Troubleshooting Crying

"I would have given anything to know why she wouldn't just stop..." - New Dad

Troubleshooting Crying

"I would have given anything to know why she wouldn't just stop..." - New Dad

Troubleshooter's Guide to Crying Babies

The Troubleshooter’s Guide to Crying Babies employs the same practical approach you’d use in solving computer problems: when a baby cries, you have to figure out the cause, and you often do so by trying different solutions (trouble shooting).

Utilizing this proactive approach to crying has been popular for decades, and will enable you to remain rational and focused on finding a solution.

1. Get Comfortable Comforting Your Baby

It will come naturally as you hold, rock, walk and calm your baby. Learn from the nurses, your partner, and mostly from your own experience.

2. Assemble Your Crying Hack Kit

Try some of the DEFCON based crying hacks, and after you see what works, invent your own.

3. Develop a Checklist On Why Your Baby Cries

Starting with the most common. A typical list might include:


Gas/Constipation/Dirty or Wet diaper/Diaper Rash/Frustration

Too hot/Too cold/ Needs to be held/Too noisy/Lonely

Too quiet/Bored/In Pain/Sick

Check each reason, ruling out problems as you try solutions, and then stick with what works.

4. Check for New Problems/Move on to New Techniques

Sometimes, crying is caused by random things like his finger may be bent back in his sleeve, a hair might be wrapped around his toe, or his clothing may be too tight. When current solutions lose their effectiveness, try new ones.

5. Getting Seriously Frustrated?  Put Him Down and Walk Away

You need to be prepared for when this will happen, as it does for most new dads. 


“To calm my baby down, I’ll stand next to the dryer, washer or kitchen sink with the water running. If that doesn’t work, I will sing or turn the radio on. And if that doesn’t work, I’ll take her outside for a walk or go for a car ride.” 

They typically start off slow the first week with a low “wah wah” cry and the frequency builds after two weeks and peak at about 6-8 weeks. Then it starts dropping down and by 3-4 months, it’s down to normal crying for feedings, when they're tired and/or can’t get back to sleep at night, etc., with "meltdowns" not starting until after six months. Just to make things interesting, no matter how easy your baby is, there may be times when she is screaming like a banshee.

Dealing with a seriously crying baby can add major stress and compound conflict between new moms and dads. It’s a good idea to have a talk with Mom before the baby arrives about how you will handle the crying together. Having a game plan when you're both sleep deprived and your baby’s crying starts getting on your nerves will limit the frustrations you both will face.

“One time my wife left me with our baby, Madison, who wouldn’t stop crying. I panicked and decided to call my wife. Just before I punched "Call," I decided NO, I’m not going to call her. I put down the phone and started finding ways to calm Madison. A half-hour later she finally calmed down. It proved to be a real confidence builder for me.” 

Defcon Crying Levels & Hacks

Babies cry; some cry a little and some cry a lot. Since crying increases over the first weeks, you won’t know what you're dealing with until it occurs. You might find it helpful to think of crying levels like the DEFCON (Defense Condition) level system the U.S. uses for nuclear war readiness:

DEFCON*Your BabyDad Readiness Description
5Relaxed & EasyRelax, you’re lucky; a few hacks needed
4Somewhat FussyLimited Crying Tool Kit
3Fussy+ / Pre-TermSmall tool chest needed
2Serious FussyMedium tool chest: headphones
1ColicLarge tool chest; headphones on high, tag team

* DEFCON levels go down as the threat increases.

DEFCON 5 - Relaxed & Easy

If it’s baby's feeding time, hand her to Mom or break out the bottle. If it isn’t but you think she might be hungry, put your pinkie knuckle on her lips. If she starts sucking hard, its Mom or the bottle.

Do it initially how the nurse showed you (like a burrito); then modify your approach to what works as your baby grows.

They like to be held. Many options can be used: against your shoulder, in your arms, over your lap, etc. Try different positions to see what works.

Talk to your baby; you can tell her anything, as babies are totally non-judgmental. Read her the sports page, or take it up a level and sing – experiment with what you like.

Some babies cry because they don’t like a even a slightly wet diaper; others cut you lots of slack. Prevent diaper rash, which hurts and causes crying, with ointment.

Babies swallow air while feeding and will feel uncomfortable if not burped. They can swallow a lot of air by crying too, so even if she hasn’t eaten in a while, it’s worth a shot.

Gently rock your baby side to side in your arms, or put her facing you with one hand under her head and the other under her bottom and rock her up and down.

New babies need to sleep a lot, and their fussiness is often related to just needing more. A key observation by a highly experienced nanny: “9 times out of 10, sleep was the solution to fussing.”

DEFCON 4 - Somewhat Fussy

Any distraction, especially something new, works by taking baby's mind off whatever is bothering her. Make a funny face/noise, show her a picture, and use your imagination.

Sucking is an innate “self-soothing” tool in babies; especially learning to suck on her thumb. Pop in a pacifier or use your pinkie finger, soft side up. 

The firm pat you use for burping is comforting even when they don’t need to. You can also pat his diapered butt.

Play is a cool form of distraction that can help your baby’s brain development; jingle keys across her eyes, move her arms and legs, see what captures her attention.

Family pets, pictures on the wall, flowers and trees in the back yard, and your tools in the garage all work to refocus his attention.

A breastfeeding mom can feel like a milking cow. Her breast will also cork a crying baby, but it also turns Mom into the pacifier. So, don’t use the boob as a solution, unless your baby needs to feed.

Babies like movement like they had in the womb. Walk her around, or just stand and sway. A deep knee bend when you hold them often quiets them. Or dance with your baby.

Inuit dads in Canada actually use drums to quiet their crying babies.

DEFCON 3 - Fussy+/Pre-Term

The womb was noisy, and the right noise can be amazingly effective for calming cranky babies. Alternatives include a noise machine, hair dryer, vacuum cleaner - one dad duct-taped a portable cut off saw to the bottom of his baby’s crib.

A taut tummy or kicking legs may indicate gas pain or constipation, so put her on your lap facing you and gently work her legs up and down. See how here.

The vibration from the wheels traveling over the rough pavement relaxes your little one, and the fresh air helps as well. Bundle her up if it’s cool outside and keep the sun off her face.

Huge with parents of fussy babies: the battery-powered infant swing. Strap him in and switch it on for soothing back-and-forth motion that buys you time to get things done.

Baby carriers enable you to care for the baby while you work around the house or while taking a walk.

Try anything you like, and then go with what works. Rock with heavy bass and back beat (like Mom’s heart beat) may work great. The same applies to lullabies.

DEFCON 2 - Seriously Fussy

In the womb, a baby has a 24/7 roar of sounds like a ship’s engine room, and the vibration and movement to go with it. Experiment with the outside-of-the-womb version: music, rocking, and even some jiggling.

Babies love to be touched and stroked, so a massage can work wonders; stroke her back and tummy, and gently massage her muscles. 

Try him face down over your arm (football hold) to put counter pressure on his stomach, or face down across your lap where you can pat his back and jiggle your leg.

This is what the dad who invented this hack called it: Metal Detector. Lay your baby face down on your arm and swoop her down and up from one side to another while you make a loud beeping noise.

On the other hand, your baby may be sensitive to stimulation and need the opposite, so try holding her in a quiet room with low light.

A classic technique used by dads when their babies are crying.  The vibration and noise will put most babies to sleep within the first mile or so.  

So that the shock of cold sheets doesn’t wake her once you finally get her to sleep, use a hair dryer or heating pad on low (remove before you put her down) to warm her bed.

DEFCON 1: Colic

Research indictes there is no ongoing impact on babies of crying due to colic. This is of little comfort when you see their contorted, miserable face and hear their piercing screams for hours on end. It doesn't help much when you're in the thick of it to know it'll all end at around 3 - 5 months.  What does help when the crying ramps up at about 2 weeks? Keep the following in mind:

You may need them, and if you do, get them - not to ignore your crying baby, but so you can focus on calming them. Our Boot Camp in Maine reports that local loggers always use headphones, and not just to minimize the noise and save their hearing. With too much noise, they cannot concentrate on cutting down the tree; same thing with dads and crying babies. Crank up the music to offset piercing cries; you may need earplugs too.

When her baby cries, Mom reacts biologically (her milk starts flowing) and her cave-mom instincts (“my baby is in danger”) kick in. When she doesn’t know what is wrong, she feels like she’s doing something wrong, and then the guilt of being a “bad mother” kicks in, which intensifies her stress. Lots of crying is a big factor in the possible development of postpartum depression. This is why dads need to step up big time to deal with babies who cry a lot.

Fathers react physiologically to crying too, and can get even more stressed than Mom. It happens to most of us who were not dealt an easy baby. They may be fleeting, but episodes of extreme frustration due to a crying baby are dangerous. If you feel yourself losing control, put the baby down in the safety of his crib and walk away. It’s easy to permanently damage an infant’s brain, and shaking a baby can even lead to death. Just walk away before incessant crying pushes you to that point. 

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Russell: Big Boys Do Cry (0:48)

Edel & Ryan: Crying (1:27)

“Sometimes he is just on another crying jag and there isn’t anything you can do to calm him. If that’s the case, let him be for a while. It might seem harsh at the time, but his crying is one way for him to get his system back in sync.” - Vet Dad

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