Our thanks to Sally Hogg for this blog post. Sally is a mother who works in children’s policy, research and practice, and has done extensive work on the subject of excessive crying in infants.
All babies cry and some babies cry a lot; between 10 and 20 per cent of babies will cry excessively during the first three months of life. As professionals, we know that this crying is normal and will pass. But for parents it is tough. Really tough.
“There were times when I resented him for screaming, and then hated myself for feeling like that, and also for not being able to make it better. I just felt a huge sense of failure.”
While most families survive a period of excessive crying relatively unscathed, it does increase the risk of a range of poor outcomes including maternal mental illness, relationship breakdown, child abuse and childhood behavioural problems.
Parents of babies who cry a lot will often try to identify a cause of this crying, and, with it, a solution. This isn’t helped by the fact that excessive crying is generally known as ‘colic’, leading to the common misconception that it is caused by stomach problems. In fact, excessive crying has been shown to be associated with digestive problems in only a small subgroup (around 5-10 per cent) of babies who cry excessively. For other babies, the causes of excessive crying might include temperament, early sensitivity, feeding problems, or a poor fit between parenting expectations and behaviours and babies’ needs. For many babies, we will never really know why they cry a lot.
Crying is one of the most common reasons that parents seek support in the postnatal period. In these situations, it can be tempting to suggest a ‘cure’ for the crying, or to reassure the parent that crying is normal. Both the academic evidence, and the experience of parents, tell us that neither response is appropriate.
It is not appropriate to simply suggest a cure for the crying – whether that be winding, infancol, changes to feeding, or actions like walking the baby in a pram or carrying him. These actions might work for some babies, but not for all. There is no ‘one size fits all’ solution to crying – all babies are different and can cry for a huge number of different reasons, requiring different responses.
It is also not appropriate simply to reassure parents that crying will pass. Even if the crying is normal and the baby fine, excessive crying is hugely difficult for parents and can damage their self-esteem, self-efficacy, mental health and wider wellbeing. So some form of response is required.
So what might an appropriate response to excessive crying be?
Based on a review of the evidence, and in particular a useful article by Ian St James Roberts I would suggest that a good response to excessive crying has six parts. These are set out below. I’ve also highlighted where we might take action in the antenatal period to prepare parents to cope with a crying baby.
- Building awareness of babies’ development.
The first three months of a child’s life (sometimes called the ‘fourth trimester) is a distinct phase of babies’ development, in which they are not yet able to regulate themselves, and in which their crying has particular characteristics. Ronald Barr refers to the ‘period of purple crying’, where the acronym ‘purple’ describes different features of babies’ early crying.
Supporting all parents – both antenatally and postnatally – to understand this developmental stage, and to know that it will pass, can be really helpful. (Although there isn’t a magic transition point at three months and each stage of children’s development brings new and different challenges, so it’s important to manage parent’s expectations!)
- Help parents to understand the stress that they feel and how to cope with this.
It is normal for parents to find their baby’s crying stressful, but hard to admit this. We can help parents by normalising this experience, making it acceptable to talk about how one feels when a baby cries, and helping parents to think about ways to deal with this. Evidence shows that giving parents coping strategies to deal with the stress they feel when their baby cries, together with educating them about the importance of not shaking baby, can help parents and reduce the risk of abuse to babies. The NSPCC’s Coping with Crying Programme has shown the value of sharing these messages with parents in the antenatal and postnatal period.
- Provide a menu of options
There are many reasons why a baby might cry and many ways to help babies to keep calm, or to soothe them when they cry. These could be shared with parents antenatally, to help provide them with a ‘toolkit’ to draw from when their baby cries.
When a baby is crying excessively, it is useful to help parents to consider their own baby’s experiences and needs, and to identify what actions might help them. Evidence from successful interventions suggests that the most effective responses to excessive crying involve reassuring and supporting parents, and helping them to formulate hypotheses about why the baby is crying and identify and test actions to reduce their babies’ crying or to make it feel more manageable. One intervention, Possums, uses five domains – infant health, mother health, feeding, sensations and sleep – to consider the families’ needs and identify actions.
- Help parents to enjoy their baby.
When a baby cries excessively, this understandably becomes the focus of parents’ attention. But the perinatal period is a formative time when parents develop beliefs about their child’s personality which can influence how they interpret and respond to the child’s behaviour and the quality of their interactions. It is therefore important to highlight a babies’ wider characteristics, and help parents to enjoy the positive interactions that they have with their baby so that they don’t develop too negative an image of their child based on their crying.
- Frame crying as an experience and not a symptom.
It is helpful to address the idea that crying is a sign that there is something ‘wrong’ with the baby, either physiologically or emotionally. Helping parents to see excessive crying as a part of their baby’s experience of early life, rather than a symptom of a medical problem or a sign of poor behaviour, can help them to focus on how best to soothe their baby and cope with crying during this stage.
- Be Kind.
Finally, let’s not forget that excessive crying is really hard, and parents can feel feelings of isolation, helplessness and failure. These mums and dads need a kind, compassionate response and ongoing support.
“More helpful still were the very few people at health clinics who bothered to learn my or my babies’ name, who offered to hold him for a little bit, and who were interested in how I was doing. These people were few and far between.”