Crying is a normal behaviour and your baby’s way of communicating with you. Learn Tresillian’s tips on how to settle baby and what to do when baby won’t stop crying.
Your feelings about prolonged and inconsolable crying
Without a doubt, it is extremely difficult to care for a baby who has prolonged and inconsolable bouts of crying for three or more hours a day. It can also be isolating because you get tired and even getting out of the house for walks, shopping or seeing friends sometimes seems too hard. Sometimes, when baby won't stop crying, it can overwhelm you with negative thoughts and feelings. Here are some examples:
- Sadness and depression
- Unable to cope
- Constant pressure
- Feeling ‘over the edge’
- Feeling like ‘I’m losing control’
- Feeling angry or aggressive
- Sense of failure
- Powerlessness at being unable to help your baby
- Questioning your parenting abilities
This range of feelings are exhausting to cope with in themselves, so when you are sometimes feeling ‘over the edge’ when you’re trying to soothe your inconsolable baby, you may not always be able to respond in a loving way. This can affect your relationship with your baby. This is why you have such a confusing and draining combination of feelings. The following vignette illustrates how prolonged and inconsolable crying affects you and your baby.
Prolonged and inconsolable crying
At first, your baby was settled and only cried when he needed to be fed or changed. You were really enjoying him. At about three weeks, he started to cry a bit and was difficult to get to sleep, but you were okay with that. Then at six weeks, he started to cry and cry. You thought he must have had a pain somewhere, so you went to the doctor. They gave you paracetamol and reassurance that he was okay. But he didn’t settle and cried even more. There was nothing you could do. You carried him everywhere. You rocked, sang, breastfed and tried to massage him, but he did nothing but cry. Your partner couldn’t calm him either and was totally confused. He had to work but helped out as much as possible.
You went back to the doctor for a check-up because your mother-in-law thought he might have colic or reflux. The doctor gave him some medicine. You hoped that this was the answer – desperate, you would try absolutely anything. It didn’t work. Your baby still cried and cried.
You went back to the doctor and to the Child and Family Health nurse. They both suggested he had a cow’s milk allergy, so you removed all dairy foods from your diet. You desperately hoped that this would work, but he still cried and cried. You went back and they gave you reassurance. No one seemed to understand how desperate you were.
He cried in the morning and he cried from 3 pm to midnight, after which, in absolute exhaustion, you would both fall asleep together in a chair. Then it would start again the next day. You stayed at home with your baby because it was too hard to go out with friends – all he did was cry. Even though you loved your baby so much, you also resented him and felt angry. That made you feel guilty and ashamed. Sometimes, you felt so tired and defeated, you had to leave him to cry in his cot so you could have a break.
This wasn’t what you thought having a baby would be like. You dreamed of having a happy baby who would be fun. Instead, your baby just cried, and you couldn’t make him happy and content at all. Most days, you cried and felt sad. You felt like you’d failed as a mother.
Managing your emotional health
This vignette represents a fairly typical story of a family with a baby who cries inconsolably for a prolonged period during the first three months. It highlights your emotional struggle as well as your baby’s. Parents in this situation might become withdrawn, and feel isolated and disconnected from others.
When you are emotionally struggling, so is your baby. It’s important for you to feel well rested, calm and good about yourself. When you have a baby to care for, your emotional wellbeing is paramount. Accessing help and support from others is an important step towards feeling more confident as a parent.
Good emotional health helps you with:
- Feeling more positive about yourself
- Feeling more confident
- Increased self-esteem
- Better coping skills
- Better physical health
- Better problem-solving skills
- Better decision-making skills
- Feeling more sociable
When you feel good about yourself, it positively affects your relationship with your baby. It will especially help you, if you do have a baby who cries inconsolably for prolonged periods.
Too much stress - fight and flight hormones
In the normal scheme of things, your baby’s crying motivates you to pick him up, hold him close and soothe him. When your baby cries inconsolably for prolonged periods, however, you become exhausted and overwhelmed, and you just want him to stop crying. Sometimes, you have to put him down in his crib, still crying, just to have a break. This can be a confusing situation: you want to pick your baby up, but you also want to put him down.
When you’re experiencing high levels of distress, it’s harder to think about your baby’s distress from his point of view. You are too busy trying to cope with your own distress. This happens when you are overtired, exhausted and confused. You are less good at managing your emotions. If you can’t manage your emotions, you won’t be able to calm your baby.
Sometimes, when you are constantly attending to your crying baby, you can become exhausted, frazzled and anxious. During heightened levels of stress and exhaustion, your body activates its ‘fight–flight’ response, and you have an accompanying rush of stress hormones such as cortisol. These hormones increase your heart rate, blood pressure and energy supplies, preparing you to fight or run away. These hormones are useful when there is a real threat because, once the threat has passed, your body’s hormones return to normal, and your heart rate, blood pressure and blood-sugar levels also return to normal.
The problem with ongoing exhaustion, stress and anxiety, however, is the continual release of stress hormones. Your body doesn’t get a chance to return to normal. This causes many physical and emotional health problems.
If that’s happening, then it’s time to manage your stress. It’s time to take a break and use up some of the ‘fight–flight’ energy to make you feel better.
Let’s discuss some soothing strategies, which you can try for yourself, so you’re more available to respond to your baby how you usually would, and how he needs you to.
Things to remind yourself to help you cope
This type of crying is normal developmental crying, but it’s at the high end:
- The crying will stop eventually.
- You are not to blame for your baby’s crying.
- You are not doing anything wrong.
- Yes, you are having a really hard time.
Your baby is not crying because of:
- Birth order
- Being deliberately difficult
- Being spoiled.
The most important thing to remind yourself is that your baby crying is not your fault.
Parents with babies who cry inconsolably for prolonged periods have specific and important needs during this phase. Parents who have been through this experience say that the most important help they received includes:
- Having people who believed how difficult their situation was
- Getting positive emotional support from someone who listened carefully and understood what they needed
- Receiving ongoing positive practical help and support with their baby
- Having someone who helped them find professional support when they needed it
- Having someone who didn’t judge them and gave them constant positive reassurance that the crying would end.
It didn’t matter whether the help came from one or a few people, as long as the parents received this type of support. That person could be a friend, family member or health professional. There’s always someone out there who can give you the support you need. When you’re having a hard time, you deserve to be supported, listened to and helped. You need both practical and emotional support, even someone just holding your baby for a bit can be helpful, so you can take advantage of the break.
When you are feeling that your situation is more than you can manage, then professional help is always available from your Child and Family Health nurse, counsellor, social worker or psychologist. Make sure you see someone who has experience in working with parents and babies. You need some space where you can offload any pent-up feelings, no matter whether it’s sadness, guilt, anger or grief. There should be no judgements. This type of talking therapy can help you find some relief, so you and your baby can start enjoying each other again.
Take some calming breaths
When you’re really upset, you often take quick shallow breaths from the top of your chest. These sort of breaths don’t oxygenate your brain and body well. When practising calming breaths, it is important to focus on what you are doing when you breathe in and out.
Take a moment then some good clearing breaths to calm down and help focus your thoughts on your baby. Here’s how you do it:
- Close your eyes, lift your chin so your head is straight, straighten your back and make sure your chest can move freely.
- Place your hands in your lap and relax your shoulders.
- Focus on taking in a slow breath through your nose, while counting ‘one-and-two-and-three’.
- Gently breathe in so you can feel your breath lift your rib cage.
- Don’t breathe in too deeply or hold your breath – you don’t want to get dizzy.
- Then breathe out gently, counting ‘one-and-two-and-three’.
- Keep your eyes closed and focus on your breathing.
- Repeat this four or five times in a row then stop.
Do this breathing exercise when you feel yourself getting tense and anxious. Your baby needs you to stay calm, ready and able to be with him during these crying periods. One of you needs to remain calm most of the time.
Harness your fight–flight energy
You could try some of the following energetic activities:
- Take a quick vigorous walk.
- Go for a quick run.
- Do a round of stretching.
- Climb up and down some stairs a few times.
- Touch your toes or do some sit-ups.
- Do your favourite exercise.