Why Newborn Babies Cry if They are Not Being Held by Sarah Ockwell-Smith

Why will my newborn only sleep in my arms, what am I doing wrong?”. A question so frequently asked by exhausted new parents.

The first three months of parenting are questionably the hardest. A quarter of all babies in this age group are diagnosed as suffering from colic, this despite the fact that there is actually no such medical disorder. Health professionals diagnose ‘colic’ when they don’t know why a baby is so unhappy and parents are unable to stop their tears. The term baby colic was first use by the paediatrician Morris Wessell in 1954 and is actually a catch all diagnosis used to describe a baby who cries a lot despite being otherwise healthy. Colic is often blamed on ‘trapped wind’ or ‘tummy cramps’, but in reality there is usually no underlying physical cause. Despite this, many desperate parents turn to medication to cope with their baby’s tears and restless nights, however several of the popular colic remedies on the market today have been proven to be no more effective than a placebo.

There is hope though, understanding the enormous transition that babies make from ‘womb to world’, a concept commonly referred to as ‘The Fourth Trimester’, can prove ground-breaking for sleep deprived new parents. When babies are born they are incredibly ill prepared for life outside of the uterus. They are the least developed of all mammals at birth. There are theories that due to our large head size human babies are born prematurely development wise, else they would be too large to be born naturally. While this is good news for mothers, it’s not such good news for the babies who could really do with another three months gestation. Understanding this and treating newborns as if they were still ‘in utero’ for their first three months of life can make life much easier for new families.

Inside a uterus it is incredibly dark and the baby is in warm water, permanently heated to 37 degrees centigrade, they have never been in air before, let alone much colder temperatures. In addition all of the baby’s surroundings are soft and they are naked, they have never had to wear a nappy or be placed in a cold crib. When the mother is pregnant the baby is in constant physical contact with her, after the birth the baby instantly spends approximately sixty percent of its day and night alone. In utero there is constant muffled noise from the mother’s heartbeat and digestive system. After birth the baby has to get used to lots of different sounds, some loud, some quiet. During pregnancy the baby spends most of the time curled tightly upside down, in a position ready for birth, after birth they spend most of their time flat on their back. Due to their aquatic environment smell is almost impossible but after birth, once they live in air, babies are exposed to hundreds of new scents per day. Lastly, before birth babies have never been hungry or thirsty, those sensations are entirely new to them once they are born. The change from uterus to ‘earth side’ is so huge it’s a wonder that only 25% of babies are diagnosed with colic!

Keeping the concept of ‘The Fourth Trimester’ in mind can help new parents immeasurably. It is fairly easy to replicate the baby’s ‘womb world’ post birth with the following tips, which can have a dramatic effect on colic, crying and baby sleep.


Practice contractions, Braxton Hicks, squeeze babies rhythmically at the end of pregnancy and every time a pregnant mother moves the baby wobbles around inside. Post birth babies love movement, but so often they are put down somewhere completely still. Try dancing, swaying from side to side or going for an exaggerated quick walk or bumpy car ride.


Babies love sound, but for many not the sound you might think. For many a vacuum cleaner or hair-dryer is much more calming than a lullaby. Playing a special white noise CD can help to calm babies and help them to sleep for longer.


Holding a baby in a more natural position, belly down, such as the “tiger in the tree” position, from baby yoga, is often magical, stopping a crying baby in an instant.


If babies are hungry nothing will calm them. Feeding is always better if it is baby led, not led by a routine. The early months are not the time to space feeds. Babies may not always be hungry for a full feed, they may want a quick drink or just some comfort sucking. This sucking is important however as it helps the baby’s skull bones to return to their normal position after birth as well as providing them with comfort and security. It also helps to establish milk supply in breastfeeding mothers.

Deep Bathing

Sometimes a deep, warm bath can stop a baby’s tears in seconds. This is even better if the mum or dad goes in the big bath with the baby too, as skin to skin contact is a wonderful baby calmer due to the stimulation and release of the happy hormone oxytocin in both parent and baby.


Imagine how snug babies are at the very end of pregnancy, with so little space to move, then imagine how strange it must feel to them after they have been born and have so much space around them. Swaddling a baby can help to replicate this snug feeling, although the fabric should not be tight over the baby’s hips and parents should stop swaddling by the time the baby can roll for safety reasons. Be careful not to miss your baby’s hunger cues however and make sure you get lots of skin to skin too.


Carrying babies in a sling or carrier is a great way to keep them calm and happy. It increases the time a baby spends in a state of quiet alertness, a time of contentment when they learn most. Research has shown that babies who are carried regularly cry significantly less than those who are not. From the parent’s perspective babywearing also means they have two free hands to be able to eat, go to the toilet or read a paper.

Co Sleeping

Worldwide approximately sixty percent of parents regularly share a bed with their baby, though in the UK this figure is much lower. Unfortunately cosleeping gets bad press in the UK, however research has actually shown that if parents follow some simple safety guidelines (such as not sharing a bed if either parent smokes, has taken any medication that may caused drowsiness or drunk any alcohol and making sure the sleep surface is flat and firm and all blankets and pillows are kept well away from the baby) then there is no more risk of SIDS than a baby sleeping in a cot. Sharing a bed with a newborn is fantastic for helping the whole family to get more sleep at night.

Empathising with the experience of a newborn baby can often give far more insight into ways to help them than receiving a medical diagnosis. Interestingly most of the methods that are advocated in the fourth trimester are ones that parents will often do instinctively. In many cases however parents have been warned to not ‘spoil’ their baby or ‘make a rod for their own back’ by holding them too much. The simple fact is though, that it is impossible to spoil a baby or hold them too much! If your baby settles in your arms and you are happy to have them there then that is perhaps the best way to cope of all.

 Sarah Ockwell-Smith

Sarah Ockwell-Smith

About the Author

Sarah is a mother of four who initially studied Psychology at University. After a five year career in Pharmaceutical research she retrained as a Homeopath, HypnoBirthing Teacher and Doula – an eclectic mix of scientific and holistic viewpoints! Since then Sarah has worked with over 1000 parents; helping them to settle into life as a new family and to cope with the challenges of raising their children through the toddler and later tween years. Sarah specialises in gentle parenting methods, particularly when it comes to sleep and coping with difficult behaviour. She blogs at www.sarahockwell-smith.com and writes for www.gentleparenting.co.uk

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