By: T. Berry Brazelton, M.D., and Joshua Sparrow, M.D.

Q. I am the grandfather of a 4-week-old girl, the first child of our daughter and her husband. How accurately can a newborn’s cries be interpreted?

A. Like all families, you wonder what your new addition is “saying.” Mothers, fathers and grandparents jockey over interpreting the new baby:. Does she want to be held? Or has she been held too much? Is she hungry or wet or weary? And who knows best?

Scientists have analyzed infants’ cries by pitch, tone, volume and rhythm. Infants indeed make cries that correlate to hunger, fatigue, discomfort, pain, a bid for interaction – or to letting off steam at the end of the day.

Feed a baby crying in one way, and she will guzzle appreciatively. A baby crying in another way will just turn her head and keep crying.

Parents may interpret their baby’s cries too narrowly. For example, they may think she is asking to be fed with each cry. Overfeeding, though, may confuse a baby into believing that feeding helps with other discomforts, like boredom or loneliness. Parents need a few weeks to learn to distinguish their baby’s cries. They may not be right each time, but they can narrow the possibilities.

A baby whose cry says “pick me up and love me” will quiet simply by being held. If she keeps crying, she may be asking for something else – to have a diaper changed, or to be swaddled more firmly for sleep.

As parents ponder a baby’s cries, she too is learning to distinguish different sensations, and to soothe herself when distressed. These will become skills of great importance.

If a baby is crying, it’s best for parents to go to her – but usually they needn’t rush to resolve the issue in seconds. Unless the baby is ill, in danger, or too fragile to tolerate her distress – as can happen for pre-term infants – you have time to prepare a feeding, check a diaper, cuddle and coo together, or help the baby soothe herself with a thumb to suck or a piece of soft cloth to touch.

Parents respond more sensitively to a baby’s cries as they learn more about her. Some babies are clearer than others in their communications.

Ultimately, all parents learn by trial and error, encouraged by family members and other parental cheerleaders who help them to feel OK about not always getting it right the first time.

Responses to questions are not intended to constitute or to take the place of medical or psychiatric evaluation, diagnosis or treatment. If you have a question about your child’s health or well-being, consult your child’s health-care provider.

Dr. Brazelton, prior to his passing, was the founder and head of the Brazelton Touchpoints Center, which promotes and supports community initiatives that are collaborative, strength-based, prevention-focused sources of support for families raising children in our increasingly stressful world. Dr. Sparrow, a child psychiatrist, is currently the Director of the Brazelton Touchpoints Center. Learn more about the Center at

Reprinted with permission from the authors.