A Fussy Baby | Is this colic or something else?

A fussy baby can unnerve even the most experienced parent.  Almost all infants have a time of the day when they are a little cranky, need more cuddle time, or some infants fuss and cry from 8pm to 10pm nightly and then sleep soundly until 3 am when they wake up, nurse, and then go back to sleep easily.  This can be very normal.  For a typical fussy baby, nothing needs to change.  Your infant will eventually mature and develop coping strategies for dealing with the discomforts of life and learn to calm herself.  But, as an infant she’ll need a parent to help her calm and console until she learns these behaviors.  However, some fussy infants are difficult to calm.  Therefore, some strategies are needed to help you and the baby cope with the fussy baby times.

A fussy baby — Cry it out?

At the beginning of life until about the age of 15 months, infants are in a “Trust versus Mistrust” stage of development according to Erikson’s Stages of Development Theory.  Infants cry to get our attention – it’s the only way they know how to communicate in the beginning.  If a caregiver responds to the cry by holding, rocking, talking to the baby, or by gently patting the infant’s back, the baby will learn to trust that the parent or caregiver will respond to a cry.  This helps an infant develop security and helps with bonding a trusting relationship with a parent or caregiver.

If a parent consistently “ignores” or doesn’t respond to a fussy baby cry, the infant will learn not to trust that person and then the fussy baby will not bother crying or communicating.  So, it’s always important to respond to an infant’s communication or cry.  Newborns and young infants can’t be “spoiled” by a parent responding to their communication – it solidifies your relationship into a trusting bond.

Fussy baby at the breast

 Sometimes a breast fed infant will have fussiness related to the way he nurses at the breast.  If your infant is not latching appropriately and is swallowing a lot of air while nursing, then he’ll have a lot of gassiness and spit ups related to an ineffective latch.  The solution to his gassiness is getting help from a lactation specialist to get a good latch and the gassiness goes away.   If your fussy baby comes off the breast frequently during the feeding, is coughing or gagging while nursing, or is making a smacking or loud suction noise while breast feeding, then getting help from a lactation specialist can make a huge difference in your infant’s comfort, sleep, and nutrition.

Sometimes a fussy baby will nurse and then stop the feeding earlier than usual.  If he’s distracted or if the smell and taste of the milk is different to him, then he may take just the foremilk and not stay at the breast long enough to drain the fatty hindmilk from the breast.  The foremilk has lots of water and lactose.  The hindmilk has a lot of fat and calories and balances off the foremilk.  If an infant doesn’t drain the breast well, then the foremilk in his tummy will make him gassy, fussy, colicky, and he’ll probably have a green-watery stool.   A fussy baby who “snacks” a lot or only drains foremilk from mom’s breast can have fussiness, loose green stools, gassiness, lots of spitting up and typically don’t sleep well between feedings.   The cure for this fussy baby is to make sure your infant stays at the first breast of the feeding until that breast is drained well.   Don’t worry about equal time on each breast.   The first breast is soup & salad and main course.  The second breast is dessert.  Just alternate between which breast you start the feeding on and both breasts will be stimulated equally by the end of the day.

A-fussy-babyWhat can make an infant stop feeding at the breast and only take the foremilk?  The smell and taste of your milk, and sometimes the color of your milk, will be similar to what you’ve eaten about 4-6 hours ago.  Sometimes an infant won’t like that garlic lasagna taste in your milk.  Does this mean you never eat garlic again?  NO!  Keep eating your typical diet.  The more you introduce your infant to the regular smells and tastes of your family’s diet, the easier the toddler “pickiness” stage will be and your infant will continue to nurse well once the flavor and smells become familiar.  When your toddler’s at the dinner table and gets lasagna on his plate, he’ll likely gobble it up because the smell and taste will be familiar.  So sometimes working through the fussy baby stage can help the fussy toddler stage!

Fussy infant after feedings

Whether an infant is breast fed or formula fed, consider the following when considering the cause of fussiness:

Some infants will have several days in a row with a quiet alert demeanor and then one day a totally different set of behaviors.  That one day, your sweet little baby girl is fussy and cranky–we all have “bad” days.  As long as she has no other symptoms, is eating well, calms with being held and rocked, then typically this is normal baby fussiness too.  Tomorrow’s another day!  But if she doesn’t calm, the fussiness is worrisome to you, or she has other symptoms, consider one of the above problems and call your baby’s healthcare provider for help.

What helps with normal infant fussiness?  Cuddling next to a parent can help an infant calm.  Skin to skin holding on a parent’s chest or wrapped up in a moby wrap can help.  “Wearing” your infant during the fussy time can help a lot–this mimics being back inside the uterus.  Using the moby wrap or a sling keeps your hands free, allowing you to continue with daily tasks, but also keeps your infant close to you and feeling secure and comforted. Using “white noise”, music, and motion (a swing or vibrating bouncy seat) can help some infants calm.  I’d recommend Dr. Harvey Karp’s advice in The Happiest Baby on the Block.

If your infant is vomiting, has a rash, blood in the stool or persistent green-watery stools, congestion, is urinating less than usual, has a fever, or cannot be calmed then a call and visit to your pediatric office is needed for guidance.  These symptoms can be something serious and sometimes these symptoms are an allergy or intolerance to something in mom’s diet (the most common problem food is cow’s milk protein).  See Allergy to Milk | Can that cause fussiness?  Most of the time a fussy baby is an infant just having a grumpy day.  Sometimes a fussy baby is the sign of a problem.


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    • Cindy
    • January 4, 2012

    I have been using a new product, Baby Roll Asleep for a while. I have a colicky baby who has a hard time falling asleep. Nothing I did, rocking, swings, car and stroller rides, would get him to fall asleep. I think this a really good product and maybe you could review it for other parents who have colicky babies. I know that it helped me a lot.

    1. Reply

      Thank you for the info Cindy. I’ll have to take a look at this one.

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