Excessive infant crying and irritability:

Which comes first—the unhappy baby or the unhappy parent?

© 2009 Gwen Dewar, Ph.D., all rights reserved

Some people believe that excessive infant crying and irritability are caused by anxious or moody parents. According to this idea, young babies cry because their parents are anxious or depressed and transmit their negative emotions to their infants.

Plausible? Sure. It’s clear that distress is contagious. But it works both ways: Taking care of an upset, colicky, or irritable baby can be very stressful. Parents may feel helpless, too, and feelings of helplessness can trigger depression.

Perhaps, then, babies and parents reinforce each other’s bad moods. Extremely irritable, fussy, or disconsolate babies make parents upset. And upset parents may behave in ways that make things worse.

But even if this is true, it’s wrong to assume that excessive infant crying or irritability are caused by emotional parents.

Several studies suggest that some babies respond differently to stimulation, and the differences are noticeable right after birth. For more information, see my article about excessive, inconsolable infant crying and the brain.

It’s also clear that excessive, inconsolable crying can be a symptom of disease.

And there’s evidence suggesting that infant irritability can trigger depression in mothers.

So it seems very likely that crying is frequently the cause—not the effect—of parenting stress.

Here’s the evidence.

Infant crying as a reflection of parental anxiety: The case for blaming the parents

The argument goes like this: Due to inexperience, anxiety, or depression, some parents show more negative emotions to their babies. They might also show less engagement with their babies, particularly if they are depressed. The babies respond by crying, fussing, and being irritable.

This idea has some intuitive appeal. After all, it’s not fun to be around people who are in distress, and many studies have linked family stress with colic (see summary in DeSantis et al 2004).

Moreover, we know that some parents show signs of stress or depression before they’ve been exposed to excessive infant crying.

For instance, one study tracked women during pregnancy and found that mothers were more likely to report colicky babies if they had experienced problems or stress during pregnancy. Colic was also associated with negative childbirth experiences (Rautava et al 1993).

Another longitudinal study found that mothers who reported more stress and less support from their partners at two weeks postpartum were more likely to report babies with colic at six weeks postpartum (Stifter et al 2003).

But early signs of anxiety or depression aren’t strong proof that parents cause most cases of excessive crying

There are other explanations. For one thing, these studies depend on parent self-reports to identify excessive infant crying. Maybe parents who are already distressed or depressed are less tolerant of crying and more likely to report it as a problem.

For another thing, it’s possible that unexplained infant crying has a genetic basis. We know that anxiety and depression can run in families. Perhaps that’s one reason why parental depression and anxiety are linked with excessive infant crying.

And let’s not forget the obvious: Parents who experience negative emotions during pregnancy, childbirth, or the first days postpartum might have other problems that cause excessive infant crying.

Prenatal depression can be caused by all sorts of things--including psychological stress and illness--that may have direct effects on the developing fetus. In the study tracking pregnant women, researchers found that excessive infant crying wasn’t just linked with prenatal depression. It was also linked with prenatal health problems (Rautava 1993).


Other evidence

First-borns don’t cry more

As noted above, some researchers have suggested that excessive infant crying is caused by caregivers who are anxious and insecure. If true, we’d expect first-borns to cry more than other babies. But that isn’t the case.

Studies of crying in young infants have found that first-borns do not cry more than latter borns (St James-Roberts 1996; St James-Roberts and Halil 1991; Alvarez and St James-Roberts 1996).

Infant crying doesn’t increase with the severity of a mother’s depression

If parents were transferring negative emotions to their babies, we might expect to find a link between the severity of a mother’s depression and the amount of time her infant cries. But a study of depressed American moms failed to find any link—i.e., hours of infant crying were not significantly different whether moms were mildly, moderately, or severely depressed (Maxted et al 2005).

…And excessive infant crying and/or irritability might trigger maternal depression

Does infant colic or irritability ever precede a parent’s psychological symptoms? Yes.

Researchers Lynne Murray and colleagues tracked a group of British women from their last trimester of pregnancy through the second year of their babies’ lives (Murray et al 1996). At 10 days postpartum, researchers tested and rated the babies for irritability. They also assessed the mothers’ moods and perceptions.

Any mothers who were suffering from depression at the time of their infants’ assessments were dropped from the study. The remaining mothers were screened again at 6-, 8-, and 18 weeks.

The results? Among moms whose personal circumstances put them at higher risk for postnatal depression, neonatal irritability was the best predictor of depression.

The link remained statistically significant even after taking into account the mothers’ moods and perceptions of their babies in the first postnatal week (Murray et al 1996).


So you’re coping with a difficult baby and it’s really stressful. What now?

The scientific evidence—and common sense—suggest that parents need to take their stress seriously. And so do the people around them.

Maternal depression—whatever the cause--is linked with poorer outcomes for everyone, baby included.

And, as I note in my overview of colic, excessive, unsoothable crying can be a trigger for baby shaking, which can cause head trauma and brain damage.

So if you’re coping with the stress of an irritable, fussy, or colicky baby, take these recommendations to heart.

Talk to your pediatrician. Make sure your baby is screened for medical problems.

Don’t get isolated. The research is pretty clear on this point: Parents are more likely to get depressed when they lack social support. In many Western countries, parents of young babies--especially mothers--spend long hours in isolation with their infants. Anthropologically speaking, that’s pretty weird. In most small-scale societies, mothers are virtually never left alone with their young infants.

Realize that negative feelings after childbirth are normal. Check out this evidence-based guide to postpartum stress.

If you think you are depressed, get help. Talk to your doctor or check out these listings for help from Postpartum Support International.

Even if your baby seems otherwise healthy, don’t make the mistake of blaming yourself. There’s evidence that some babies are just different. Some young infants are much harder to soothe. Others may be born with a more irritable temperament, reacting negatively and intensely things that other babies don’t mind.

Reject advice that assumes all babies are the same. It's unlikely that the same tactic will have the same effect on all babies.

Be encouraged that—-no matter how it might seem when your baby is crying—-she responds to you as a special person. You make a difference. Check out the evidence that newborn babies recognize and prefer the company of their primary caregivers.



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References

Alvarez M, St James-Roberts I. 1996. Infant fussing and crying patterns in the first year in an urban community in Denmark. Acta Paediatr. 85(4):463-6.

DeSantis A, Coster W, Bigsby R, and Lester B. 2004. Colic and fussing in infancy, and sensory processing at 3 to 8 years of age. Infant Mental Health Journal 25(6): 522-539.

Maxted AE, Dickstein S, Miller-Loncar C, High P, Spritz B, Liu J, and Lester BM. 2005. Infant colic and maternal depression. Infant Mental Health Journal 26: 56-68.

Murray L, Stanley C, Hooper R, King F, and Fiori-Cowley A. 1996. The role of infant factors in postnatal depression and mother-infant interactions. Dev Med Child Neurol. 38(2):109-19.

Rautava P, Helenius H, Lehtonen L. 1993. Psychosocial predisposing factors for infantile colic. BMJ 307:600-604

St James-Roberts I and Halil T. 1991. Infant Crying Patterns in the First Year: Normal Community and Clinical Findings Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry 32(6): 951 – 968.

St James-Roberts I and Plewis I. 1996. Individual differences, daily fluctuations, and developmental changes in amounts of infant waking, fussing, crying, feeding, and sleeping. Child Dev. 67(5):2527-40.

St James-Roberts I and Menon-Johansson P. 1999.Predicting infant crying from fetal movement data: an exploratory study. Early Hum Dev. 54(1):55-62

Content last modified 10/9

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