If your baby is crying inconsolably for long periods of time and it gets worse from week to week, it is reasonable to ask whether something must be wrong. It is counterintuitive to say that everything is all right.
This is where scientific studies of infant crying come in. A single parent with their single child cannot possibly know whether there are other infants out there who are crying like theirs is—and especially whether those other infants are all right. But there have been years of studies on early increased crying in infants, and they have confirmed some important things about this crying.
In the Features of Crying section we go through each of the six features of crying and talk about the studies that together show that this crying is a part of being a normal baby in the first few months of life. For those who wish to read a little more in depth, one place is in a review article from the on-line Encyclopedia of the Center of Excellence for Early Child Development that is easily available and downloadable here.
"Everybody said I was too young to be a good mother.
I am certainly not going to tell anyone that every night, night after night, my baby cries.
Even when the doctor asked me how the baby was doing I said, just fine."
Here, we will describe some of the general reasons that are supported by those studies, as a way of thinking about the normality of these crying features.
One reason is that the peak pattern of increased crying has now been described in just about every study that is well enough designed to adequately describe early infant crying. Of course, there are variations from one study to another. In Britain, for example, babies tend to cry more in the first few weeks than in other countries, so the increase going into the second month is not as steep. That may be because more mothers in Britain let their babies “cry it out” rather than picking them up. But across a very wide range of care giving styles, crying tends to increase and decrease over the first few months.
A second reason is that the peak pattern is also present even in cultures in which parents do virtually everything that we know that is soothing. Perhaps the most detailed description of this is from the people known as the !Kung San hunter-gatherers of Botswana (in case you are interested, the ! in front of Kung represents a click sound in their language). The !Kung San carry their infants all the time, sleep side-by-side with them at night, feed them four times an hour on average, and respond to every fret and whimper within 10 seconds 90 percent of the time. Nevertheless, they have the same increase and decrease in crying pattern that has been described elsewhere in the world.
"The !Kung San carry their infants all the time, sleep side-by-side with them at night, feed them four times an hour on average, and respond to every fret and whimper within 10 seconds 90 per cent of the time. Nevertheless, they have the same increase and decrease in crying pattern that has
been described elsewhere in the world."
A third reason is that there is now increasingly strong evidence that it is not only humans, but other species of animals (at least, breast-feeding animals) that also have a crying curve (usually called a distress curve). And, in addition, human infants who are otherwise well, but are born prematurely (before they are expected) have a crying curve that happens at the age they would have been if they had been born at the usual time. This suggests that this increased crying is an inborn characteristic, not something that is due to care giving differences after a baby is born.
Another important reason supporting the normality of early increased crying is that there is no increased risk of having an illness or a disease later in infants who have increased crying in the first three months. There is one exception to this general rule; namely, that if the crying is so frustrating that a care giver shakes or abuses the infant, then the infant will be compromised later. Learn more at the National Center on Shaken Baby Syndrome website.
"This suggests that this increased crying is an inborn characteristic,
not something that is due to care giving differences after a baby is born.
All of these observations together contribute to our understanding that this increased crying and its associated features are not due to diseases, poor parenting, or something wrong with the baby. As frustrating as the crying can be, this is good news for parents! To put it another way, babies who increase and decrease their crying, have prolonged crying times, and sometimes inconsolable crying times are acting like they should, or were designed, to act!