Healthy Kids | Find support if your baby is unsettled

Excessive crying or unsettled behaviour in the newborn period is often called ‘colic’. This term can be confusing as it can mean different things to different people. Regardless of what you call it, excessive crying is exhausting and stressful for parents. Whilst every baby is different and some will cry more than others, crying and fussing in the newborn period tends to follow a predictable pattern. It is often worse in the afternoon or evening. It is usually present between the ages of two weeks to four months and usually peaks around two months of age. 

Crying is your infant’s only way of communicating with his or her caregiver. It is how they tell us when they are hungry, tired, bored, too cold or need a nappy change. The crying which occurs during this newborn period, however, tends to be a little different. Some parents describe it like a switch going on or off. One minute their child seems happy and the next they can’t be settled, regardless of what settling techniques are employed. For most babies there is no medical reason identified as a cause of excessive crying. 

Uncommonly, gastro-oesophageal reflux disease (GORD) or an allergy to cow’s milk protein can worsen this crying behaviour. These illnesses will almost always be accompanied by other signs or symptoms of the disease, for example not gaining weight appropriately, excessive vomiting, abnormal bowel motions or skin changes. In rare instances, crying can signal an acute illness such as an infection, so if you are unsure it is always recommended you seek medical attention.

For the majority of babies no medical cause will be found and so medicines are usually unhelpful. Some will recommend non-prescription preparations such as gripe water or wind drops, however none of these preparations have proven benefit. So, what can be done? Whatever method of settling you try, babies are amazing at understanding their parent’s emotions and if you approach these crying periods in a calm manner your infant will pick up on it. Understand that you cannot spoil your baby too much by cuddling or feeding, and in some instances letting your baby suckle (either bottle or breast) might help them settle. Gentle rocking has been shown to reduce infant stress, but don’t confuse this with excessive rocking, jiggling or pacing which can be overstimulating and counter-productive. 

Above all else, it is most important to have support during this period. Support from family and friends as well as talking to a health professional such as your family doctor, paediatrician or maternal child health nurse. 

Useful web resources for additional information are: Purple Crying, Raising Children Network and ‘Kids Health Info’ RCH Melbourne

  • Dr Brooke Thompson is a Bowral paediatrician.