Monday, June 22, 2009

Baby Behavior Basics Part 2 - The Many Moods of Babies

Babies seem so mysterious; they may be happy one moment then crying hysterically in the next. Having a new baby can be overwhelming, especially when parents struggle to guess what their babies will do next. Fortunately, once you know a few key secrets, babies’ behaviors are no longer so confusing.

To start, let me tell you a little bit about babies’ moods (also called states). When babies are awake (see “Baby Behavior Basics Part 1 for a discussion on sleep states), they move in and out of 4 different states. Parents can identify babies’ states by paying attention to the sounds babies make and how they move and breathe. While we have all heard that “all babies are different,” most healthy babies tend to behave in similar ways in each state. Below, you'll find a summary of the 4 different states and some simple tips on how to identify them in your baby.

What you will see: Drowsy babies’ eyes will open and close, they won’t show interest in toys or playing. They may breathe faster, then more slowly, and they may struggle to keep their heads off their parents’ shoulders. Unfortunately, some babies become irritable and cry whenever they get drowsy. If you have one of those babies, we promise to give you more information why this happens in later posts.

What you can do: Babies in this state need to rest and take a break from what they were doing. Keep in mind that they might need some help to fall asleep.

Quiet Alert
What you will see: Quiet alert babies are relaxed, calm, and happy. Babies in this state are ready to learn and socialize with everyone around them. Quiet alert babies will melt your heart as they stare contently at your face, follow your voice, and work hard to interact and play with you.

What you can do: Babies in this state are ready to interact and learn but they may struggle to stay focused. Keep in mind that while parents get to relax during this happy time, babies must work hard to try to learn despite all the distractions in their new world. That means your baby will get tired of all the fun, long before you will. Watch for signs that your baby needs a break.

What you will see: Irritable babies squirm and fuss. They are not content with toys or playing and may turn and arch away from anyone who is trying to interact with them. They may tense their muscles and breathe irregularly. Hungry babies often become irritable, fussing as they suck on anything they can find. Tired babies get irritable too because playing and learning is so much fun and they don’t want to stop. Sometimes babies will get irritable when they have bowel movements because they aren't used to their own bodily functions. Babies in this state are distracted and frustrated by discomfort or overstimulation.

What you can do: Try to find out why your baby is irritable and make him more comfortable. Check your baby’s diaper. If you see hunger signs, feed your baby. Give your baby a break if he is tired or over-stimulated.

What you will see: I’m sure I don’t need to explain what crying looks like. Crying babies tense their muscles, turn bright red, and make noises that are stressful to anyone around them. Babies cry to indicate distress and to tell their parents they need something (now!). While we’ll talk a lot more about crying in later posts, it is important for you to understand that babies have to make horrible noises to make adults pay attention to them! If babies started cooing when they were hungry or distressed, who would come and take care of them? As hard as it is to hear, crying is a special skill designed to make sure you come running whenever you are needed.

What you can do: Babies in this state are sending a strong signal that they need your help to feel safe and more comfortable. Try using the same soothing movement or sound to calm your crying baby. Depending on how upset he or she is, this may take awhile. Trying different things to soothe your crying baby can backfire. Instead of rocking him and then bouncing him and then singing a song, pick ONE of these soothing techniques and stick with it until your baby calms down. It will save you a lot of time and stress!

While this all may seem a little confusing, we’ll be sharing specifics about each of these states over the coming weeks. Until next time, watch your baby to see how he or she moves in and out of these states. Does your baby mind being drowsy? How long can your baby stay quiet and alert before he or she gets tired? Is your baby starting to develop patterns of behavior like fussing in the afternoons or crying in certain situations? We’d love to hear your stories and answer your questions.

Next Time: Learning and Creating Your Baby’s Special Language

Thanks to Jennifer Goldbronn for all her work on this post!


  1. at 8pm every evening, my 1 month old starts crying hysterically till about midnight. its like clockwork! so what could be the problem??

  2. Hi Pete - so sorry it took a few days to respond. Things can change so fast with babies, I'm hoping that your baby's crying binges are over. If not, be sure to check with your doctor if you have any concerns about your baby's weight gain or health. I'm assuming your baby is growing well and thriving. A common reason for such regular crying spells is baby's sensitivity to changes in stimulation that happens before the crying starts. In the evenings, babies have to deal with a lot of changes, people come home from work, TV gets turned on, dinner is made, everyone wants to play with the baby, lights are changing, dogs are barking, etc. All that stimulation can be tough for a newborn to deal with. Try to reduce dinner time stimulation and see if it helps. Another common reason would be that the baby is overtired and still struggling with moving from excited states to sleep. Creating a daily nap routine may help if that is the problem. Things should get better very soon! Keep us posted!

  3. Our baby is 11 weeks old. For the first 10 weeks, he cried and everything, but not like he has for the last few days. He seems healthy, well fed, and sleeps four to five hours at a time. But he also goes through long spells of intense crying where he is nearly inconsolable.

    Last weekend, my wife's brother came to visit along with two young, extremely active children. The house was full of constant screaming all weekend long. Would something like this account for my son's irritability this whole week?

  4. Hi Jon - any time a baby changes their behavior dramatically, it is always a good idea to check with with your pediatrician. Your baby may have an ear infection or something else that bothering him that isn't obvious. If the doctor says that all is well, you should check out our posts on persistent crying. and

    If those posts don't help, let us know!

  5. I know this post isn't specific to crying but that seems to be the topic of the comment section. I have a new 5 week old. I have been able and decided before she was born that I wanted to have a slow, relaxed and mellow entry into the world. She was born at home and for the first two week we had low lighting and time in bed with quiet family visits. I am thankful for this time. Now that she is 5 weeks I feel like there is more pressure to be more social when I have heard that after 6 weeks babies change a lot and They become more social... is this true? Am I doing a great service to my baby? My husband and I went to my parents the other night. It's a 30 min drive (thankfully she slept). Once there she was Quiet Alert and then after a little while and being held by other she started crying. I suppose because she is overstimulated. Do you think it is too early to expose her to so many new smells, voices, sounds, sights and feelings? I feel like in a couple more weeks we both will feel a little more "ready". I think I sound over worried and yet I feel very sensitive about our slow entry. My Dad said babies benefit from stress and fear.
    One of the books I have read is called "Aware Baby" and in this book they talk about holding your baby while they cry and letting them cry out all their stress. We have been practicing this. It does seem to do so well for her. She will cry and then be so peaceful, sometime alert or finally sleep really well. I like this and it can be very draining and stressful as we are letting her cry with minimal distraction just nice amounts of soothing. So I feel very motivated to limit overstimulation. And yet my goal is to have her enter into our life soon, just not too soon. We people are in such a hurry!
    Would love some perspective. What do you think of all this?
    Thank you, Amber

  6. Hello. My 6 week old never appears to be in the quiet alert state very often. If she is awake she is almost always fussy or eating. I would say that her quiet alert state would be maybe 30 minutes out of a 24 hour time span. We have taken her to he doctors and there are no signs of any health problems. We have had some issues with getting her feedings under control. She is now eating well, sleeping well, and having a bowl movement at least once or twice a day. But, she is still really fussy when she is awake. She is able to be consoled by swaddling, her swing, and by being held but then she falls asleep. We never get a chance to hang out with an alert baby. Is this common?

  7. Given that you've already seen the doctor and everything is looking good (we would tell anyone in your situation to first see the doctor), you may have a baby referred to these days as a "persistent crier." We have some posts that focus on crying and we summarized them fairly recently -for help, see:

    We know how tough it is to deal with a crying baby but we also know that nearly all babies grow out of this relatively quickly. Be sure to ask family and friends for help!

  8. To Amber - While we understand that you don't want to overwhelm your baby, babies are born ready to see faces, hear sounds, and to handle smells and touch. Your baby will tell you when she has had too much by using her cues. As long as you respond to her cues, she'll be fine. It is important that you introduce her to her new world, especially if you let her set the pace. I'm not sure what you mean by letting her cry while soothing. I think you mean that you are comforting her when she gets fussy. That is tiring, but important for her to know that you are there to help her when she gets upset. As she gets older, she'll be able to handle more stimulation and even calm herself sometimes.

  9. Hi, my baby is 8 weeks old. My questions are: He sleeps 2 hours at a time at night. I feel so tired waking up a lot. I wonder when does or how old he is to sleep at least 5 to 6 hours straight at night? Thank you..

  10. I have the same problem to you Julia.My baby is turning 8weeks.I feel so tired.And He likes to be hug while he is sleeping.