When human babies are born, they have the most immature brain and nervous system of all mammalian species. Our babies are unable to cling or hang on to their mothers to meet their need to be safe and connected to another, they rely on their caregiver to bring them to the source of food, they have very limited and disorganised movement and rely on others to help them calm and regulate their emotional responses to stress etc. This is all to do with the limited neural pathways in our babies brains and nervous system from birth and into the first couple of weeks of life outside the womb. These babies spend most of their 24hr day feeding, gaining sensory nourishment from their mother and sleeping a lot. They tend to not be too interested in much else.
Then something happens to this quietly sleeping and feeding baby (I now there are many feeding issues that can occur in the early weeks, that's for another blog). To follow is a cascade of parental emotions like stress, self doubt about the ability to parent, worry, anxiety, confusion, information overload and down right exhaustion. Many parents reach out to me at this time, rightly questioning what's happening to their baby. Parents are generally confused by their baby's behaviour and they are looking for strategies to help them and their baby deal with this "new normal".
Society, social media, baby expert books & Apps indicate to parents "It's a just a growth spurt" with limited explanation on what this really means or even less on what to do, other than possibly sleep training. My families will then say to me "if that's the case, its a growth spurt, why does my baby show signs of pain and discomfort?" "Does growing hurt babies?" See this is where the confusion lays and then speculation creeps in.
OK...lets break this down.....
You may have noticed that around the age of approx.3wk old & peeks usually around 6-8wks of age, your baby's behaviour can start to change and you might be noticing some of the following:
- shorter daytime naps or changes in taking naps in general or no naps at all in the day
- not wanting to put down and becoming upset quickly if not being held
- no longer sleeping in own sleep space and only wanting only take sleep in the caregivers arms
- crying times has increased in the day and evening crying session have intensified
- periods of back arching, pulling away from breast or bottle, red faced crying, spilling, drawing knees up, clinched fists and general pain like behaviours
- piercing shrieks or crying out in their sleep
- frothy poo
- nothing you do feels like its helping to calm you baby
Does this look familiar??
Firstly, this is nothing to do with your ability to parent and care for your baby, basically "this is not your fault". I hear this often from parents I work with and understandably, not being able to calm or soothe your baby when they are very upset, is very distressing for parents. So let me explain in general terms (there are a smaller percentage of babies that may require further medical review) whats going on from your baby's perspective, at this intense time of brain and nervous system development.
There is an intense neurological or brain/nervous system growth & development that's occurring during this time for your baby. Your baby has been in the outside world now for say 3-4wks, your baby has been experiencing new sensory input from their new environment and as a result, new neuronal pathways are being laid down in the baby's brain and nervous system. This is to better understand and respond to their new life outside the womb. Coincidentally, at about the same time there is a powerful biological need for healthy stimulation of all the baby's senses ie touch, smell, taste, sound & vision, to enhance and encourage this healthy brain and nervous system development. Although this all happens at a time & age when our babies are generally least able to regulate their "fight or flight" stress response ie crying, fussing, bringing knees up & pain like behaviours etc to anything new or changing in their environment ie hunger, cold, uncomfortable, lonely etc. This ability to regulate their stress and/or emotional response comes with developmental and brain/nervous system maturity, time and responsive parenting. Sounds like a lot to handle, right?
I see it like this "Babies at this age struggle with getting a good balance between the strong biological need to have sensory stimulation, attempting to regulate the activation of the natural "fight or flight" stress response in reaction to stimulation and calming the nervous system enough to take sleep."
Taking in and processing or making sense of all this new stimulation and sensory experiences can be very unsettling and tiring for babies to manage and regulate, causing periods of crying, unsettled behaviours and tummy upsets. To better understand how the tummy gets involved here, the tummy and intestines is described in research as the "second brain" so when babies have a stress response, cortisol levels rise and all the little nerve endings in the babies intestines are stimulated. One example, during a stressful episode in babies ie crying and fussing, the muscles around the oesophagus, stomach and intestines contract or spasm and this can result in increased spilling or reflux in unsettled babies, as well those "pain like behaviours" explained earlier that coincide with the time of reflux. So the message here is, the baby's stress response during this period of intense brain development plays a big part in triggering all these pain like, colic/refluxy, unsettled and fussing behaviours that parents start to see around 3-8wks of age. Although I'm not saying that babies don't feel pain or have feelings of being uncomfortable ie gassy or full tummies, like adults do but rather there are greater nervous system mechanism at play here too.
**A percentage of babies will need further medical investigation for more intense symptoms during this time, more extensive then listed above. So seek further review if you feel this is needed. Also many stress behaviours can be lessened or resolved with a breastfeeding review from a Lactation Consultant to rule out issues with feeding and optimal milk transfer, which are also common at this age.**
Practical Support: "Respond & Retreat" - Something to try
1. Always respond to your crying baby as this is one of the last stages in their communication with you that something has changed for them ie hungry, cold, stressed, lonely and they cannot regulate this experience themselves. so they are signalling to you that they need assistance. Leaving babies to cry to create more independent children is not supported in Infant Mental Health literature and actually works in the opposite way. What this creates is a mistrust in their caregiver, lowers their confidence in that someone will protect them and it actually increase crying times overall.
2. Retreat to a darkened quiet space with your baby to reset the nervous system or dial down the stress response. Snuggle your baby close on a bare chest ie skin to skin so they can feel and hear your heartbeat. Create a "womb like" environment for your baby to connect with and as a result will quieten the nervous system response.
3. Offer the breast if your are breastfeeding or a clean finger, dummy (only if you know they have fed well previously) or their own fingers to suckle on to induce the calming reflex. Your baby may continue to cry for 40mins or more, keep soothing and calming them, don't stop. This can take time depending on your baby's own individual temperament and regulatory maturity.
4. Over the next 24hrs reduce stimulation for your baby ie darkened room, no TV or phone, snuggling your baby as much as possible. Contact napping is ideal here after you have completed a Safe Co-sleeping assessment. Also take turns with the other caregiver in the home too.
5. In the days following hold your baby as much as possible or baby wear is a great option as well as swaddling baby. Reduce others outside your immediate family holding baby and keep the house calm. Introduce some sensory nourishment ie walk outside when you think you baby is able to manage this.
6. Prepare ahead those "witching hours or fussy times" in your day by planning dinner earlier in the day, get a routine ready for calming strategies for baby ie warm bath, baby massage or get your retreat quiet room ready to escape to.
7. Be kind to yourself when you and your baby are having a particularly "bad" night or episode. Use your breathe to calm yourself and your baby and remember baby is looking to you to learn calm.
Reach out to me for support in this space with your baby or if you want further explanation or understanding of this time for your baby. There is much more I can elaborate on here from a biological perspective but I hope this gives you a solid overall picture from your baby's perspective, what all this fuss is about.