula. If your baby is both formula-fed and breastfed, then you will most likely need to follow both recommendations. Babies that have congenital lactose intolerance will need to be fed a lactose-free formula because even if a mother avoids dairy products, her breast milk will still contain lactose.

Lactose intolerance is very rare (<1%) in newborns and does not usually appear in children younger than age 3. Therefore, it’s more likely that your newborn has colic or a cow’s milk protein allergy. Because every baby is unique and because symptoms can sometimes overlap, it’s important to consult with your pediatrician for an accurate diagnosis and feeding plan.

While there are many magical moments in those first few months, there are also many frustrating ones. But as the author Gretchen Rubin said, “The days are long, but the years are short.” And as I look back on memories of that period of time with my now 4-year-old, it’s those trying yet totally magical moments that I hold closest to my heart.

This is the first post in a two-part series. I hope you will join me for the next post on tips for calming a fussy baby.

This post is sponsored by Plum Organics.

Go easy on baby’s belly with Plum Organics® Gentle® Infant Formula. While most brands reduce lactose, or add corn syrup solids or maltodextrin, we use 100% organic lactose (from cow’s milk) as our primary carbohydrate. The difference is that our formula contains easy-to-digest* proteins, which is gentler on baby’s sensitive belly. So you can provide calm and comfort, without compromising quality or nutrition.

Leave a Reply