Some people believe that excessive infant crying and irritability are caused by anxious or moody parents. According to this idea, young babies cry because their parents transmit negative emotions to their infants.
Plausible? Sure. We’ve all noticed that distress is contagious, and numerous studies confirm this. But if parents can affect their children, it’s also true that children can affect their parents. Taking care of an upset, colicky, or irritable baby can be very stressful. It can also make you feel helpless, and feelings of helplessness can trigger depression.
Perhaps, then, babies and parents reinforce each other’s bad moods. Extremely irritable, fussy, or disconsolate babies make parents upset, and upset parents may behave in ways that make things worse.
This doesn’t mean that parenting has no bearing on the development of infant fussing and crying. But it’s wrong to assume that most cases of excessive infant crying or irritability have been caused by the behavior of a stressed-out parent.
Several studies suggest that some babies respond differently to stimulation, and the differences are noticeable right after birth. For more information, see my article about excessive, inconsolable infant crying and the brain.
It’s also clear that excessive, inconsolable crying can be a symptom of disease, and there’s evidence suggesting that infant irritability can trigger depression in mothers. So it seems very likely that crying is frequently the cause—not merely the effect—of parenting stress.
Here’s the evidence.
The argument goes like this: Due to inexperience, anxiety, or depression, some parents show more negative emotions to their babies. In addition, these parents might also show less engagement with their babies, particularly if they are depressed. As a result, infants are exposed to higher levels of stress and lower levels of emotional support…and they respond with excessive crying, fussing, or irritability.
This idea has some intuitive appeal, and it fits with the observation that — in many families — parents show signs of elevated anxiety, depression, or stress before they’ve been exposed to excessive infant crying.
For instance, a number of studies have found links between anxiety or depression experienced during pregnancy, and subsequent, parental reports of excessive infant crying (Ölmestig et al 2021; Petzoldt et al 2016; Petzoldt 2018).
In addition, self-reported prenatal stress has been linked with both infantile colic and negative emotionality in babies (e.g., Caparros-Gonzalez et al 2021; Martini et al 2017; Rautava et al 1993). And, in a postpartum study, researchers found that mothers who perceived more stress and less support from their partners at two weeks postpartum were more likely to report babies with colic at six weeks postpartum (Stifter et al 2003).
Yes, there are correlations, but they are far from overwhelming. For example, in a study tracking 1290 women from pregnancy through the first 8 weeks postpartum, researchers found that mothers who experienced anxiety symptoms were more likely to report excessive infant crying. But the majority of mothers who were struggling with infant crying problems didn’t have anxiety symptoms — not during pregnancy, and not in the 8 weeks after the birth of their infants (Ölmestig et al 2021).
There are other explanations. For example, maybe parents who are already distressed are less tolerant of crying. As a result, they are more likely to perceive crying as excessive, and report it.
In addition, we have to take genetics into consideration. We know that anxiety and depression can run in families. Maybe the same genes that put parents at higher risk for these conditions also put babies at higher risk for excessive crying.
Then there’s the question of prenatal “programming.” Prenatal adversity — in the form of toxic stress, anxiety, or depression — may have direct, adverse effects on the development of an infant’s regulatory system. If so, difficult pregnancies might predispose babies to experience excessive crying or irritability — regardless of their parents’ postpartum caregiving.
As noted above, some researchers have suggested that excessive infant crying is caused by caregivers who are anxious and insecure. If true, we’d expect first-borns to cry more than other babies. But research hasn’t supported this prediction. Studies of crying in young infants have reported that first-borns do not appear to cry more than latter borns (St James-Roberts 1996; St James-Roberts and Halil 1991; Alvarez and St James-Roberts 1996).
In a review of 25 published studies, Johanna Petzoldt failed to find any evidence that maternal depression increased an infant’s risk of experiencing excessive crying. But on the flip side, she uncovered evidence of a “robust association” between excessive infant crying and a mother’s subsequent development of depression (Petzoldt 2018).
In other words, the more common pattern is for mothers to become depressed after they are exposed to excessive, intense, inconsolable, infant crying. As Melanie Bales and her colleagues argue (2023), it’s likely that such “infant self-regulation difficulties” worsen the quality of family interactions, and this can make parents lose confidence in their abilities as caregivers — diminishing their emotional well-being.
A small study using infant audio recording devices tells the tale. Kaya Debaro and her colleagues monitored 54 babies at home, for more than one week. They noted episodes where babies started crying more than usual, and found that these episodes predicted shifts in maternal mood. Mothers reported an increase in depressive symptoms about 8 hours after the intense crying bouts (de Barbaro et al 2023).
The scientific evidence (and common sense) tells us that we need to take parents’ distress seriously. Postpartum depression — whatever the cause — is linked with poorer outcomes for everyone, infants included. And, as I note in my overview of colic, excessive, unsoothable crying can be a trigger for baby shaking, which can cause head trauma and brain damage. So if you’re dealing with the stress of an irritable, fussy, or colicky baby, take these recommendations to heart.
• Talk to your pediatrician. Make sure your baby is screened for medical problems.
• Don’t get socially isolated. The research is pretty clear on this point: Parents are more likely to get depressed when they lack social support (Agrawal et al 2022). In many Western countries, parents of young babies — especially mothers — spend long hours in isolation with their infants. Anthropologically speaking, that’s pretty odd. In most small-scale societies, mothers are virtually never left alone with their infants.
• Realize that negative feelings after childbirth are normal. Check out this evidence-based guide to postpartum stress.
• If you are feeling psychologically distressed, get help. As I explain elsewhere, treating postpartum depression helps parents and infants alike. Talk to your doctor, or check out these listings for help from Postpartum Support International.
• Even if your doctor can’t find any medical reasons for your baby’s excessive crying or irritability, don’t make the mistake of blaming yourself. There’s evidence that some babies are just different. Some young infants are much harder to soothe. Others may be born with a more irritable temperament, reacting negatively and intensely things that other babies don’t mind.
• Reject advice that assumes all babies are the same. It’s unlikely that the same tactic will have the same effect on all babies. As I note in my article about soothing stressed-out babies, you might need to take a very individualized approach.
• Remember that love helps, even if it seems like your baby isn’t paying attention. Studies confirm that affectionate touch — and responsive, sensitive, care — has a beneficial, protective effect on babies. For instance, prenatal anxiety puts children at risk for developing anxiety and depression later in life. But studies suggest that this risk is eliminated when children receive high levels of affectionate touch during early infancy (Sharp et al 2012; 2015).
• Be encouraged that — no matter how it might seem when your baby is crying — your baby responds to you as a special person. You make a difference. Check out the evidence that newborn babies recognize and prefer the company of their primary caregivers.
For more information about the contagious nature of stress, see my articles about family stress and the ability of infants to detect stress in others. In addition, my article “Stress in babies: How to keep infants calm, happy, and healthy” offers evidence-based tips for soothing your little one. For yourself, check out my Parenting Science article, “Parenting stress: 12 evidence-based tips for making life better.”
For more information about the power of responsive parenting, see this Parenting Science article.
Agrawal I, Mehendale AM, Malhotra R. 2022. Risk Factors of Postpartum Depression. Cureus. 14(10):e30898
Alvarez M, St James-Roberts I. 1996. Infant fussing and crying patterns in the first year in an urban community in Denmark. Acta Paediatr. 85(4):463-6.
Bales M, Pambrun E, Maguet C, van der Waerden J, Glangeaud-Freudenthal N, Charles MA, Bois C, Melchior M, Milgrom J, Falissard B, Verdoux H, Sutter-Dallay AL. 2023. Pathways between Risk/Protective Factors and Maternal Postnatal Depressive Symptoms: The ELFE Cohort. J Clin Med. 12(9):3204.
Caparros-Gonzalez RA, Torre-Luque A, Romero-Gonzalez B, Quesada-Soto JM, Alderdice F, Peralta-Ramírez MI. 2021. Stress During Pregnancy and the Development of Diseases in the offspring: A Systematic-Review and Meta-Analysis. Midwifery. 97:102939.
de Barbaro K, Micheletti M, Yao X, Khante P, Johnson M, Goodman S. 2023. Infant crying predicts real-time fluctuations in maternal mental health in ecologically valid home settings. Dev Psychol. 59(4):733-744.
Martini J, Petzoldt J, Knappe S, Garthus-Niegel S, Asselmann E, Wittchen HU. 2017. Infant, maternal, and familial predictors and correlates of regulatory problems in early infancy: The differential role of infant temperament and maternal anxiety and depression. Early Hum Dev. 115:23-31.
Maxted AE, Dickstein S, Miller-Loncar C, High P, Spritz B, Liu J, and Lester BM. 2005. Infant colic and maternal depression. Infant Mental Health Journal 26: 56-68.
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Ölmestig TK, Siersma V, Birkmose AR, Kragstrup J, Ertmann RK. 2021. Infant crying problems related to maternal depressive and anxiety symptoms during pregnancy: a prospective cohort study. BMC Pregnancy Childbirth. 21(1):777.
Petzoldt J. 2018. Systematic review on maternal depression versus anxiety in relation to excessive infant crying: it is all about the timing. Arch Womens Ment Health. 21(1):15-30.
Petzoldt J, Wittchen HU, Einsle F, Martini J. 2016. Maternal anxiety versus depressive disorders: specific relations to infants’ crying, feeding and sleeping problems. Child Care Health Dev. 2016 42:231–45.
Rautava P, Helenius H, Lehtonen L. 1993. Psychosocial predisposing factors for infantile colic. BMJ 307:600-604
Sharp H, Hill J, Hellier J, NS Pickles A. 2015. Maternal antenatal anxiety, postnatal stroking and emotional problems in children: outcomes predicted from pre- and postnatal programming hypotheses. Psychol Med. 28:1-15.
Sharp H, Pickles A, Meaney M, Marshall K, Tibu F, and Hill J. 2012. Frequency of Infant Stroking Reported by Mothers Moderates the Effect of Prenatal Depression on Infant Behavioural and Physiological Outcomes. PLoS ONE 7(10): e45446.
St James-Roberts I and Halil T. 1991. Infant Crying Patterns in the First Year: Normal Community and Clinical Findings Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry 32(6): 951 – 968.
St James-Roberts I and Plewis I. 1996. Individual differences, daily fluctuations, and developmental changes in amounts of infant waking, fussing, crying, feeding, and sleeping. Child Dev. 67(5):2527-40.
St James-Roberts I and Menon-Johansson P. 1999.Predicting infant crying from fetal movement data: an exploratory study. Early Hum Dev. 54(1):55-62
Stifter CA, Bono M, and Spinrad T. 2003. Parent characteristics and conceptualizations associated with the emergence of infant colic. Journal of Reproductive and Infant Psychology 21(4): 309–322.
Content last modified 10/2023
Portions of the text derive from a previous version of this article, written by the same author
image of mother holding crying baby on lap by morrowlight / shutterstock
image of tired, calm father holding screaming infant by Jo Tunney / shutterstock
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