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by Deborah M. Consolini, MD

All infants and young children cry as a form of communication. It is the only way they have to express a need. Thus, most crying is in response to hunger, discomfort (such as that due to a wet diaper), fear, or separation from parents. Such crying is normal and typically stops when the needs are met—for example, when infants are fed, burped, changed, or cuddled. This crying tends to occur less often and for shorter times after children are 3 months old.

Excessive crying refers to crying that continues after caregivers have attempted to meet routine needs or crying that continues for longer than usual for a given child.


More than 95% of the time, there is no specific medical disorder responsible for excessive crying. Although such crying is stressful for parents, children eventually settle down and stop crying on their own. Fatigue is a common cause of crying in infants. Between 6 months and 3 years of age, crying at night is often due to difficulty falling back to sleep after normal night awakenings. Falling back to sleep on their own is especially difficult for children who are used to falling asleep under certain conditions such as while being rocked or with a pacifier. Nighttime fears are common after age 3 years. The particular fears usually depend on the child's age and stage of emotional and physical development. Sometimes children aged 3 to 8 years cry fearfully in the middle of the night and do not seem to be awake or able to be comforted. They also have no memory of a dream or of the crying when they wake in the morning. These episodes of crying are called night terrors and are discussed elsewhere (see Sleep Problems in Children : Night Terrors and Sleepwalking).

Medical disorders

Less than 5% of the time, excessive crying is caused by a medical disorder. Some disorders are uncomfortable but not immediately dangerous. Such less serious causes of crying include gastroesophageal reflux (see see Gastroesophageal Reflux in Children), hair wrapped around a finger or toe (hair tourniquet), a scratch on the surface of the eye (corneal abrasion), an anal fissure, and a middle ear infection.

Less commonly, a serious disorder is the cause. Such disorders include a blocked intestine caused by intussusception (sliding of one segment of intestine into another—see Intussusception) and volvulus (twisting of the intestine—see see Intestinal Malrotation), as well as heart failure, meningitis, and head injuries that cause bleeding within the skull. Infants with such severe disorders often have other symptoms (such as vomiting or fever), which alert parents to the presence of a more serious problem. However, sometimes excessive crying is the first sign.

Colic (see Colic) refers to excessive crying that has no identifiable cause and that occurs at least 3 hours a day for more than 3 days a week for more than 3 weeks. Colic typically occurs in infants about 6 weeks to 3 or 4 months old.


Doctors try to identify any medical disorder that may be causing an infant’s persistent crying.

Warning signs

Certain symptoms are cause for concern and suggest that a medical disorder is causing the crying:

  • Difficulty breathing

  • Bruises or swelling over the head or other parts of the body

  • Abnormal movements or twitching of any body part

  • Extreme irritability (normal handling or movement causes crying or distress)

  • Continuous crying, especially if it is accompanied by a fever

  • Fever in an infant under 8 weeks old

When to see a doctor

Children should be evaluated by a doctor right away if they have any warning signs, if they are vomiting, if they have stopped eating, or if parents notice swelling of the abdomen, a red and/or swollen scrotum, or any unusual behavior (in addition to the crying).

If children without such signs appear well otherwise, parents can try typical measures such as feeding, burping, changing, and cuddling. If crying continues after such measures, parents should call the doctor. The doctor can help parents determine how quickly the child needs to be evaluated.

What the doctor does

Doctors first ask questions about the child's symptoms and medical history. Doctors then do a physical examination. What they find during the history and physical examination often suggests a cause of the crying and the tests that may need to be done (see Some Medical Disorders That Cause Excessive Crying in Infants and Young Children). Infants with fever often have an infection, those with difficulty breathing may have a heart or lung disorder, and those with vomiting, diarrhea, or constipation may have a digestive disorder.

Doctors ask about the crying:

  • When it started

  • How long it lasts

  • How often it happens

  • Whether it is related to feeding or bowel movements

  • How infants respond to efforts to soothe them

Parents are asked about recent events that may explain the crying (such as recent immunizations, injuries, and illnesses), and about drugs given to the infant. Doctors also ask questions to learn how well the parents are bonding with the infant and managing the infant’s needs.

A physical examination is done to check for symptoms of disorders that can cause discomfort or pain. Doctors look particularly at the child's eyes for a corneal abrasion and at fingers, toes, and the penis for a hair tourniquet.


Tests may or may not be needed depending on the infant's symptoms and the causes that doctors suspect. If the doctor's examination does not suggest a serious disorder, tests are not usually done, but doctors may schedule a follow-up visit to reevaluate the infant.

Some Medical Disorders That Cause Excessive Crying in Infants and Young Children


Common Features


Heart disorders

Heart failure or an abnormal heart rhythm

Difficulty breathing, difficulty feeding, and excessive sweating

Often an abnormal heart sound detected during a doctor's examination

Chest x-ray



Digestive disorders

Allergy to cow's milk protein


Diarrhea or constipation

Poor feeding

Weight loss, poor growth, or both

Blood in stools

Stool tests

Symptoms that lessen when the formula is changed

Possibly endoscopy, colonoscopy, or both


Hard, less frequent bowel movements that are difficult to pass

Sometimes apparent pain during a bowel movement

Sometimes tears (fissures) in the anus

A doctor’s examination

Gastroesophageal reflux

Symptoms that occur after feeding, including fussiness or crying, spitting up, or arching of the back

Sometimes a cough when lying down or poor weight gain

A doctor’s examination

Sometimes treatment with drugs to suppress acid production (if symptoms are relieved, the cause is probably gastroesophageal reflux disease)

Sometimes x-rays of the upper digestive tract after barium is given by mouth or a test to measure acidity or reflux episodes in the esophagus (called a pH probe or an impedance probe) or endoscopy

Incarcerated hernia

Red, swollen, tender bulge in the groin

A doctor's examination

Intussusception (sliding of one segment of intestine into another)

Crying that occurs in bouts every 15 to 20 minutes with children often drawing their legs up to their chest

Later, tenderness of the abdomen when it is touched and bowel movements that look like currant jelly (because they contain blood)

Typically in children 3 to 36 months old

Ultrasonography of the abdomen

Insertion of air into the rectum (air enema)

Volvulus (twisting of the intestine)

Vomiting, a swollen abdomen, and/or tenderness of the abdomen when it is touched

Possibly blood in stools or no stools

An x-ray of the abdomen

Barium or air enema


Ear infection (otitis media)

Often cold symptoms (such as a runny nose and cough)

Sometimes fever

Ear pain

A doctor’s examination


Fever and lethargy or listlessness

Bulging of the soft spots (fontanelles) between the skull bones

Fussiness and irritability (especially when held), inconsolability, and poor feeding

A spinal tap (lumbar puncture)

Urinary tract infections (UTIs)

Often fever

Crying or complaints of pain with urination

Examination (urinalysis) and culture of urine


Broken bone

Swelling or bruising

Unwillingness to use a limb

Pain during bathing, changing, or a doctor's examination


Corneal abrasion (a scratch on the surface of the eye)

No other symptoms

Examination of the eye after applying an eye drop that makes abrasions visible (fluorescein test)

Hair tourniquet

Swollen tip of a toe, a finger, or the penis with a hair wrapped below the swelling

A doctor’s examination

A head injury

An inconsolable, high-pitched cry

Sometimes a swollen area on the head

CT of the head

Other causes

Drugs used to treat colds

Recent drug treatment for a cold

A doctor’s examination


A tooth erupting or about ready to erupt, drooling

Sometimes sleeplessness or restless sleep at night

Sometimes mild fever

Symptoms that resolve after tooth erupts

Testicular torsion (twisting of a testis)

A swollen, painful, red scrotum

Doppler ultrasonography of the scrotum

A vaccine reaction

Recent vaccination (within 24–48 hours)

A doctor’s examination

*Medical disorders cause fewer than 5% of cases of excessive crying.

Features include symptoms and results of the doctor's examination. Features mentioned are typical but not always present.

CT = computed tomography; ECG = electrocardiography.


Any specific disorder is treated. For example, a hair tourniquet is removed, or a corneal abrasion is treated with antibiotic ointment.

For infants who have no specific disorder, parents or caregivers should continue to look for obvious causes of crying, such as a wet diaper or clothing that is too hot, and meet those needs. They can try various other strategies. For example, an infant may be soothed by

  • Being held, gently rocked, or patted

  • Listening to white noise, such as the sound of rain or the electronically produced sounds made by a fan, washing machine, vacuum, or hair dryer

  • Riding in a car

  • Sucking on a pacifier

  • Using nipples with a smaller hole if infants are feeding too quickly

  • Being snugly wrapped (swaddled)

  • Being burped

  • Being fed (but parents should avoid overfeeding in an attempt to stop the crying)

When the cause of the crying is fatigue, many of the above interventions only briefly console infants and the crying returns as soon as the stimulation or activity stops, leaving infants even more fatigued. Sometimes it is more effective to encourage self-soothing and sleep by routinely laying infants in their crib awake so they do not depend on their parents or certain motions, objects, or sounds to fall asleep.

Mothers who are breastfeeding may notice that after they eat certain foods, their infant cries. They should then avoid eating those foods.

Teething eventually passes, and the crying it causes usually lessens with time. Mild pain relievers and teething rings can help in the meantime.

Support for parents

When an infant cries excessively for no apparent reason, parents may feel exhausted and stressed. Sometimes they become so frustrated that child abuse occurs. Emotional support from friends, family members, neighbors, and doctors can help parents cope. Parents should ask for whatever help they need (with siblings, errands, or child care) and share their feelings and fears with each other and with other support people. If parents are feeling frustrated, they should take a break from the crying infant or child and put the infant or child in a safe environment for a few minutes. Such a strategy can help parents cope and help prevent abuse.

Doctors can provide information about support services to parents who feel overwhelmed.

Key Points

  • Crying is a way to communicate and is part of normal development.

  • Often, identifying and meeting the infant’s need stops the crying.

  • Crying typically decreases after infants are 3 months old.

  • Less than 5% of crying is caused by a medical disorder.

  • If parents are concerned about an infant’s crying, they can call a doctor, who can advise them about bringing the infant in for evaluation.

  • Parents may need support when infants cry excessively for no apparent reason and cannot by soothed.

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