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All infants cry. Crying is an infant’s primary form of communicating with you. Through crying, infants are learning how to get their needs met. Each time you are responsive to your infant’s cries and needs, showing them love and care, they feel understood and learn about the two-way nature of communication.
When an infant is crying, it is natural to think there is something wrong. Sometimes, despite your best efforts to respond to your infant’s needs, their crying may continue. This can be difficult. It is common to feel strong emotions when hearing an infant cry. Parents and those in a parenting role often describe feelings of exhaustion, worry, overwhelm, frustration, and anger when their attempts to respond to and soothe their infant aren’t working. Rest assured, these feelings are normal.
Managing your feelings in healthy ways when your infant cries is essential. Finding healthy ways to calm yourself models how to manage big feelings for your infant. Your infant can sense when you are upset and when you are calm. Your infant is learning about their world through their relationship with you.1 When you manage your feelings in healthy ways you are building trust between you and your infant. You are also providing foundational experiences that allow your infant to learn to predict how you will respond, and this has a calming effect on your infant’s brain.
Research shows that developing a safe, stable, nurturing relationship is essential to your infant’s healthy development and wellbeing. Strong, supportive, safe relationships help grow your infant’s brain, support resilience, and create the conditions for future success. Building a healthy parent-child relationship reinforces your infant’s ability to safely explore, learn, and grow.
Developing a plan to keep your infant safe when you become overwhelmed and frustrated and talking to others about what to do if they become overwhelmed and frustrated when caring for your crying infant are important steps you can take to grow a healthy parent-child relationship and provide safety and stability for your infant. This document provides guidance to help you develop a plan for staying calm when your infant cries and guidance about how to ensure others who help care for your infant also have a plan.
Crying – A Normal Part of Development
Crying is a normal part of an infant’s development. Crying gets your attention and is the primary way your infant communicates with you. In fact, infants cry for two to three hours every day. Infants cry for many reasons. Infants cry when they are hungry, tired, have a wet diaper, etc. Research also suggests that infants cry even when there is nothing wrong.2
Beginning at about two weeks of age and continuing until about 3-4 months of age, all infants go through a period of time where they cry even when all of their needs are met.2 During these bouts of crying, your attempts to soothe them (e.g., feed them, change their diaper, cuddle, swaddle, sing, rock, or walk around with them) don’t seem to work. While this is a normal part of an infant’s development, this can be challenging for parents and those in a parenting role. This period of an infant’s development is called the Period of PURPLE Crying.3
The phrase “Period of PURPLE Crying” is used to describe this normal time in an infant’s development. The word “period” reminds parents and others that this phase in an infant’s development is temporary.2 This phase of increased crying won’t last long. The acronym PURPLE refers to six common characteristics of an infant’s crying during this time.3
- P stands for – Peak of crying. Your baby may cry more each week, the most in month 2, then less in months 3-5.
- U stands for – Unexpected. Crying can come and go, and you don’t know why.
- R stands for – Resists soothing. Your baby may not stop crying no matter what you try.
- P stands for – Pain-like face. A crying baby may look like they are in pain, even when they are not.
- L stands for – Long lasting. Crying can last as much as 5 hours a day, or more.
- E stands for – Evening. Your baby may cry more in the late afternoon and evening.3
The Period of PURPLE Crying is “a pattern of crying and characteristics of crying that all infants have.”2 The Period of PURPLE Crying is normal and a phase through which all infants go. However, sometimes your infant’s crying may be a sign that something more serious is going on, especially if your infant also has a fever, is vomiting, or has diarrhea, etc. In these situations, it is important to talk to your infant’s healthcare provider and/or seek medical attention for your infant. Your infant’s healthcare provider can check your infant’s health, rule out or treat any medical problems, and offer additional ideas to help soothe your infant.
Developing a Plan for Staying Calm
Developing a plan for staying calm, especially when your infant has been crying for an extended period, is an intentional step you can take to keep your infant safe and maintain a healthy parent-child relationship. It is important to create a plan for staying calm in advance, so that you are prepared when you need it most.
A plan for staying calm will help you practice self-management skills. A plan for staying calm includes
- making a list of responses to help soothe your infant;
- recognizing your own signs of exhaustion, overwhelm, frustration, and anger;
- identifying activities that help you stay calm;
- designating a space you can go that feels comfortable;
- creating a list of people to reach out to for support; and
- sharing your plan with others.
Make a List of Responses to Help Soothe Your Infant
Infants come to better understand themselves through their interactions with you and other caregivers. Infants are in the process of learning their strengths and limitations, why they feel the way they do, and how they relate to others. When you respond to your infant’s cries and help them practice self-soothing, your infant develops a sense of safety, security, and a belief in self. Your infant learns that you can help them get through challenges.
Make a list of responses that you can take to help soothe your infant when they are crying. Consider including common responses4 like
- feeding your infant,
- burping your infant,
- changing your infant’s diaper,
- cuddling your infant,
- swaddling your infant,
- singing or humming a song to your infant,
- rocking your infant,
- giving your infant a gentle massage,
- walking around with your infant,
- turning on white noise (like a vacuum cleaner or sound machine) that produces a neutral sound, and
- securing your infant in their rear-facing car seat in the back seat of the vehicle and taking them for a ride.4
Then, during bouts of crying, you can use the list of responses to help soothe your infant. Remember, if a response doesn’t seem to help, that’s okay. Your list includes many responses, so test another response and see if it helps to soothe. Note which responses tend to comfort your infant to refer to the next time your infant cries. When trying different responses to soothe your infant, talk to them in a calm voice and be physically gentle and caring with your infant. Make eye contact and use a caring facial expression. You could say, “I can see that you are really upset. I wonder what I can do to help you. I will try [response] and see if that helps.”
If you start to feel overwhelmed, frustrated, or angry from your infant’s crying, it is appropriate to put your infant in their crib or a safe place like their infant rocker and leave the room to calm down. Research shows that leaving an infant to cry for short periods of time does not have an adverse impact on your ability to develop a healthy relationship with your infant or negatively impact their behavioral development.5 A space away from your infant for a short period of time can give you an opportunity to refocus and reflect.
In the moment, when your infant is crying, it can be difficult to remember all of the different responses you can try. Having a list of responses you can use to help soothe your infant can ease the stress during this difficult time.
Recognize Your Signs of Exhaustion, Overwhelm, Frustration, and Anger
It is important to recognize when you are feeling exhausted, overwhelmed, frustrated, or angry. This self-awareness can come from several cues. Take note of physical symptoms when they happen. Does your heart pound? Do you feel hot? Do you grit your teeth? Ask important others in your life about signs they notice when you get exhausted, overwhelmed, frustrated, or angry. Take note of what they describe. These signs can cue you into the need to calm down before choosing your next words or actions.
Ask yourself questions like:
- “How do I know when I am exhausted? Overwhelmed? Frustrated? Angry?”
- “What clues does my body give me that I am exhausted? Overwhelmed? Frustrated? Angry?”
- “What does my exhaustion, overwhelm, frustration, and anger feel like and sound like?”
Create a list that identifies your signs of exhaustion, overwhelm, frustration, and anger.
Remember, these feelings are not bad or negative. In fact, every feeling is a vital message from yourself quickly interpreting what’s happening around you. Research suggests listening to an infant cry activates specific areas of the brain that make you more alert. This helps explain why it is difficult to ignore a crying infant and why it can be so frustrating when you cannot quiet their cries. However, because feelings are merely an instant interpretation, there are always opportunities to reinterpret your circumstances and particularly your response to your feelings.
“Keeping your emotions in check – staying calm – is important for your own sake, but also for your baby. It is harder to calm your baby when you are upset. When you can soothe your crying baby without adding your own distress to the mix, the baby gets the message that you are confident, collected, and can ride out the storm right there with them. Your calmness is reassuring, in fact it can be contagious, and is far more helpful to a crying baby than the alternative.”3
Identify Activities That Help You Stay Calm
Next, think about activities that help you calm down or stay calm when you feel exhausted, overwhelmed, frustrated, or angry. Does music help? Does reading a favorite book help? Do you like to draw or journal? Do you enjoy exercise? Many different activities can help depending on what feels right. However, it can be difficult to recall what activities will help when you are exhausted, overwhelmed, frustrated, or angry. Brainstorm a list of activities that help you stay calm.
Here are some suggested activities to consider adding to your list.
- Breathe. Deep breathing is more than just a nice thing to do. It removes the chemical that has flowed over your brain when you are overwhelmed, frustrated, or angry. Breathing allows your body to regain its composure. Practicing deep breathing is a powerful tool to use anytime and anywhere you feel overcome with heated emotions. Try breathing deeply through your nose while constricting your throat slightly producing a sound like the waves of the sea. Not only will the sound help calm you, but it will also emphasize and call attention to your breath.
- Move your body. Exercise helps reduce stress hormones caused by overwhelm, frustration, and anger. Stretch, do yoga, or take a walk outside with your infant. The fresh air helps you breathe better, and the natural surroundings are instantly calming. A walk outside can be helpful for your infant as well. Push them in a stroller or hold them in a carrier. The movement can feel calming to your infant.
- Distract yourself. Listen to calming music, use a calming app on your phone, make a cup of tea, read a book, or write in a journal. Writing your frustrations down on paper can offer you a chance to re-evaluate your situation. Seeing your thoughts on paper (instead of just in your head) can help you reframe your thoughts, look at them from another perspective, or search for the silver lining. When you reflect on what you can learn from the situation in your writing, it has a calming effect. You might ask yourself, “What next step can I take to make things better?”
Designate a Break Space
When you feel exhausted, overwhelmed, frustrated, or angry by your crying infant, it is okay to put your crying infant safely in their crib or a safe place like their infant rocker and leave the room to calm down. Maybe you have a favorite chair or a favorite room in your home. Maybe sitting on your deck feels calming. If you aren’t going to be in the same room as your infant, remember to take the baby monitor with you. If you don’t have a baby monitor, designate a space where you can go within hearing distance of your child. A space away from your infant for a short period of time can give you an opportunity to refocus, regroup, and reflect.
Create a List of People to Reach Out to for Support
Everyone needs support. Ask yourself, “Who will I call if I feel exhausted, overwhelmed, frustrated, or angry?” Create a list of supportive people and add their phone numbers beside their names so you can reach out to them easily when your infant is crying. Talking with a supportive person can be calming and help you gain a new perspective.
Share Your Plan With Others
Once you have created a plan for staying calm, share it with your family and friends so that they understand your plan, will recognize it when they see it, and can learn from it as well. Sharing your plan with the supportive people you’ve listed on your plan, helps them be prepared.
When all is calm, have a conversation with them and talk about your plan to reach out to them if needed. You could also offer suggestions about ways they could help you in the moment when you call.
- “If I call you when I am upset, I would appreciate it if you would be a listening ear and then remind me that this will pass.”
- “If I call you when I am feeling overwhelmed, would you be willing to come over and help me?”
- “If I call you when I am angry, please remind me that it is okay to put my baby in his crib where he is safe and then take some time for myself to calm down.”
How to Ask Others
As a parent or someone in a parenting role, you know how upsetting it can be when your infant cries for a long period of time and your attempts to soothe your infant aren’t working. When your infant is being cared for by others, they may also have these frustrated feelings. Others who are caring for your infant will need to know what actions are acceptable when they are caring for your crying infant. Can they put your crying infant in their crib and leave the room? For how long? What other responses should they try? What actions are unacceptable? When should they call you? What if they try to call you, and you don’t answer the phone? Who else should they call?
Asking others who are caring for your infant to develop a plan if they become exhausted, overwhelmed, frustrated, or angry when caring for your crying infant provides opportunities for important conversations about what actions are acceptable and unacceptable when caring for your crying infant and can keep your infant safe. A plan can reduce the possibility that another person would express anger and frustration in ways that would hurt your infant such as shaking them. Research suggests excessive and inconsolable infant crying is the most common trigger for shaking an infant.1,3,6,7
Shaken Baby Syndrome/Abusive Head Trauma
Shaken Baby Syndrome/Abusive Head Trauma (SBS/AHT) is a form of child abuse that has devastating and long-term consequences.7 SBS/AHT happens when an infant is violently shaken.3 Shaking an infant “makes the fragile brain bounce back and forth inside the skull and causes bruising, swelling, and bleeding, which can lead to permanent, severe brain damage or death.” 8 Permanent brain damage can occur within a few seconds of shaking an infant.9 The consequences of shaking an infant can lead to lifelong disabilities including learning disabilities, physical disabilities, visual disabilities, hearing impairment, speech disabilities, cerebral palsy, seizures, behavior disorders, and cognitive impairment.3
SBS/AHT is a non-accidental traumatic injury and is “not caused by bouncing a baby on your knee, tossing a baby in the air, jogging or bicycling with your baby, falls off a couch or other furniture, or sudden stops in a car or driving over bumps. Although the activities listed above can be dangerous and are not recommended, they will likely not cause SBS/AHT injuries.”3
There are many factors that put infants at greater risk of SBS/AHT including
- being less than one year old;
- being male;
- crying frequently and requiring more attention;
- having a difficult temperament;
- being premature;
- having special health care needs; and
- suffering from drug, alcohol, or nicotine exposure.6
It is difficult to predict who will shake an infant and who won’t when overwhelmed, frustrated, or angered by a crying infant.10 However, research suggests that shaking an infant is more likely to occur among “males, especially biological fathers, mothers’ boyfriends, and stepfathers,” but other perpetrators also include “biological mothers, live-in boyfriends, babysitters and other non-relative caregivers, stepparents, grandparents, and other relatives.”6 Other risk factors that may make it more likely for someone to forcefully shake an infant include having unrealistic expectations of an infant’s capability, domestic violence, stress, difficulty with impulse control, substance misuse, and being younger in age.6,11
For more information on SBS/AHT visit the National Center on Shaken Baby Syndrome at: dontshake.org.
To report a possible case of child abuse or neglect, call toll-free: 1 (866) 820-5437.
Shaking an infant is never acceptable and is 100% preventable. As a parent or someone in a parenting role, you can take important actions to keep your infant safe.
Tips to Help You Ask Others to Develop a Plan for Staying Calm
Asking others who are caring for your infant to develop a plan if they become exhausted, overwhelmed, frustrated, or angry when caring for your crying infant can keep your infant safe and provide peace of mind when you are not with your infant. Here are tips to help you ask others to develop a plan for staying calm.
- Make sure there is enough time available to have a conversation where you don’t feel rushed or distracted.
- Start the conversation by connecting. Focus on the relationship before the content.
- “I really appreciate you caring for my baby when I am away. It puts my mind at ease to leave my baby with someone I trust.”
- “You are an important person in my baby’s life, and I am thankful you are able to spend time with him.”
- Describe the purpose for the conversation.
- “I’d like to talk with you about what I have been learning about infant crying and keeping infants safe.”
- “I just created a plan for keeping my baby safe when I feel frustrated from her crying and I wondered if I could talk to you about creating a plan too?”
- Talk about what you have been learning about infant development and crying as a part of their normal development.
- “I have been doing some reading about infant development and learning about how crying is my baby’s way of communicating with me.”
- “I learned that despite all of my attempts to soothe my baby, sometimes she cries for no reason. I am learning that this is a normal phase of development that all infants go through. It feels reassuring that I am not doing something wrong.”
- “I have been learning about the Period of PURPLE Crying, it is a phase that all infants go through where they will cry, even when all of their needs are met.”
- Discuss relevant information about your infant and connect your infant’s behavior to what you have been learning.
- “Sally is right at the age that infants go through this phase of crying called the Period of PURPLE Crying. She generally cries in the late afternoon and evening and even though I try everything I can to soothe her, she still cries.”
- “John is 2 months old and I have noticed that it doesn’t matter what I try, he continues to cry. It mostly occurs in the late afternoon. I am learning this is completely normal in his development, but it is challenging.”
- Talk about how you are being proactive by creating a plan to stay calm when your infant cries and share the plan that you have developed.
- “It can be frustrating when my baby cries and nothing I do seems to help. I want to do everything I can to keep my baby safe during these times, so I have created a plan for staying calm when I feel frustrated by her crying. It’s a simple plan that I can have ready in the moment. Here is what my plan looks like (share your plan).”
- Ask the other person if they have a plan for staying calm or if they would be willing to create one. If they say they already have a plan, get curious and ask if they would be willing to share it with you. “That’s great. Would you be willing to share it with me?” If they haven’t developed a plan for staying calm, offer to help them develop a plan of their own. Sharing your plan is a great way to get them started.
- If you are planning to leave your infant with another person and they haven’t developed a plan for staying calm yet, offer a plan for the time they will be with your infant. “If you get frustrated because of Sally’s crying, would you be willing to put her in her crib, walk to the living room, and give me a call?”
- Ask for a commitment to follow this plan. “I know how upsetting it can be to hear an infant crying. I would want you to leave them safely in their crib and call me. Would you be willing to follow this plan while I am gone?”
- Reassure them that this is the plan of action you would want them to take and that your infant’s crying is not their fault. “I won’t be upset if you put my baby safely in her crib when she is crying, walk to the living room and call me. I want you to call me.”
Sometimes, despite your best efforts to respond to your infant’s needs, comfort them, and calm them, they may continue to cry. This can be difficult and lead to feelings of exhaustion, overwhelm, frustration, and anger. These feelings are normal. Managing these feelings in healthy ways is essential to growing a healthy parent-child relationship and providing safety and stability for your infant. Developing a plan for staying calm and asking others to develop a plan when caring for your crying infant can keep your infant safe.