What is the "infant crying curve" and why should you care?

Orange County Postpartum Doula infant crying curve

Many new parents are happily surprised that their newborn doesn't cry for hours on end as their friends and family (and perhaps some well-meaning but misguided people in the grocery store) have led them to expect. But come weeks 3-8ish they may notice an uptick in their baby's crying.

If you find yourself in this position, you'll realize that it can be tempting to feel that you're doing something wrong. What if your baby isn't getting enough to eat? Could she be teething super duper early? Maybe something about you or your home is upsetting her?

In reality, your baby is probably doing exactly what she should be: making her way up and over "the crying curve."

The crying curve is a chart that graphs the amount infants cry over time, developed by Dr. Ronald Barr in 1990. Evidence shows that babies' crying increases during the first several weeks, peaks sometime in months 1-3, and then decreases again. This is a phenomenon that has been identified not only in humans, but other primates as well.

Says Dr. Barr:

The first feature that really frustrates parents is that the amount of crying that happens in a day tends to increase and increase in the first two (or sometimes three) months of life. Then it reaches its highest point, and begins to decrease. This is the basic peak pattern of crying in infants. However, although they all do it, there are lots of differences between one infant and another.

For example, some infants might have their “peak” at 3 weeks of age, while others have it at 8 weeks of age. For some infants, the amount of crying that infants do at the peak might be 1 hour a day; for others, the amount of crying might be 5 hours.
— Ronald G. Barr, MDCM, FRCP(C)

Peak crying between three weeks and 8 weeks, 1 hour a day or 5? That's a huge amount of variance!

As we often remind new parents, every baby is different. You need to get to know YOUR baby, and realize that her personality and patterns may not match that of any other baby you or your friends or family have ever known. On one hand, that's a lovely thought - your baby truly is unique! But when it comes to trying to figure out what's going on with her, sometimes that originality can make parents' jobs more difficult. That means that even though your friend swears by "the 5 S's," they just might not do the trick for you right now. And neither might any of your other Facebook friends' best tips for baby soothing.

Sometimes parents reach the end of their ropes during this "peak crying" season. Dr. Barr says there are two main reasons this can be so frustrating: "The first is that there is probably nothing more frustrating than the fact that it gets worse and worse (as crying does in the first couple of months) when there is nothing that you can do about it; even if it is normal! The second is that most parents do not know that this basic peak pattern will occur. If they knew ahead of time that it would get worse before it gets better, it would be easier to deal with even though it was not much fun while it was getting worse."

So... what's a parent to do?

We like to encourage new parents to consider enlisting HELPERS instead of VISITORS during those first few months of baby's life. You know those visits from well-meaning friends and relatives that seem to drag on and on, where someone sits on your couch holding your increasingly fussy baby while you're itching to take baby back for her next feeding or lay down with her for a nap? And you weren't expecting them to come and are wishing you were wearing more than the milk-stained robe you haven't taken off for a few days? And no amount of hinting about getting baby back from this lovely but misguided and possibly now a permanent fixture to your couch is getting you anywhere?

Ain't nobody got time for that.

Instead, we've put together some hints for parents to encourage the kind of environment needed in those early weeks when SUPPORT is desperately needed and ENTERTAINING is absolutely last on the list.

So... what does that have to do with you?

Well, if you're expecting a little one, it can be helpful to know that the amount of time it will take to soothe your baby will probably increase for a while before it evens out again. Knowing this ahead of time can help you line up support from your local friends and family throughout the first few months of your baby's life, rather than all at the very beginning. Although it may be tempting to invite (or accept self-invitations from) your loved ones to visit early on, try to resist! Instead, let them know that you have all the support you need for now and would like to focus on getting to know your little one... then call them in a few weeks when a break and someone to bring you food sounds like heaven! A two-month-old baby isn't much bigger than a brand new newborn... they will still get their chance to meet your little one while they're little!

Planning ahead for some extra help on your baby's 4th-10th weeks or so may be one of the kindest things you can do for yourself as a new parent. One of our doula mentors, Kimberly Bepler, encourages her clients to plan a little weekend away with the baby toward the end of the baby's second month to give themselves some rest and relaxation without the burden of keeping up with their home and normal routine. Doesn't that sound lovely? Of course it may not be feasible for everyone, but do what you can to ensure that your visitors and helpers won't evaporate before you really need them!

We've put together a list of ideas for enlisting help from your support network in the first few months:

  1. Put together a Meal Train. Meal Train is a website that allows your loved ones to sign up to bring you a meal. Have any acquaintances said, "Let me know if you need anything once you have the baby"? If so, STOP, write yourself a note, and add their email to your Meal Train list. Keeping track of these little offers of help really adds up! You'll thank yourself when you're several weeks postpartum and food keeps showing up on your doorstep.
     
  2. Let friends and family know you'll be staying in your "nest" for the first few weeks. If you want to encourage people to help you in the first 2-3 months, it can help to try preventing a swarm of visitors in the first couple weeks. That way, the people who are just dying to meet THE most adorable baby there has ever been will have plenty of motivation to come for a visit when you're ready for more support (and maybe they'll bring some food with them while they're at it). 

    Another effect of the crying curve is that if baby is harder to soothe, parents might feel more ready to pass their baby off to visitors for a while and take a break. Meaning... if visitors wait a while before coming to meet your baby, they may be rewarded with extra baby holding time!
     
  3. Hire a postpartum doula. Having someone at your fingertips who is well-versed in normal infant behavior can be a huge load off your shoulders. It can be overwhelming to pay attention to everything about a baby all at once and on a less-than-ideal amount of sleep. When you work with a postpartum doula, you can feel a sense of calm knowing that someone who is very familiar with babies (and new parents) will be spending some time with you and your family. 

    #UnpopularOpinion: We thing it's tooootally fine if the first baby you've ever held, fed, changed, or been around is your own! Learning to care for a baby takes time and practice, and a postpartum doula is a resource for tips and tricks, instructions, and hands-on help. In her time working with families as a postpartum doula, Marlee has spent countless hours showing parents how to trim baby nails, give baths, care for the umbilical stump, swaddle, and soothe babies... and so many other things new parents find they have questions about.

    Whether you want to work with a doula for several weeks or months, or just have a visit or two in those early weeks to ask some questions, seeking that support is invaluable. And if for some reason you aren't comfortable with the idea of working with a postpartum doula or your finances simply won't allow it, reach out to us! We're always happy to help find other community resources for postpartum support.
     
  4. Reach out. If you feel overwhelmed, undersupported, or just shocked by the experience of having a new baby and recovering from birth, we hear you. Don't keep those feelings to yourself. Whether you need a group of other new parents to share common struggles, a more experienced parent to act as a mentor (sometimes it's wonderful to hear that people get to the other side of the newborn days), or help from a therapist who specializes in the early parenting and postpartum experience, reach out. Isolation is almost never helpful for growing families (or, you know, human beings in general), but it can feel scary to reach out all on your own. If you're ever in need of help and don't know where to turn, you are always free to contact us and we'll do our best to help you find some local support for your needs.
     
  5. Remember: where babies are concerned, nearly everything is a phase. The good, the bad, and the ugly almost never last for long. You'll get through this!

Have you experienced this with your own children? Let us know what got you through the tough moments!