When I was a bleary-eyed first-time mom, I visited a friend who’d recently had her second kid. While she poured drinks and set out food, her baby sat quietly in a Rock n’ Play, content to just kind of hang out. I was dumbfounded.
My first baby was, from the get-go, tough. If he wasn’t being held, he’d fuss, which meant he’d fidget, whine and eventually work himself into a fit. He had an impressive startle reflex, so whenever we tried to put him down we basically had to swaddle him to the point of mummification. He cried a lot, sometimes for hours on end. For his first four months or so, I was a bone-weary ball of nerves.
It’s difficult to describe what that kind of fussiness can do to your emotions and sense of competence to anyone who hasn’t been through it with their own baby (or, bless those poor parents, babies). I found that most people were kind but dismissive, and I often felt guilty for feeling unhappy, knowing how lucky I was to have a healthy kid. Even now, four years later, I find myself thinking, Was it really that bad?
Yes, it was. And experts are starting to take a more serious look at the toll that infant fussiness ― basically, babies who cry more than others, often when nothing is clearly wrong ― can have on parents’ mental health.
A study published in the journal Academic Pediatrics this month, which relied on data from more than 8,200 women and their babies at nine months postpartum, found that moms of fussy babies born full-term were roughly twice as likely to say they’d experienced moderate to severe depressive symptoms as moms who had relatively “easy” babies.
And moms of fussy babies who were born pre-term also reported more depressive symptoms than those with non-fussers, though to varying degrees. Moms with kids born very pre-term (between 24 and 31 weeks of gestation) had about twice the odds of having mild depressive symptoms compared to moms with easier babies, whereas parents of fussy babies born a bit later (between 32 and 36 weeks) had about twice the odds of experiencing moderate to severe depressive symptoms.
“It's difficult to describe what that kind of fussiness can do to your emotions and sense of competence to anyone who hasn't been through it with their own baby (or, bless those poor parents, babies).”
The study has a few big takeaways, according to its senior author, Dr. Prachi Shah, a developmental and behavioral pediatrician at U-M C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital in Ann Arbor, Michigan.
The first is that we need to take fussiness seriously — and that pediatricians and other health care providers should be actively looking out for parents of tough babies and be aware of the possible risks to their mental health. This isn’t even limited to colicky babies. Researchers simply asked respondents if their babies fussed, and moms answered “yes” or “no.”
“A mother who has a fussier, less-soothable infant can have lower self-confidence, feelings of lower efficacy, feeling more depressed and more stressed,” Shah said.
One of the most deflating parts of having a fussy baby is that there’s not necessarily a clear reason for it. Sometimes babies’ fussiness is a sign of an underlying medical issue, like a food sensitivity or reflux. But other times, it’s just an unexplainable phase — as was the case with my baby, who met the broad, unofficial criteria for colic (crying more than three hours a day, more than three days a week, for more than three weeks) — or it’s a personality trait. When you’re frantically trying and failing to calm a baby screaming in your arms, however, it is easy to feel like you are the problem.
The study also makes yet another argument for providing parents with more support in the postpartum period.
Shah suspects one reason parents of fussy babies who were born really early (between 24 and 31 weeks) were at risk of more mild symptoms of depression — whereas parents of fussy babies who were born a bit later were at greater risk of more severe depressive symptoms — could be because they saw providers more often, since they were in the hospital a lot.
If that’s true, it’s a pretty depressing indictment of our current postpartum care that being in the NICU day in and day out to watch over your baby is the only way to connect with some degree of mental health support.
For now, most parents of full-term fussy babies have a few places to turn.
“If a parent brings this issue to a pediatrician, I think it’s important to normalize it to a certain degree — to say many parents have infants who are fussy — but also to recognize that this is a challenge, and that we should not minimize it,” said Shah. There are supports available to parents of difficult babies, she added, such as the Chicago-based Fussy Baby Network, which offers free phone support to parents around the country.
It is only after having my second baby about 10 months ago that I realized how fundamentally different an experience it is to parent an easier baby. My younger son is still demanding of my time and affection; he is a crappy sleeper and he cries. But with few exceptions, those cries come only when he has a specific need, and once that need is met, he goes back to being a sweet, even-keeled little guy. It is so much easier. And I have felt so much more like myself.
“Asking about their babies’ temperament and fussiness,” Shah said, “should be an important part of our postnatal care.”