Parenting an infant can be very difficult, especially when your baby cries often, loudly and does not respond to soothing. Inconsolable crying, and the loss of sleep that comes with it, can be very stressful for parents. Sadly, I sometimes take care of infants who have been shaken by their caregivers during periods of inconsolable crying and suffered terrible brain trauma. This is called “shaken baby syndrome,” or abusive head trauma. Abusive head trauma results from shaking of the head of an infant, or shaking an infant causing their head to hit an object or the floor. Swelling and brain damage results when the movement of the brain tissue strikes inside the skull. These forces can cause devastating injuries. Some children die, and many suffer neurological problems. For example, around 40% of babies who were shaken become blind, some develop cerebral palsy, and about 50% have long-term behavioral problems.
All of us know that all babies cry, but some babies cry more than others, and this can be perfectly normal. Most babies start crying around two weeks of age and their crying peaks by two months, then tends to slow down again around 3 to four months of age. Dr. Ronald Barr has researched crying in infants for over 30 years and developed the PURPLE period of crying based on data from hundreds of babies. The word purple is an acronym for the six characteristics of crying during this period; it does not mean the baby actually turns purple!
When babies are going through this period, they seem to resist soothing. While some soothing methods may help when they are simply fussy, bouts of inconsolable crying are different. During this phase, babies can cry for hours and still be healthy and normal, but parents often think there must be something wrong. However, even after a pediatric check-up which shows the baby is healthy, they may still go home and cry for hours, night after night. I encourage parents to learn about the PURPLE period (watch the video!) and to consult the excellent resources available to them. It helps to understand that a baby fusses and cries, particularly at peak times (around two months of age, in the evening), sometimes even when they are healthy, well-fed, have a dry diaper, and are not in pain. I encourage parents to take turns soothing their fussy babies. Rotate the responsibility frequently to avoid becoming too anxious and upset. Put babies in their cribs on their backs if you get really frustrated, and it is okay to walk away from a really cranky baby for a 10-minute break! Make every effort to help soothe your baby when crying, but understand that sometimes your baby may cry despite your expert parenting skills. At the same time, if you are concerned that your baby is crying because they are sick, injured or unwell, do not hesitate to come see me!
The best thing that you can do is stay calm. It may sound simple, but it can be hard to do when you are tired, anxious, and worried about your baby. Taking care of a crying infant is a lot of work, and feeling frustrated, drained, and a little desperate is a normal reaction to a difficult situation. It is okay to feel those things; the trick is not to let your feelings shape how you treat your baby! Keeping your emotions in check – staying calm – is important for your own sake, but also for your baby. It is harder to calm your baby when you are upset. When you can soothe your crying baby without adding your own distress to the mix, the baby gets the message that you are confident, collected, and can ride out the storm right there with them. Your calmness is reassuring, in fact, it can be contagious, and is far more helpful to a crying baby than the alternative. And remember, parents also need to get their own sleep, their own exercise, and their own diversions, so that they can be healthy, relaxed and better able to cope with their baby during this challenging period. Finally, other caregivers, including nannies, grandparents, older siblings, and babysitters need to understand this important information as well!