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Editorials for Clinical Practice

CHADIS Co-Director and President, Dr. Barbara Howard is a regular contributor to the Behavioral Consult column of Pediatric News and an Assistant Professor of Pediatrics at The Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.


Dr. Howard is a developmental-behavioral pediatrician trained by Dr. T. Berry Brazelton at Harvard University. She is a national speaker on child behavior problems and is a past president of the Society for Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics. She was a contributing author for Bright Futures™, Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for Primary Care (DSM-PC) and Bright Futures in Practice: Mental Health and has served on national committees of the American Academy of Pediatrics.

How to Help Crying Infants

Barbara Howard, MD

Babies evolved to cry to get their needs met and adults evolved to be aroused by the sound. Perfect match, right? But crying/fussing was rated the No. 1 hardest part of parenting for 0- to 3-year-olds in our data from more than 68,000 parents.


As clinicians, we become amazingly immune to the crying in our offices, but hopefully not to crying as a concern of parents. Our training directs us to look for pathology such as under- or overfeeding, infection, gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), volvulus, a hair tourniquet, or an injury as causes of crying. Having ruled these out, the bigger task is making sure that parents learn to read their infants’ crying and find ways to console them. Learning to handle crying can be tense, frustrating, and upsetting for parents, but success is ultimately satisfying and an important part of the reciprocal interaction that builds attachment for both parent and child.

“Developmental crying” is a great term for explaining crying in the first 3 months to families, as it is age-related. The acronym PURPLE was created to teach about this normal crying.

  • “P” is for peak of crying – babies may cry more each week, most in month 2, then less in months 3-5.

  • “U” is for unexpected – crying can come and go without explanation.

  • “R” is for resists soothing – babies may not stop crying no matter what is tried.

  • “P” is for pain-like face – babies appear to be in pain, even if they are not.

  • “L” is for long-lasting – crying can last 5 hours a day or more.

  • “E” is for evening – the baby might cry more in the late afternoon and evening.


The 1- to 2-week visit is a key time to teach parents about the expected upcoming crying and ways to manage it. I lean on the evidence-based steps for soothing, using the 5 S’s described by Harvey Karp, MD, based on the wisdom of T. Berry Brazelton, MD. These include:

  • Swaddling in a wrap that constrains arms and legs.

  • Side or stomach holding (but not for sleeping).

  • Shushing sounds of voice, radio static, fan, air conditioner, or car ride.

  • Swinging gently (point out to never shake a baby).

  • Sucking on a pacifier, finger, or hand.


Because babies change state slowly and also respond to high caregiver emotion such as anxiety, it is important for parents to take some deep breaths and give each “S” several minutes to have an effect.

Some of our patients will go beyond typical crying to colic, defined as crying for at least 3 hours per day, at least 3 days per week, starting before 3 months post-term. While typically easing by age 3 months, colic can in nightmare cases persist to age 1 year. Needless to say, prolonged crying can be an enormous stress for families. Researchers in the Fussy Baby Network consulting on infant crying have found value in a family prescription for REST: Reassurance, Empathy, Support, and Time away. Reassurance that the child is not ill should be provided after a careful history, including asking why parents think the baby is crying, and a physical exam, even if we think we can tell at a glance that the baby is okay. Remember that every parent’s first concern is whether the baby is okay, and crying indicates otherwise. Parents are counting on us for a thorough exam before we reassure them. Exhausted new parents deserve empathy – acknowledgment of how difficult, scary, and maddening it is to not be able to console their newborns.

While friends are saying “You must be so happy!” after a child is born, ambivalence (What have I done to my life?) is very common, but not easy to admit. We can point out that the typical age at which parents report “loving” their infants is actually more like 6 weeks, when they finally smile! To acknowledge ambivalence, I may say, “When you feel like throwing him out the window, it’s okay to lay him in the crib and put on headphones for a few minutes.” Music, meditation, yoga, or exercise are break activities that also can reduce parent stress.

Support for the parents is one of the most important protections for children at all ages, but can’t be assumed. Unfortunately, crying tends to increase beginning at 2 weeks post-term, right when the partner returns to work or relatives leave. It is important to ask, “Who is helping you with the baby?” Just having a partner doesn’t mean that person is taking a turn! Fathers may be afraid of holding a baby, or may have no experience and try to defer. We need to encourage fathers in all aspects of care but especially to “find at least one way to console your baby.” Sometimes mothers “rescue” dads too quickly. While mothers may have both more experience with infants and the magic of breastfeeding for consoling, depriving fathers of working through the struggle of managing crying can result in their developing less confidence in caregiving. It also can cause them to miss out on supporting the mother at this delicate time, a chance to profoundly strengthen the partnership.

Taking into account the importance for parents of finding ways to console crying babies, getting some “time away” can be helpful, especially if crying goes on for months. Maybe those friends who asked, “What can I do to help?” could come over for an hour in the evening (peak crying time) to hold the baby. This also can be a chance for parent time together, a newly rare commodity.

The first months can shape the parent-child relationship. This also is the time of both “baby blues” emotionality and the emergence of more serious postpartum depression (in males as well as females). Screening tools help but we also need to say, “This can be a difficult time. How are you feeling?” If stress is evident we can add, “How bad does it get?” We need to not be afraid to ask, “Do you ever feel like you might hurt your baby?” Remember, one-third of child abuse occurs in the first 6 months, primarily when adults can’t stand the crying. Our support, teaching, and referral can help parents and infants get safely through this period and build a trusting relationship with us, too.


Dr. Howard is an assistant professor of pediatrics at Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, and creator of CHADIS ( She reported no other relevant disclosures. Dr. Howard’s contribution to this publication was as a paid expert to MDedge News. Email her at


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