Why Some Moms Might Have Fussier Babies

One of the first challenges every new parent faces begins the minute their child is born: answering the question why is my baby crying? Learning how to interpret a newborn's cries can be a steep enough learning curve when new parents are sleep-deprived, but new research has also connected a new mom's overall happiness to the amount of crying her baby does. New moms without good social support might have fussier babies, the study says. But that association might actually be a matter of perspective.

Infants have just one way to communicate, and that's through crying. Over the first few weeks of their baby's life, parents learn to interpret those tears as signals that say "I'm hungry!" or "My diaper is wet!" In the beginning it can take a little bit of guesswork, but since newborns only have so many needs (food, sleep, comfort) even if parents don't guess correctly the first time, the list of things to try is fairly short. Sometimes, however, parents encounter a situation that is frustrating and at times may even feel hopeless: they've fed, changed, and comforted their baby, yet they still cry. Sometimes for hours, unceasingly, and for no discernible reason. This is called colic — a word that has made parents for centuries shudder at the thought.

According to the Mayo Clinic, colic is a condition where an infant cries for three or more hours a day, at least three days a week, for three weeks or longer — seemingly for no apparent reason. The cause of colic has eluded parents and researchers for decades, and while there are plenty of theories, none of them have lead to a cure. "Colicky" babies are otherwise healthy, and while the periods of intense distress can be alarming for parents. The good news is, colic generally doesn't last more than a few weeks or a maybe a month or two. Although having a very fussy baby even for a day, let alone weeks, is enough to wear down even the most steel-nerved person.

That being said, researchers have been eager to figure out what causes colic so they can help parents alleviate it. Researchers at Penn State College of Medicine recently published a study that looked at more than 3,000 women, ages 18-35, who gave birth between 2009 and 2011. The new moms were asked about their stress levels, social support, and their new babies' crying behaviors.

11.6 percent of moms self-reported that their infants had colic — and what researchers found particularly interesting was that women who had the social support of a partner in parenting (not necessarily the baby's father) were less likely to report that their baby had colic. Researchers weren't sure exactly what to make of the association, however: did this mean that the babies of happier moms were less fussy, or that the moms didn't perceive the amount of crying their baby did to be unusual, overwhelming, or otherwise negative?

The reality of how much a baby is crying, and how receptive they are to interventions and comfort, could certainly be skewed by a mom's stress levels. If a parent is tired, frustrated, anxious, or insecure, they would likely interpret the baby's crying differently than a parent who was feeling calm, supported, and prepared.

The study's senior author, Kristen Kjerulff, professor of public health sciences, said “If you don’t have a partner you can still have lots of social support, lots of love and lots of happy relationships, and all of that’s going to be better for the baby. Love makes a difference.”

Chandran Alexander, assistant professor of pediatrics at Penn State College of Medicine, the study's first author, pointed out that while moms often shoulder the blame (and may feel guilty) for fussy babies, that's more about society and less about actual science:

Mothers’ significant others have a role to play in reducing the burden of colic. Society should avoid pinning the blame for colic on mothers’ competence, self-esteem or depression. We need to impress upon society the importance of supporting families in their care of newborns.

Amanda Mitchell, lead author of the study and researcher at the Institute for Behavioral Medicine Research at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, said in an email to Romper that they hope future studies will build on what they learned and also "consider behavioral pathways, such as sleep, diet, and exercise, as well as biological pathways, such as the neuroendocrine and immune system. A more comprehensive understanding of the driving factors linking financial stress with adverse birth outcomes will be important in developing effective clinical interventions.​"