Why is my child cranky and fussy?
Nobody - adult or child, cries for no reason. Period.
Babies and toddlers cry for various reasons. The main underlying cause is typically a combination of unmet needs and a lack of ability to communicate those needs.
Crying/Crankiness is the primary mode of communication for younger children. A parent can start differentiating between different cries after a few months with the babies.
Reasons for crying
Coping with crying in infants
Coping with crying in toddlers and preschoolers
Managing your own emotions
Reasons for Crying
Some of the reasons why children cry are listed below: (Mind you this is not an exhaustive list and this cuts across infancy and toddlerhood)
- They are hungry - Hunger is the main reason why babies cry, especially newborns. This is because their tummies are very small. They don’t hold much and feel hungry often. This is especially so in the case of breastfed infants because breast milk is absorbed and digested better and faster because it’s nutrition is more bio-available. Bioavailability is the degree to which food nutrients are available for absorption and utilization in the body. Formula fed babies are able to go- between feeds longer as compared to breastfed infants. That being said, each baby is different. We recommend that you offer to feed the child in case of any crying episode. They will refuse if they are not hungry, no matter the age. This allows us to explore other reasons for their crying.
- They have colic symptoms - Some babies in early infancy cry for a couple of hours at a stretch typically in late afternoon or early evening. This is referred to as colic. The reasons for colic are unknown. Some studies attribute it to trapped gas or muscle spasms in the stomach. Colic is worst around the 6 week mark and generally passes by the time the baby is 3 - 4 months old. ColicAid (Simethicone drops - an anti-foaming agent that removes air bubbles) are often prescribed for colic. Evidence suggests that there is no scientific link between Simethicone and infant gas. The reason why Simethicone might work is because it’s sweet. Sugar has been known to calm down infants and has been used an analgesic. What might help the baby instead is probiotics. Multiple studies establish that probiotics control and prevent infant colic. A colicky child can be overwhelming to the new parent. Take a few minutes away from the child if you need to, before caring for the child.
- They are tired - Some babies cry because they are overtired and are unable to calm/soothe themselves to a state of calm. Their state of fatigue activates a stress response system. This fatigue is caused because of not getting adequate rest at the right time. When they are tired, the bodies produce adrenaline and cortisol that help them stay awake.
- They are over stimulated - Over stimulation happens, when a child is bombarded with more experiences, sensations, noise and activity than they can cope with. This typically leads to a lot of crying because they are unable to process all these new experiences. The best way to help over stimulated children is by providing them some quiet time and a familiar, calm environment.
- They are unwell or in physical pain - Infants, toddlers, preschoolers, and even adults cry/ feel cranky when they are unwell or in physical pain. If your child cries for an extended period of time without being able to identify a cause, they could be unwell. For infants and toddlers, crying is a way of communicating that they are unwell or in pain from an ear infection or fever. Please take them to a doctor to identify and rectify the issue.
- They are in discomfort - Children often exhibit crankiness and cry if they are uncomfortable. They could just be saying that they are feeling too hot, too cold, that they are wet and need a diaper change or even that they have an insect bite.
- They just want to be comforted and cuddled - Children cry to denote that they need comfort, some attention. Infants especially need all the cuddling, reassurance and physical contact. Touch facilitates brain development and cognitive development. So, when people say, don’t pick up your baby, you will spoil them, do not listen to them. Cuddle away.
- They are undergoing emotions that they cannot express because of limited language and vocabulary - This is primarily the case with toddlers and preschoolers. This is one of the primary causes of tantrums and meltdowns. This is because children’s social and emotional skills are only just starting to develop at this age. Children often do not have the words to express big emotions. They want more independence but fear being separated from you. And they are discovering that they can change the way the world works. So tantrums are one of the ways that young children express and manage feelings, and try to understand or change what’s going on around them.
- They are frustrated because of the lack of control and choice over their lives - Imagine not having a choice or control on what you eat, when you sleep, what you wear. You would be upset and frustrated right. This happens to toddlers and preschoolers too. This happens because they are just discovering independence and want to exercise it as often as possible and are unable to. This is another cause of major tantrums and meltdowns.
- They are stressed - You would think kids might not really know stress. But, kids can be stressed about myriad issues like separation, family fights, disturbances in routine or lack of affection. All of these release cortisol and adrenaline that create a stress response in the children.
- Growth spurts and regressions - Some people who have researched baby development and behaviour think that there may be predictable times during the first year of a baby's life when a baby may be more demanding (fussier) than usual, and other times when a baby may be calmer. The fussy times have been called the 'wonder weeks' by some writers, because it is during these more difficult weeks that babies are making big steps forward in their development. They posit that babies go through anxious, stressful phases before advancing into the next stage of development.
Coping mechanisms with infants
- Check if the child is well fed, not tired, and comfortable.
- Hold your baby close.
- Provide skin to skin contact, it calms the baby.
- Use an ergonomic baby carrier.
- Get some fresh air.
- Go for a walk.
- Swaddle the baby.
- Play soft music.
- Use a white noise app to calm the child.
- Go for a drive with your child in their car seat.
Coping mechanisms with toddlers and preschoolers
Toddlers cry for the same reasons as babies. But toddlers also cry as a way of dealing with new and difficult emotions like frustration, embarrassment or jealousy.
- Ensure that they are physically OK and are well-fed, not tired, and comfortable.
- If you feel your child is tired, some rest might help.
- They could also calm down with some quiet time listening to music or a story.
- If the crying happens at bedtime, setting a predictable night-time routine might help.
- If your child is angry or having a tantrum, remove them from the situation and move them to a safe place.
- If your child is frustrated, work out a solution together. Naming the emotion lets the child know that you understand their feelings. It also helps them learn self-regulation.
- If your child is just cranky, a change of scene like a walk outside, or some music and dance might help.
- Give your child a chance to calm down, then ask them what has made them so upset. Show that you are listening by repeating their feelings back to them.
- Offer your child some other options to deal with the situation.
- Make sure your child understands that it’s OK to cry.
How to manage your emotions
It is very hard to always be patient with your baby, especially if they cry a lot. You may find yourself feeling frustrated, angry, helpless and distressed. These feelings are real and cannot just be ignored.
- Remind yourself that your baby cannot control her crying and is not trying to get at you. They are not "spoilt" and attending to them will not spoil them.
- If there is someone nearby to help, give your baby to them while you take a break.
- If you are on your own, you may need to take a break when you feel angry feelings building up. Put your baby down in a safe place and walk away. Go outside perhaps, and take some deep breaths, phone someone or make a cup of tea. When you feel calmer, go back to your baby and try to settle her again.
- It is important to look after yourself when you have a young baby who depends on you. Take up offers of help and get some regular breaks when you can.
- If things are really getting you down so you are finding it hard to enjoy your baby at all, or you are often tearful or feeling depressed, it is important to talk it over with your doctor, a child health nurse or a counsellor.
Parenting is hard and being the primary care-giver of a young child or baby is one of the most taxing tasks that one can have. Dealing gently and respectfully with the crying and tantrums will let your baby know that you have their back always!