Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Explanations for Your Cranky Baby

Your baby is cranky.  Their sleep is all over the place.  You've ruled out ill health, hunger, thirst, dirty nappy, too hot, too cold...  You think it's overtiredness, but even after a good nap or first thing in the morning they're still clingy and easily upset.  What can explain it?

It seems that some crankiness seems to be part of normal, healthy baby development.  Think of it like morning sickness.  It's not much fun, but on the upside it's usually a sign that everything's on track and the baby's developing normally.  There's nothing you have to do about it, except to do your best to comfort your baby and show you care.

Here are some of the most popular explanations I've found for baby crankiness.

The Period of Purple Crying (0-12 weeks)

It is normal for babies to be placid in the first 2 weeks after birth, then round week 3 they start to cry more and more.  The crying just happens for no reason and can be impossible to soothe.  One way of thinking about this is as 'The Period of Purple Crying'.  'Purple' is an acronym that stands for Peaks at 6-8 weeks, Unexpected, Resists soothing (no matter what you try), Pain-like face, Long-lasting (up to 5 hours a day in some cases), and Evening (because it seems to occur more in the late afternoon / evening).  Here is a video:

It is so common for 0-12 week old babies to have an inconsolable period in the evening, that it can be known as the 'witching hour' or 'arsenic hour'.  There are some great tips on how to realistically approach soothing a baby at this age here on the Period of Purple Crying website.


Colic is not a condition so much as a name that is applied to babies who cry a lot.  As in, colic literally means that the baby cries a lot and we don't know why.  A colicky baby cries a lot.  We're talking hours of endless crying, and no amount of soothing seems to help.  Colic is defined as 3 hours a day, at least 3 days a week, for more than 3 weeks.  This is a bit of an arbitrary division that researchers use when classifying babies as colicky or non-colicky.  No one has found a definitive cure or explanation for really persistent criers or colicky babies.  Some claim to have some success with baby-wearing, probiotics, switching formula or certain types of bottles for bottle-fed bubs etc., so you can always try these things and see if they help.

Growth Spurts

It is not so much that growth spurts are associated with crankiness, but that they are associated with a trying time for parents, particularly in the early days, because at least the 3 week and 6 week growth spurts seem to throw a baby's sleep out of whack, and breastfed bubs feed round the clock during a growth spurt to get enough milk and bring up the milk supply, making it a demanding time for mum in particular.  There are typically growth spurts at 7-10 days, 2-3 weeks, 4-6 weeks, 3 months, 4 months, 6 months, and 9 months.

Wonder Weeks

I just noticed in the last day or so Bethany seems to have suddenly got... well... smarter.  It's hard to explain.  It's as though when I look at her I see that the cogs in her brain are turning that little bit faster.  Turns out there is a '55 week' wonder week, after which babies have a much more refined sense of cause and effect.

Wonder weeks are mental growth spurts that all babies allegedly go through over the course of the first year.  This idea comes from some Dutch researchers, Frans Plooij and Hetty van de Rijt who set out their theory in the book The Wonder Weeks.

What is so useful for parents about the wonder weeks concept is the idea that when the mental growth spurt happens, most babies go through a period of being inexplicably cranky.  They are easily upset.  They sleep poorly.  And some of the 'weeks' go on much longer than a week.  Knowing this clingy, cranky behaviour can be normal and will soon pass can really help you be patient with your baby during these trying periods.

You can look up more detail about when the wonder weeks are supposed to occur and what is developing on the Wonder Weeks website.  If you want a quick, useful reference for where your baby is at, there is an iPhone app about wonder weeks.


Some people speculate there is no such thing as teething, although most parents will swear there is.  Once the period of colic ends, unexplained fussiness and whinging gets labelled 'teething' whether there's any teeth in sight or not.  All babies seem to go through a very 'mouthy', dribbly period regardless of whether teeth appear then or much later.  My baby was particularly clingy and whingy as her first teeth were coming through (6-9 months), but whether that was due to the teeth, to separation anxiety, or something else, I have no idea.  Perhaps some teeth hurt and others don't.  Perhaps it varies between babies.  My baby has been getting her first molar this last week, and apart from being a bit more distressed when she woke at night, there were no behavioural changes that I noticed at all - and as mentioned above it was apparently also the right timing for a wonder week, so who knows?  I've tried a few things for teething, such as toys for mouthing and Bonjela, but didn't notice her take to them.  I didn't try an amber necklace and the pain hasn't been noticeably bad enough that I would give her Panadol.

That said, some babies seem to get quite marked symptoms like a rash or diarrhoea when a tooth is coming through.  Sometimes teething seems to really cause a lot of pain - other times it is just a bit annoying, so that your baby can be distracted, but when he gets tired and things go quiet he gets really upset.

Sleep Regressions

Babies often sleep better, then worse again, then better, then worse.  Sometimes this is explained as having a 'sleep regression'.  There is talk particularly of sleep regressions at 4 months and 9 months.  This may, however, just be caused by wonder weeks.  See this discussion.

Breastfed babies often start all-night feeding binges round 4-6 months because they are so much more alert that they are too distracted to feed enough during the day.


It is not a novel idea that some babies react poorly to some foods.  We are all on the lookout for major reactions the first time we offer foods like nuts, eggs, shellfish, dairy, gluten etc.  Babies with reflux can become worse with foods that are too runny, or if they don't get enough of a chance to burp upright.

But an intolerance to foods or food additives can also be more subtle and ongoing.  I only really looked into this when I thought Bethany had a mild rash in response to grapes sprayed with sulfur dioxide.  I found this website on the FAILSAFE method really useful for understanding what food additives there are, how to watch out for them / avoid them, and how to do an elimination diet to try and identify whether any of the additives are having an effect.

There are also culprits like caffeine to watch out for.  You probably aren't giving your baby coffee or chocolate, but if you are breastfeeding, it can go through your breastmilk.

Contrary to popular belief, there seems to be increasing evidence that sugar is not responsible for making kids hyper.  Our perception that it does may be in part a placebo effect, both on the parents (who perceive their child's normal exuberance as sugar related) and kids (who learn that hyperactivity is expected of them after sugar).  But it also may be to do with all the other things that normally come along with sugar - such as excessive amount of articificial colourings and flavourings, and caffeine.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks GNP. I have this book and have found it very helpful as we approach the 19 week leap. Flo will be all smiles then burst into tears for no apparent reason ... which is associated behaviour with this leap! Phew. It helps to get a bit of a heads up, provided you don't then project the behaviour onto your baby :) Natalie.