Infant crying, fussing, and colic
A guide for the thinking parent
© 2009 - 2015 Gwen Dewar, Ph.D., all rights reserved
Are you coping with infant crying, fussing, or
Babies everywhere cry, especially during the first 3 months after
birth. Even chimpanzees follow this pattern (Bard 2004). Like it or not,
crying is a universal mode of communication for our species.
But that doesn't mean we're helpless to improve the situation.
Parents can have an important effect on the amount of time babies cry.
Research confirms these points.
1. Sometimes it's very straightforward--babies feel bad and need help.
Babies may cry because they are hungry, distressed, or feeling pain. Prompt, loving care can make them feel better and stop crying. Failure to respond can make it worse.
2. Babies tend to cry when they are out-of-contact with their primary caregivers.
Again, this is pretty simple stuff. Take a young baby from his
mother, and he will start to cry. Infants with secure emotional
attachments will usually stop crying after they've been reunited with
their caregivers (Bell
and Ainsworth 1972; Christensson et al 1995).
3. Carrying a baby can quiet him or her down...but you have to keep moving.
It's a common response in many
mammals: Infants experience slower heart rates, reduced body movement,
and reduced crying when they are carried around by their parents
(Esposito et al 2013). It doesn't last, however. Put the baby down, and she may start crying again.
4. Loving touch helps...as long as you think like a baby.
Babies are soothed by rocking and skin-to-skin contact (Byrne
and Horowitz 1981; Spencer et al 1990; Gray et al 2000), but it's
important to think like a baby.
Research suggests that young infants
don't like light caresses. They prefer a firmer touch (Kida and
Shinohara 2013). Moreover, some babies may feel overly stimulated and
need "down time," which they will signal by putting their hands over
their faces, or trying to look away (Beebe 2010).
Finally, babies can
get stressed if we touch them in ways that seem emotionally distant --
without talking, rocking, or making eye contact (White-Traut et al
5. Infant-directed singing keeps babies calm.
experiments indicate that the old folk beliefs are true: Singing lullabies and nursery rhymes can have a
remarkable effect. When babies were left to
sit in a rather bleak, dimly-lit environment, the sound of their mothers'
singing kept them calm for an average of 9 minutes. Babies were also soothed by the sound of infant-directed speech, but to a lesser degree (Corbeil et al 2015).
6. Contrary to folk beliefs about the dangers of "spoiling" an infant, young babies seem to cry less when they are indulged.
In societies that promote a more indulgent approach to baby care
(immediate responses to crying, very frequent nursing, lots of physical
contact, and cosleeping), babies spend less time crying than they do
elsewhere (e.g., Barr et al 1991). We see the same effect among
chimpanzees, too. When chimpanzee infants are cradled by their mothers
100% of the time, they cry less than when they are held by the moms only
25% of the time (Bard 2004).
7. Bad moods are contagious, even for the very young.
Experiments show that babies notice when we're feeling stressed (Waters et ak 2014), so babies can "catch" our bad moods. This doesn't mean that parental emotions are the primary cause of excessive infant crying or irritability. But it's another good reason to take your own psychological symptoms seriously. If you feel anxious or depressed -- common experiences for new parents -- discuss your problems with a medical provider or counselor.
8. Infant behavior is influenced by parent substance use.
Some studies have reported that excessive crying
was more likely among babies who were exposed to cigarette smoke during
pregnancy or after birth (Reijneveld et al 2005; Shenassa et al 2004). Smoke exposure may increase levels of motilin, a hormone that induces
potentially painful intestinal contractions (Shenassa et al 2004). Smoke
exposure is also linked with poorer infant sleep, which could
contribute to irritability (Mennella et al 2007).
Other studies suggest that alcohol exposure--during gestation and
via breast milk—alters brain development, putting babies at higher risk
for irritability, anxiety, and depression (e.g., Zink et al 2009; Kraemer et al 2008).
9. It pays to screen irritable babies for disease.
Sometimes crying -- unusual, prolonged, or inconsolable crying -- indicates a medical problem. Addressing the underlying medical conditions can help babies calm down.
So infant crying depends, in part, on the actions and choices of
adults. But beware the smug and righteous baby whisperer. Some parents
have to cope with particularly challenging babies. They experience
frustration, and doubt themselves. But should they?
Is excessive infant crying or fussing a sign that parents aren’t nurturing their babies enough?
It’s a loaded question, one that implicitly blames parents for
their babies’ apparent misery. It also implies a false assumption—that
all babies are alike. Even newborns show marked differences in
On the positive side, it's reasonable to think that physical
nurturing—sensitive, responsive care that includes lots of physical
contact—is good for everyone.
Babies are born with biases for social stimuli.
In general, babies are soothed by feeding (Shaw et al 2007),
skin-to-skin contact (Gray et al 2000), and gentle touches that are
combined with other forms of communication, like talk or eye contact
(White-Traut et al 2009).
Moreover, we know that babies evolved in the context of being fed
very frequently and carried around by parents, aunts, grandmothers, or
siblings most of the day (Konner 2005). Among modern-day
hunter-gatherers--people who still practice this "Pleistocene" approach
to baby care--lengthy, inconsolable bouts of infant crying
are rare (Fouts et al 2004).
There is also experimental evidence suggesting that normal
Western infants cry less when their parents make a special effort to
carry their babies more often. In a randomized experiment, some mothers
were assigned to carry their infants more, and their infants cried less
relative to a control group (Hunziker and Barr 1986).
But--as many desperate parents
know--even babies who are held and fed frequently may suffer from
excessive, inconsolable crying.
Carrying babies has many benefits, but it isn't a cure-all
As noted above, keeping babies close may reduce infant distress. And holding babies
may be beneficial in other ways, too.
For instance, one experimental study found that mothers who wore
their infants in soft baby carriers were more likely to have
securely-attached babies than were moms who carried their babies in
portable infant seats (Anisfeld et al 1990).
Clinical and anecdotal experience also suggests that
baby-carrying can be an effective approach for babies who are "fussy" or "high need" (Sears and Sears 1996).
But we shouldn't assume that infant carrying is the answer to all problems.
Experimental studies suggest that increased
carrying doesn’t reduce crying in babies who’ve been diagnosed with
colic -- frequent, prolonged bouts of inconsolable crying (Barr 1991; St James-Roberts et al 1995).
And research has failed to demonstrate that parenting differences
within Western populations are linked with colic. For example, in one
study, Ian St. James-Roberts and his colleagues tracked three groups of
- Parents living in London
- Parents living in Copenhagen
- A special group of parents who said they planned to practice
“proximal care,” holding their infants at least 80% of the time between
8am and 8pm, breastfeeding relatively frequently, and responding rapidly
to infant cries. Many (but not all) of these parents also practiced
Parents in all three groups kept behavior diaries and filled out questionnaires.
The results? London parents had the least amount of physical
contact with their babies—50% less compared with the parents practicing
“proximal care.” These parents also had the babies who cried the most.
But when it came to colicky babies—babies who cried
excessively and inconsolably—there was no significant difference
between groups (St James-Roberts et al 2006).
So why is excessive, inconsolable crying rare among hunter-gatherers?
I don’t know, and I don’t think anyone else does, either. But if you
compare hunter-gatherers with the rest of us, there is more going on
than a different approach to baby-carrying.
Possibly, the absence of colic in foraging societies reflects
differences in sleep, feeding, diet, parental support, or even genes.
Sleep. Some researchers speculate the colic is caused by
an immature sleep/wake system. Perhaps colicky babies don’t produce
enough melatonin in the late afternoon and evening. As a result, they
become "hyper-alert" and suffer sleep problems (Jenni 2004). They might experience more intestinal
pain, too, because melatonin also suppresses intestinal contractions
(Weissbluth and Weissbluth 1992).
If either of these hypotheses are
correct, then maybe hunter-gatherers avoid colic because they do a better job attuning their babies to daily life. By exposing babies to natural daylight, and avoiding artificial lighting at night, parents can help a new baby develop mature patterns of melatonin production.
Feeding. Hunter-gatherer babies get fed on demand and very frequently, sometimes
as frequently as 4 times an hour (Konner 2005). The meals are small,
however, and this might protect babies from
gastroesophageal reflux (also known as heartburn or acid reflux).
Diet. Hunter-gatherer diets are radically different from
most agricultural, industrial diets. So it seems plausible that the
rarity of colic is related to diet. For instance, hunter-gatherers don’t
drink cow’s milk, and cow’s milk protein intolerance can cause
excessive, inconsolable crying.
Parental support. Much of the research on colic has been
done on Western populations where parents—usually mothers—spend long
hours in social isolation with their babies. This might contribute to
maternal anxiety and depression, which, in turn, could aggravate the symptoms of colic.
Among hunter-gatherers, parents are virtually never alone with their
babies. Not only do they get more adult contact, they get more
babysitting help. And hunter-gatherer adults are notably tolerant around
other people’s babies (Fouts et al 2004).
Genes. If colic has a genetic basis--such that certain
genes increase a baby’s chances of being irritable or difficult to
soothe--then we shouldn’t rule out the possibility that hunter-gatherer
babies are less likely to possess these genes. Claims about the absence
of colic among hunter-gatherers often concern groups like the San or Baka, peoples who show
evidence of long-term genetic isolation from surrounding agricultural
populations (Verdu et al 2009; Tishkoff 2004).
More information about infant crying
You can read more about keep babies calm in this evidence-based guide. But if you have a young baby who cries inconsolably, be sure to consult
your pediatrician and get your baby screened for disease. Check out my
overview of excessive, inconsolable infant crying as well as this article about the
medical conditions that can cause excessive crying in babies.
In addition, you might be interested in the scientific evidence that
some babies are just different
--responding more irritably to stimulation that doesn’t bother other babies.
And if you're curious about effects of infant carrying, follow
to a video presentation by researchers who've studied the phenomenon in human and rodent infants (Esposito et al 2013).
References: Infant crying
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image of Wegaruk and infant (Alaska natives) by B.B. Dobbs
image of Babywearing mother by Tala Sabine/flickr
image of father and child by Andrés Nieto Porras/wikimedia commons
image of San woman by Lisa Gray / wikimedia commons
Content of "Infant crying in anthropological perspective" last modified 10/15