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Why Is My Baby So Fussy? Common Causes of Excessive Crying in Infants

05 February 2022

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Picture this: You’re a new parent winding down for the night with your favorite TV show, and all of a sudden you hear your baby cry out. Even after consoling, they still cry and cry and cry.

Seeing a baby cry excessively can be a difficult image to digest. As a parent, you want to help your child, but these situations can leave you feeling helpless and question if you’re a good parent or not. You may also wonder if your child has a more serious health problem. To help put your mind at ease, we examined what causes excessive crying, how long it lasts and some tips on how to handle it.

 

Why do babies cry?

First things first: it’s normal for a baby to cry. Infants can cry up to three hours per day during the first two to three months of life. 

Think of a baby crying as their way of communicating with you. Infants can’t talk, so they use crying to get your attention. As a parent, it’s your job to decode the crying. In many cases, babies cry as a last resort.

Here are some common reasons why babies cry in the first few months after birth:

Hungry: Babies need to eat every two to three hours during the first two months, and they typically cry out when they are hungry. The crying usually resolves with a full belly.

Overfeeding: Babies usually do a good job of regulating their food intake on their own and will let you know when they’re full. But in some cases, overfeeding can give them an upset stomach and cause them to cry.

Tired: Babies cry when they’re tired. Crying out is a late signal they need to be put down, readjusted or swaddled to comfort them.

Too hot or cold: Babies, especially premature babies, may struggle to regulate their body temperature, which is why you need to keep them warm. But being too hot or cold can cause them to cry.

Dirty diaper: Stool is acidic in nature and contains digestive enzymes that can cause skin irritation. Leaving a dirty diaper on your baby for too long may lead to irritation and subsequent crying.

Pain: Whether it’s a fever or a diaper rash, babies in pain will cry out to let you know they need assistance. Take their temperature or physically examine their body for any noticeable issues.

Needing a pacifier: Sometimes, babies just want something to suck on for comfort. If you don’t want to use a pacific, a thumb or finger also works.

Boredom: Babies can be bored and need simulation. Picking them up and holding them may be all they need to settle down.

 

What is colic in babies?

Sometimes, certain babies cry for no reason. Medically, this recurrent and excessive crying is known as colic. More specifically, colic occurs when babies cry more than three hours per day for more than three days per week for more than three weeks. Babies with colic are also harder to console.

Colic is more than a fussy baby. Babies with colic are healthy and well fed, yet they remain highly agitated and have disruptive sleeping patterns. As frustrating as it is, colic is common – 25 percent of newborns can have colic.

When do babies develop colic?

Babies develop colic during the first six weeks after birth – usually around the time they turn 2 weeks old. Colic goes away on its own, and there is no medical treatment. Excessive crying can last until they are 3 or 4 months old or even as long as six months.

While colic can happen at any point during the day, it is most common between 6 p.m. and midnight.

What causes colic in babies?

Why colic occurs is largely unknown in the medical community, although there are some theories. 

Babies spend as many as 40 weeks in the womb. This is a safe environment they feel comfortable with. Once removed, there is an adjustment period that takes place. For this reason alone, some babies do well in this new environment while others struggle to adapt to the sights and sounds of your home and its surroundings. Crying is a way for babies to let out their emotions.

In other situations, some babies are more sensitive than others and struggle to self-soothe. This explains why babies with colic can be consoled at times by their parents but are unable to on their own. As they grow older, they typically learn how to manage this better.

Some people also believe feeding can contribute to colic, either due to a milk allergy or gas from eating. However, gas may simply be a symptom of crying so much instead of an actual cause. For example, babies who cry excessively can swallow more air and become gassy.

Signs of colic in babies

Excessive crying is the top sign of colic in babies. The cry itself may sound different, too. Be on the lookout for a loud, high-pitched cry.

Additional tell-tale signs include frequent burping and gas due to inhaling too much air when crying.

Babies with colic may also display physical symptoms with their body, such as clenched fists, a tight belly or tense legs that become difficult to move. Your baby may also turn red from crying so much.

 

How long should you let a baby cry it out?

As a parent, your immediate, natural reaction is to console your baby when they cry. However, some babies with colic don’t even respond well to being held or comforted when crying, especially at night. Over time, this can become increasingly frustrating to deal with and make you wonder if you can let your baby “cry it out.”

While leaving your baby to cry for hours isn’t healthy or recommended, it is OK to place your baby in a safe sleep spot – crib or bassinet – and give yourself a moment to take a breather. There is no set duration either. Some parents need a minute to regroup, others need five minutes to emotionally recharge.

Plus, letting your baby self soothe isn’t necessarily a bad thing, according to one study from 2016. Research from Australia published in the Pediatrics journal found methods known as graduated extinction and bedtime fading helped babies (6 to 16 months old) relax and sleep. Further, these methods had no long-term effects on parent-child attachment or child emotions and behavior, according to the study.

Graduated extinction is a method in which you let your baby cry for a minute before soothing them. You then gradually increase the intervention time. Eventually, they learn to soothe themselves. Bedtime fading is a method where you delay your baby’s bedtime so they become more tired, thus are more likely to sleep.

It’s important to note these methods are better suited for infants or toddlers and not newborns. That’s because newborns need some sort of consoling to feel emotionally safe and secure. There’s a popular myth that you can spoil your baby too much by holding or consoling them. Newborns aren’t capable of being spoiled because they are so young – they have needs, not wants.

Tips to soothe a crying baby

Calming a fussy baby

For starters, check your schedule to see if your baby is hungry. However, feeding shouldn’t always be your go-to solution. Feeding to calm can lead to overfeeding.

Next, you should try putting them to sleep. If they don’t go down without help, you can rock your baby to sleep or walk around with them. When sleeping, try using a sound machine or a fan. They’re used to being in a noisy environment inside the womb, so these tactics mimic these sounds as a way to soothe them. A pacifier can help, too, as the sucking sensation is soothing for babies. Just be mindful not to rely too much on a pacifier as it can lead to dependency as they get older.

At night, some babies prefer a warm bath. Try placing a warm washcloth on their chest as you bathe them. The warming sensation should relax them.

It’s possible for babies to be too tired, which may cause them to cry. In this situation, try swaddling your baby in a blanket to comfort them. Talk to them, read them a book or sing softly to soothe them. Sometimes it can be as simple as changing their position – sit them up if they’re lying down or place them on your stomach if they’re on their back.

The person handling them may also matter. For example, a fussy baby being held by their father may seem inconsolable only to relax when handed to their mother. This isn’t a knock to the dads out there. Instead, newborns tend to respond better to mothers – at least initially. Over time, they will adjust to both parents. Be patient!

Some babies prefer movement to settle down. Gently patting them on the back or buttocks can also help soothe them. A car ride or walk around the neighborhood can be a good way to relax them.

If all else fails, hold and cuddle your baby. No matter how young, babies typically respond well to touch, even if it involves some initial screaming and crying.

But, whatever you do, don’t shake your baby! Shaken baby syndrome can cause serious damage to your child’s brain and is considered a form of child abuse. There are more than 1,300 cases of shaken baby syndrome each year, according to the National Center on Shaken Baby Syndrome.

 

If you think your baby’s crying is due to something more serious, such as an illness, please contact a primary care physician. You can also bring them to the emergency room or a nearby urgent care.

 

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