Decoding Your Fussy Baby

Decoding Your Fussy Baby
When you’re expecting a baby, you no doubt have visions of sweet, peacefully-sleeping newborns floating through your head. But for some parents, the reality of a new baby looks (and sounds!) more screaming, wailing, and red-faced than they ever could have imagined. Welcome to the world of parenting a fussy baby!

Fussy Baby: What “Normal” Fussiness Looks Like

To be clear, ALL babies are fussy on occasion. Even those “easy” babies will have fussy, cranky moments. Some common causes of fussiness include:

  • Teething
  • Gas or stomach pain
  • Hunger
  • Wet/dirty diaper
  • Too hot/too cold
  • Overtiredness
  • Overstimulation

Standard, normal fussiness is fussiness that comes and goes – your baby may fuss for a bit, but once you meet his need or alleviate his discomfort, he calms down.

However, if your baby fusses for hours on end, or fusses and is nearly impossible to calm and soothe, then you may be dealing with a baby who is either colicky or who is high-need.

Fussy Baby: Signs You Are Dealing With Colic

Crying is normal for newborns, but some newborns and young infants cry so often, and so inconsolably, that it seems to go beyond the standards of normal. In fact, the crying may be so intense and frequent that parents start to wonder if something is seriously wrong! These newborns will sometimes cry for hours on end, and their parents can’t do a thing to comfort them. Crying like this is typically called colic.

The term colic refers to extended periods of crying — three or more hours — that happen three or more times per week, during the first few months of life. Colic happens most often in the late afternoon and evening (although it can happen any time of the day.)

It’s estimated that about 20% of newborns suffer through colic — and their parents suffer with them! Moms and dads of colicky babies often feel completely overwhelmed by their newborns’ intense crying. And the fact that colicky babies are difficult (and sometimes even impossible) to soothe and comfort makes things even worse for mom and dad, since they feel powerless to fix the problem.

What Causes Colic?

Unfortunately, there’s no real cause of colic. People have long thought that colic must be caused by digestive problems, like gas and reflux; however, researchers haven’t been able to define a single cause of colic, despite numerous studies.

If your newborn is colicky, rest assured that there’s nothing wrong with your little one. Doctors and medical researchers now believe that colicky crying is natural for some babies, and should be considered normal. Instead, focus on soothing your colicky baby as best you can. Skin-to-skin contact is a great way to soothe a colicky infant; so is wearing your baby in a sling. Babies with colic also thrive with predictable daily routines in place, so work towards predictable eating and sleeping routines.

There’s really no “cure” for colic (although some experts think probiotics can help alleviate the digestive issues that can contribute to colic). In general, it’s best just to wait it out; by the time your baby is a few months old, it will likely resolve itself.

Fussy Baby: Parenting A High-Need Baby

So there’s normal baby fussiness, there is the fussiness that comes from colic – and then there is the fussiness that comes with having a high-need baby. What is a high-need baby exactly? According to Dr. Sears, who coined the term, a high-need baby is one whose temperament is demanding, intense, and unpredictable, who feeds frequently and wakes often, and who can’t bear to be separated from her caregiver.

We reached out to Holly Klaassen, creator of The Fussy Baby Site, for her tips and insights into parenting a high-need baby. Having raised a high-need baby of her own (and having created a fantastic, authoritative online resource for parents of fussy babies!), Holly can definitely be considered an expert when it comes to high-need little ones. Here are her answers to some common questions about raising high-need children:

How is a high-needs baby different from a colicky baby?

“Colic typically starts in babies at around 2-3 weeks of age, whereas often you’ll see a high need baby being fussy right from birth. Some babies exhibit high need behaviors because of a condition like reflux or a food allergy. However, most high need babies exhibit these traits due to their temperament. While colic goes away by 5 months at the latest, high need babies often continue to be unpredictable and difficult to soothe (although they do get easier as they get older and learn new skills).”

What are your top, tried-and-true tips for soothing and calming a high-need baby?

“For newborns, Dr. Karp’s 5 S’s are your best bet. Having a fast swing, swaddling, and using white noise will often work to get a high-need newborn to sleep. Once a high need baby gets a bit older, many parents continue to find babywearing very helpful. High need babies will often do well with lots of stimulation and entertainment, so staying out and about where baby can engage with nature and other people can also be very helpful.”

How do you help a high-need baby sleep well?

“For newborns, I recommend parents use whatever strategies they can: swing, co-sleeping, rocking, etc. Once they’re a bit bigger, having a predictable routine is key. Set the stage for good sleep, and make sure not to let your baby get overtired (this will make it much more difficult for them to fall asleep and stay asleep).

High need babies aren’t that different from other babies…they’re just “more.” More intense, more demanding, more unpredictable. That said, they still often respond well to sleep training. I recommend parents start with a gentler approach and then move to a method that will likely involve more tears (like Ferber’s check and console method) if that doesn’t work. Parents just should expect that it may take longer and may involve more tears than with an ‘easy’ baby.”

For more help with your fussy high-need baby, check out this fantastic fussy baby resource page on The Fussy Baby Site. It includes tons of print and online resources that’ll help you on your journey. I’d also recommend joining The Fussy Baby Site’s Facebook page; I browsed it while researching this article, and Holly includes some awesome and encouraging resources there as well.

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