Persistent infant crying is often distressing for new parents. If your baby is going through a period of intense daily crying, know that many have walked this path before you. With a little knowledge and a lot of empathy, you can develop the skills to help your family move through this challenging time.
Jil Rudolf-Vazquez, who holds an M.S. in child development and specializes in early childhood education and mental health, advises parents not to take it personally when babies cry. “In the first couple of months we are still trying to understand all our babies' cues and once we have figured them out, they often change,” she says. “Always know that your child is trying to communicate something and that it is totally fine if you do not know right away what it is.”
Parents of persistent criers often notice more intense crying in the late afternoon. When this happens, babies who seemed fine during the day might experience long bouts of tears, even though all their needs appear to be met. These evening episodes are sometimes called “the witching hours.” Providers prefer to describe the experience as “The Period of Purple Crying” (see below for more about this).
Why is the Baby Crying?
Rudolf-Vazquez theorizes that babies might be picking up on caregivers’ emotions in those early evening hours. “If we as adults think about the day, most of us will agree that the hour before bedtime is often stressful,” she says. “People are coming home from work, preparing meals, possibly anticipating bedtime struggles and experiencing general tiredness. So, why would that be different for a baby?” It’s not always possible to know why a baby is crying, but we can certainly look for clues. According to Rudolf-Vazquez, some common reasons for infant crying include:
- Development: Babies’ bodies are growing and changing rapidly. They are constantly learning new skills. It’s not easy! During a growth spurt, infants might be fussier and more difficult to soothe.
- Overstimulation: Too much movement or noise can be distressing for little ones.
- Tiredness: Babies often cry when they become overtired.
- Temperament: One in five babies is highly sensitive. These babies are easily bothered by minimal changes in their environment like sounds, temperatures or textures. They tend to pick up on their parents’ mood and stress more than other children.
- Stress: Babies need their parents to help them down-regulate, since they are incapable of calming themselves from a state of heightened stress.
Things to Rule Out
While crying is normal and expected, it is important to rule out medical issues. “I can’t emphasize enough: If your instinct tells you something is not OK with your baby, listen to yourself and seek help,” says Rudolf-Vazquez.
- Illness: If you suspect baby is ill, always seek help from a health provider.
- Teething: Expect teething to begin around 4-6 months of age. The pain might last about eight days for each tooth. Your provider can counsel you on safe techniques to minimize pain.
- Colic: Babies who cry very persistently might be labeled as “colicky.” Doctors don’t have a strong understanding about why colic occurs. But according to Rudolf-Vazquez, underlying causes can sometimes be discovered. Possibilities include irritability in the digestive system or feeding problems such as tongue-tie, tongue function or food sensitivity.
- Gas: Gas can be extremely uncomfortable for little ones. Always remember to burp baby after feeding. If breastfeeding, ask a lactation consultant to check baby’s tongue function. Parents who use a bottle should always use the correct-sized bottle and nipple. Techniques that can help with gas include bath time, belly massage, bicycling baby’s feet, or laying baby on her back while gently holding her feet up. It might be helpful to check for food allergies and sensitivities.
- Reflux: Although reflux is common, reflux that causes a baby distress is not normal. Baby might outgrow reflux as the digestive system develops, but it can be very uncomfortable in the meantime. Seek medical help if reflux is suspected.
When attempting to soothe a baby, the most important thing a caregiver can do is to remain calm and steady. Babies rely on parents and caregivers to help them regulate. “We might not be able to ‘control’ the baby’s crying, but we can control our own emotions, feelings, and the environment,” says Rudolf-Vazquez. “Find ways to be as relaxed and present as possible.”
- Movement: Try taking baby for a walk or bouncing gently on an exercise ball. If the movement helps the parent stay calm as well, even better!
- Music: While some babies feel overstimulated by music, others find it relaxing. Experiment with different styles and volumes. Singing lullabies is a time-honored soothing technique.
- Environment: Think about ways to create a more relaxing environment. Can baby move to a different, less stimulating room for a little while? Consider noise level, brightness of the room and temperature.
- Change positions: Try holding baby in different ways (airplane hold, rest on a parent’s shoulder, baby carrier, etc.). If baby resists one position, gently transition to another until you find what works.
- Massage: Infant massage is an excellent technique to reduce stress and help parents bond with baby.
Self-Care Steps for Parents
- Delegate: Lean on family and friends to help with household tasks during hectic early months.
- Wellness: Make sure you’re getting enough food and water. Try to exercise if it feels good. Even a short walk can increase energy and improve mood.
- Step away: If you are struggling to stay calm during an intense period of crying, it’s OK to take a break. If possible, leave the baby with a trusted caregiver. When that’s not possible, place baby safely on her back in the crib, tell her you love her, and step outside for a few minutes to calm down. Have a bite of dark chocolate (a known mood lifter) or listen to a few bars of your favorite song and then return.
Your baby doesn’t need you to “fix” her crying, she simply needs you to be with her.
What is the Period of PURPLE crying?
Also known as “the witching hours,” it’s important to remember that intense, inconsolable crying is a period of time (it has a beginning and an end). It is further identified using the PURPLE acronym:
PEAK of crying
This type of crying usually begins at about 2 weeks of age, peaks around 2 months of age, and then decreases over the next several months.
There is no predictable start or stop to the crying episodes.
Baby is difficult to soothe or console. No matter what caregivers do, baby doesn’t stop crying.
The baby appears to be in pain, though no source of pain can be identified.
Crying can last from several minutes to a few hours each day.
Baby seems fine throughout the day, but cries for unknown reasons in the evening or late afternoon.
Anne Malinoski is an award-winning contributing writer and mother of two boys. Her oldest son went through a Period of Purple Crying while her husband was at sea.