The Fussy Baby program, part of Southwest Human Development’s Birth to Five Helpline, provides support for parents who are concerned about their baby’s temperament or behavior during the first year of life.
Parents who call the FREE Birth to Five Helpline at 1-877-705-KIDS (5437) find a sympathetic ear and learn ways to soothe, care for and enjoy their babies. We asked Alison Steier, Ph.D., clinical director of mental health services at Southwest Human Development, how the Fussy Baby program can help struggling parents.
How do you know if your baby is fussier than normal?
All babies cry. Their cries are designed to draw their parents closer so they can help them. As parents, we ask ourselves: Could my baby be hungry? Does my baby need a diaper change? Could my baby be sleepy? Does my baby need more of my attention?
We match our response to our best understanding of what our baby’s cries are communicating. We try something else if our first guess doesn’t do the trick. But some babies do cry more than others. Estimates are that one in five babies cries excessively and can be especially difficult to soothe. These babies may also have trouble feeding or sleeping. Caring for a fussy baby can be exhausting and frustrating and can take its toll on our confidence.
What are some reasons a baby may be inconsolable?
It is common for parents to persistently search for answers. Unfortunately, the reasons often remain unknown. Excessive crying occurs in babies with all kinds of characteristics: boys and girls, first-born or any other birth order, premature babies and full-term babies, breastfed and formula-fed babies. Some babies may be sensitive to dairy (cow’s milk protein) or intolerant of their formula. Some babies have reflux and show more distress during feedings. It is always important to consult with your pediatrician and to collaborate by offering your own observations, particularly when you notice patterns in the baby’s crying.
Your baby may fit the definition of colic, which is crying that occurs for about three hours a day, at least three days a week, for more than three consecutive weeks. The good news about true colic is that it is time limited and tends to resolve itself by about 3 months of age. One of the challenges with colic is that we really do not know what causes it, which sets many families on a path of pursuing remedies advised by family, friends, physicians, the internet and a host of others sources. Research on a range of frequently sought interventions has been disappointing. Infant massage, probiotics, herbal supplements, chiropractic adjustments, sugary water, nonprescription solutions containing sodium bicarbonate, dill seed oil, fennel oil and ginger (“gripe water”) have not offered reliable relief for babies who are crying relentlessly. The possible side effects of some of these strategies have not been well studied.
What, then, can parents do?
No one strategy is likely to be successful every day or for every bout of crying, but two principles are of paramount importance. First, try to be calm. Calm is contagious. So is distress. When parents can find a settled place within themselves, it helps a struggling baby. To bring calm, you have to feel calm, so strategies that you have learned — such as slow, conscious breathing, softly singing or humming, picturing a peaceful scene and so on — will be very helpful. Remember, too, that if you feel close to the end of your rope, it is perfectly fine — even very important — to set the baby down in a safe place and take time to regain your steadiness. If another adult is available, trade off caring for the baby. This is the time to be your own best friend and to give yourself positive messages and encouragement, rather than criticism. Anyone would feel stressed in the circumstance of a screaming baby who cannot be comforted.
Second, watch for subtle responses. When babies are crying and not easily soothed, parents tend to try many different approaches in a rapid-fire way rather than sticking with one method long enough to see if it helps, even just a little. Changes in breathing, longer intervals between crying and a more relaxed body are all signs that can be hard to notice in the heat of the moment but suggest that what you are doing is working, even if the crying has not stopped altogether.
Tells us more about the Birth to Five Helpline.
The free Birth to Five Helpline is available to anyone who has questions or concerns about young children — parents, grandparents, caregivers and medical professionals. Common topics include challenging behaviors, potty training, child development, sleep issues, colic or fussiness, feeding and nutrition and overall parenting concerns. Bilingual and compassionate early-childhood specialists will answer your questions from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday-Friday. You can also download the Birth to Five Helpline app in the iTunes App Store or on Google Play, so when you’re ready, you can one-click call, text or email a question to Helpline professionals.
- Birth to 5 Q&A: I need rest! How can I get my baby to sleep?
- Birth to 5 Q&A: Teaching kids not to trust every adult
- Parenting Q&A: What to do when your toddler is biting
- Preschooler not listening? Be patient and pick your battles
- Bed-wetting at age 5: Not a problem — yet