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 colic?

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 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 2009).

5. Infant-directed singing keeps babies calm.

New 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 temperament.

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 new parents—

  • 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 cosleeping.

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 this link 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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Barr RG, Konner M, Bakeman R and Adamson L. 1991. Crying in !Kung San infants: A test of the cultural specificity hypothesis. Developmental Medicine and Child Neurology 33: 601-610.

Bell SM and Ainsworth MDS. 1972. Infant crying and maternal responsiveness. Child Development 43: 1171-1190.

Byrne J and Horowitz F. 1981. Rocking as a Soothing Intervention: The Influence of Direction and Type of Movement. Infant Behavior and Development 4: 207-218.

Christensson K, Cabrera T, Christensson E, Uvnas-Moberg K and Winberg J. 1995. Separation distress call in the human neonate in the absence of maternal body contact. Acta Paediatrica 84: 468-473.

Corbeil M, Trehub SE, and Peretz I. 2015. Singing Delays the Onset of Infant Distress. Infancy. Epub ahead of print. DOI: 10.1111/infa.12114

Esposito G, Yoshiaa S, Ohnishi R, Tsuneoka Y, del Carmen Rostagno M, et al. 2013. Infant Calming Responses during Maternal Carrying in Humans and Mice. Current Biology epub ahead of print 10.1016/j.cub.2013.03.041.

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Gray L, Watt L, Blass EM. 2000. Skin-to-skin contact is analgesic in healthy newborns. Pediatrics 105(1).

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Kraemer GW, Moore CF, Newman TK, Barr CS, and Schneider ML. 2008. Moderate level fetal alcohol exposure and serotonin transporter gene promoter polymorphism affect neonatal temperament and limbic-hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis regulation in monkeys. Biol Psychiatry. ;63(3):317-24.

Jenni OG. 2004. Sleep-wake processes play a key role in early infant crying. Behavioral and Brain Sciences 27(4): 464-465.

Konner M. 2005. Hunter-gatherer infancy and childhood: The !Kung and others. In: Hunter-gatherer childhoods: Evolutionary, developmental and cultural perpectives. BS Hewlett and ME Lamb (eds). New Brunswick: Transaction Publishers.

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Reijneveld SA, Lanting CI, Crone MR, and Van Wouwe JP. 2005. Exposure to tobacco smoke and infant crying. Acta Paediatr. 94(2):217-21. St James-Roberts I, Alvarez M, Csipke E, Abramsky T, Goodwin J, and Sorgenfrei E. 2006. Infant crying and sleeping in London, Copenhagen and when parents adopt a "proximal" form of care. Pediatrics. 117(6):e1146-55.

St James-Roberts I, Hurry J, Bowyer J, and Barr RG. 1995. Supplementary carrying compared with advice to increase responsive parenting as interventions to prevent persistent infant crying. Pediatrics. 95(3):381-8.

Shah PS, Aliwalas L, and Shah V. 2007. Breastfeeding or breast milk to alleviate procedural pain in neonates: a systematic review. Breastfeeding medicine 2:74-82.

Shenassa E and Brown M-J. 2004. Maternal smoking and infantile gastrointestinal dysregulation: The case of colic. Pediatrics 114(4): 497-505.

Spencer JA, Moran DJ, Lee A, and Talbert D. 1990. White noise and sleep induction.Arch Dis Child. 65(1):135-7.

Tishkoff SA and Verrelli BC. 2003. Patterns of human genetic diversity: Implications for Human Evolutionary History and Disease. Annual Review of Genomics and Human Genetics 4: 293-340.

van Sleuwen BE, L'hoir MP, Engelberts AC, Busschers WB, Westers P, Blom MA, Schulpen TW, and Kuis W. 2007 Comparison of behavior modification with and without swaddling as interventions for excessive crying. J Pediatr. 149(4):512-7.

Verdu P, Austerlitz F, Estoup A, et al. 2009. Origins and Genetic Diversity of Pygmy Hunter-Gatherers from Western Central Africa Current Biology, 19 (4), 312-318

Weissbluth L and Weissbluth M. 1992. Infant colic: the effect of serotonin and melatonin circadian rhythms on the intestinal smooth muscle. Med Hypotheses. 39(2):164-7.

White-Traut RC, Schwertz D, McFarlin B, and Kogan J. 2009. Salivary cortisol and behavioral state responses of healthy newborn infants to tactile-only and multisensory interventions. J Obstet Gynecol Neonatal Nurs. 38(1):22-34.

Yazdani M, Ide K, Asadifar M, Gottschalk S, Joseph F Jr, and Nakamoto T. 2004. Effects of caffeine on the saturated and monounsaturated Fatty acids of the newborn rat cerebellum. Ann Nutr Metab. 48(2):79-83.

Zink M, Araç G, Frank ST, Gass P, Gebicke-Härter PJ, and Spanagel R. 2009. Perinatal exposure to alcohol reduces the expression of complexins I and II. Neurotoxicol Teratol. 31(6):400-5.

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

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