For soon-to-be moms, it's easy to imagine the dream: a baby who sleeps through the night, coos quietly when you rock them, and falls asleep in your arms listening to a lullaby. But new moms will tell you that's not always the case. Babies cry. And often, they cry the most during the first four months of age, which means that it's—well—normal to have a fussy baby.
But that doesn't mean it's easy. A new study published in Academic Pediatrics used data from 8,200 children and their mothers nine months after childbirth to determine a fussy baby's effect on a mom's mental health. Those with fussy babies born full-term were about twice as likely to say they have experienced moderate to severe symptoms of depression compared to moms whose full-term babies were calmer.
"Part of that is because of, perhaps, the expectation of what it's like to be a mom of a new baby," says Prachi Edlagan Shah, M.D., a developmental and behavioral pediatrician at the University of Michigan C.S. Mott Children's Hospital in Ann Arbor, and the study's lead author. She adds it could be some mothers are not counseled on how some babies can be more difficult to parent, so having a fussy baby can be shocking, and an unexpected transition to parenthood.
When you have a "difficult" baby, you have to work really hard and don't get a lot of positive feedback, adds Rebecca Parlakian, senior director of programs at Zero To Three, a non-profit that works to advance the healthy development of U.S. children.
This can attack a mother's sense of competence and confidence in her role—something that can contribute to symptoms of depression, Dr. Shah explains.
Interestingly, the study also found that mothers of babies who were born very pre-term had milder depressive symptoms. This could be because these moms spent more time in the hospital, got far more support, counseling, information, and referrals for early intervention and infant mental health, explains Dr. Shah. All of those can help transition a woman to motherhood (fussy baby or not).
It's also worth noting that one point the study couldn't answer was whether or not depression in women preceded fussiness. But the study suggests mothers who report experiences of having a fussy baby may benefit from additional screening for maternal depression.
Regardless, if you have a fussy baby, you're likely wondering (on top of what do I do?!), why your baby is fussy, to begin with.
There are a slew of different reasons. Sometimes, fussiness is genetic, says Dr. Shah, other times it comes down to a baby's temperament. Reflux and colic can both play a role, and so can a baby's environment, she says.
Fussiness can also simply indicate baby adjusting to life outside of the womb, explains Parlakian.
While that's going to vary depending on every mom and every baby, there are some universal tactics experts suggest employing.
Here are four of them that could help. And don't worry, these tips include putting yourself first, too—something that's hugely important in feeling better and helping baby to feel better.
If a baby is fussy, Dr. Shah says the first thing to check would be their safety. For example, if your baby is in physical pain, if they could be sick, and if they're hungry, or cold. All of these issues can lead a baby to cry and are important to check in on before moving onto other potential solutions.
"Calming yourself is really important," says Parlakian. Because newborns are born with no capacity to regulate their emotions, co-regulation (soothing themselves with your help) is key. But when you're stressed, upset, or frustrated, your voice might change, your arms might be tighter, and you might move in less rhythmic ways, she notes.
These cues can interrupt co-regulation, she explains, making it harder to soothe your baby. Deep breathing, mindfulness, a short walk, reconnecting to your own heartbeat can all help you reach a calmer state, which is key for your mental health and baby's levels of calmness.
Since babies experience the world through their senses, swaddling, talking in different soft voices, skin-to-skin contact, rhythmic walking, bright or dim lights, and other sensory stimulation can work to soothe your baby, says Dr. Shah.
Just remember: Every baby is different and every fussy baby is different so what works for one baby might not work for all.
"A lot of this is the dance of parenthood where one is learning about what the baby needs and what is particular to this individual," says Dr. Shah. "I think part of the job of parenthood is getting to know this brand new human being."
Over 60 percent of women in the Academic Pediatrics study had a baby who, at some point in time, had experienced fussiness. "So one of the first take-home messages is that having a fussy baby is a common experience many mothers have," says Dr. Shah.
If you're experiencing feelings of depression or sadness associated with a fussy baby, there are tons of resources out there that can help ease the transition, she notes. One is The Fussy Baby Network, a national organization that employs infant specialists who take calls from new moms and offers support groups.
If you're down, it's also always a good idea to touch base with your primary care doctor who can help you with next steps, which may involve everything from lifestyle changes to seeking therapy or medication.