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The Crying Dictionary

What Zone Is My Baby In?


New parents Jessica and Bill are in my office for their infant’s first checkup. Mom seems anxious. “I put her to my breast, but she falls right back asleep,” Jessica sighs. “So I lay her down—and then her eyes spring open and she's awake. I can’t tell what she really needs!”

Like most new babies, Jessica and Bill's little one is still unsettled - she is having a hard time managing her "zones," or Newborn States. And like many new parents, Jessica and Bill are confused about what zone their baby is in, or is trying to reach.

Newborn Zones - what are they?

Newborn zones are the states that all babies move through between deep sleep and out-of-control crying. The three zones are the Resting Zone (the sleeping baby), the Ready Zone (the baby who's ready to eat or play) and the Rebooting Zone (the fussy or crying baby). Because new babies have undeveloped neurological systems, they cycle through these zones many times each day, and even within a single hour, so that one minute your infant might seem perfectly happy listening to you coo, and the next he's red-faced and screaming.

A newborn's erratic behavior can be confusing to parents, especially first-timers. But you can learn how to "read" your baby's zones - and then help the infant move to the best zone for eating, sleeping, or playing.

The Resting Zone

During their first office visit, Jessica, Bill and I discuss the "Resting Zone" and two types of newborn sleep: deep and light. Newborns cycle between these every hour or so.

Deep and light sleep - A baby is in deep sleep (or non-Rapid Eye Movement sleep) when her body is totally still and her breathing is deep and regular. She looks asleep. On the other hand, light sleep looks very different, as I explain to Jessica and Bill. "In light sleep, your baby wiggles and squirms. Her eyes flash open, and she makes those sweet baby sounds. When she's sleeping lightly, more blood circulates to her brain, and she is getting smarter! So when you see her moving while she's sleeping, she may not be waking up—just transitioning from deep to light sleep.”

Helping your baby sleep well - A baby in light sleep can learn to cycle back down into deep sleep - and you can help him. When your baby wiggles and vocalizes, you know he’s entering his light sleep phase. If it’s not time for him to eat, you can lean over the cradle and talk quietly to him. In a few minutes his breathing may slow down, and he may grow still and quiet again - you'll see that you’ve helped him back to the deep Resting Zone.

The following week, Jessica and Bill return, looking happy—their baby has been sleeping better, thanks to their help and her increasing ability to manage her own zones. “Now and then,” Bill reports, “we hesitate a moment before we respond when she's in light sleep. Sometimes she’ll get quiet and go back to that deep Resting Zone all by herself in a few minutes. She’s so smart, and we get another hour of sleep ourselves!”

The Ready Zone

A baby in the “Ready Zone” is alert. Her eyes are bright and her body movements decrease, signaling that she is able to engage with the world around her. A baby in this zone is ready to eat and ready to play.

Helping your baby get to the Ready Zone to eat - Most full-term, healthy babies get themselves to the Ready Zone when they are hungry. However, Jessica’s baby was born a few weeks early, and Mom was told that her baby may need help waking up to eat well. “I’ve learned how to help her get to the Ready Zone,” Jessica explains. “I undress her and put her against my chest, skin-to-skin.  She squirms, sometimes fusses a moment, and then opens her eyes. I sway her gently or let her suck my finger a minute until I see her eyes brighten up. Now I know she’s ready to eat.”

Helping your baby get to the Ready Zone to play - Once your baby has eaten and rested, you'll notice that she seems more alert. Bill shows me what he does to help the baby get to the Ready Zone to play. “When I see her eyes open and she starts to pay attention to me, I swaddle her and hold her face up toward mine, like this,” he explains, holding her at a 45-degree angle. In this position, his daughter’s eyes are attentive, her breathing gets more regular, and her body movements decrease.  “She’s ready to watch me shake her new rattle or listen to me sing her favorite song,” he says.

The Rebooting Zone

The Rebooting Zone (the fussy or crying baby) is familiar to all parents. At times, you may even feel overwhelmed by your baby’s crying. The amount of time a baby cries typically increases around two weeks of age, to two hours a day or so. At six weeks, crying commonly peaks to three hours a day. It then tapers off to about one hour by the time the baby is twelve weeks old. (This same curve applies to premature babies by their adjusted ages.)

Reading the Rebooting Zone - You can help your baby transition out  of the crying phase and settle down by reading the first signs of distress. As a baby enters the rebooting zone, you may start to see his movements increase and become jerky, his face get pale or red, and his breathing speed up. When you see this happen, it's time to help him reboot! Recognizing that the stress of over stimulation has brought your baby into the rebooting zone, now's the time to decrease stimulation and increase your support - keep it quiet, stop trying to engage your little one, and hold him close.

Babies cry. It’s how they communicate; it’s how they let off steam; and in fact, some researchers say it’s one of the many ways they learn about the world. On average, babies' crying increases to around two hours a day at 2 weeks, peaking at three hours at 6 weeks and tapering to about one hour a day at 12 weeks. Some babies cry more than others. Some of the crying can easily be stopped; some can’t. Here are some of the “standard” cries and what to do about them.

baby crying while leaning against his crib

Good luck! Remember, your baby’s crying isn’t a reflection of you or your parenting; it’s just what she does.

What it Means - I'm Hungry!

How it Sounds

A low-pitched, on-and-off wail that stops when you give your baby the breast or bottle.

When You'll Hear it Most

From birth until about 3 weeks, babies cry mostly because they're hungry. (This might happen even more at about 10 days, when your baby has a growth spurt and is hungry 24/7.)

Good to Know

Especially in the first few weeks, try to feed your baby before she cries from hunger. Among other reasons to do so: A ravenous baby can have a hard time latching on, which can lead to even more crying. So look for hungry-baby signs: Before she resorts to crying, a baby will let you know she wants to eat by opening her mouth, rooting for your nipple, trying to suck on your neck or your hand, or stuffing her own hand in her mouth. If you don't take the hint, she'll cry.

What it Means - I'm Exhausted!

How it Sounds

It builds from a whimper to a full-fledged wail, and it might quiver or pulsate, as if the sound guy had added a “wah-wah” effect.

When You'll Hear it Most

After an unusually busy event or outing - social occasions, trips to the store and so on can be exhausting for newbies - and before naptime or bedtime. Of course, in the first couple of weeks, before your baby establishes a schedule, this could be anytime.

Good to Know

A baby who is ready to sleep will fall asleep if you let her. But a baby who becomes overtired has a difficult time winding down and can grow distraught until she’s quietly calmed down. So watch for sleepy-time signs, including big yawns and glazed-over eyes; your infant will also develop her own signs, which you’ll soon learn to read and heed.

What it Means - I Want Cuddles!

How it Sounds

Cries that stop the minute you pick up your baby - and start again when you put him down.

When You'll Hear it Most

You never know when your baby is going to want some person-to-person contact. Newborns are used to feeling "hugged" by the womb; they're also used to being swayed and rocked during those nine months in utero. Some experts believe that the more you moved during your pregnancy, the more your newborn will need to be carried around and rocked.

Good to Know

If you have a very clingy baby, consider carrying him in a sling or pouch as you go about your daily business. Some babies are just more "huggy," while others are hypersensitive to touch and can't tolerate being held for long; these babies might cry because they want to be put down.

What it Means - I've Got Gas!

How it sounds Screechy. Your baby might also pull her legs up to her chest and arch her back.

When you'll hear it most After the second or third week, colic (seemingly inexplicable newborn crying that can go on for hours and might have something to do with gas) accounts for increased crying in about 25 percent of babies.

Good to know A newborn's immature digestive system can produce lots of gas. Rubbing your baby’s back and bouncing her might help; if not, try "pedaling" her legs to help her dispel the gas.

What it Means - I'm Overwhelmed!

How it Sounds

Soft wimpering that grows louder and more fraught with every minute.

When You'll Hear it Most

Having spent nine months in the quiet, dark privacy of the womb, your baby may be easily overcome by the world’s lights, noises and movement. In the first week or two, she might sleep through much of the hubbub. But as she stays awake for longer and her vision develops, watch for overstimulation.

Good to Know

You can help your baby calm down before she even starts crying by keeping an eye out for overstimulation. The most obvious early sign is avoidance. A baby who's had enough will turn his head away when you try to engage him; it's his way of protecting himself from even more stimulation. Other signs: He might get jittery, his breathing might speed up or he might look totally spaced out. Help him calm down by gently rocking him, swaddling him or letting him suck on your finger or breast - and don't talk to him!

What it means - I'm Uncomfortable!

How It Sounds

Whiny, nasal, continuous

When You'll Hear It Most

Your baby might be wet or about to have a bowel movement, have a sore butt or feel too warm or too cold.

Good to Know

Newborns can't regulate their own temperature the way you can - they don't sweat to cool down or shiver to warm up. So you'll have to adjust clothing and covering to compensate.

What It Means - That Hurts!

How it Sounds

A sudden high-pitched shriek followed by loud wails

When You'll Hear It Most

There's no telling when. This kind of cry can mean that something external (a fall off the bed? a pin?) has hurt the baby. Or the pain might be internal.

Good to Know

If you can't find the source of the pain and your baby keeps wailing, call her doctor.

3 Why Your Baby Is Crying & How You Can Ease It

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