I knew even before my baby was born that she would be very…expressive.
I wasn’t wrong.
In the hospital where she was born, she had everyone fooled. She was so laid back and chill. The nurses absolutely loved her. You would have been hard pressed to find a more agreeable and cooperative newborn.
Then we brought her home. It’s not that she cried all the time. She was still very pleasant. But she knew exactly what she needed, and she was not afraid to let us know.
And she had a LOT of needs. Not just, “Oh, I pooped up my back, change me” and “I’m hungry now, Mommy, feed me.”
Her needs looked more like, “I’m hungry now, Mommy, nurse me in my favorite position while standing up and pacing around the apartment singing my favorite song for the next four hours, and don’t stop!”
In fact, she fits well with the profile of what Dr. Sears would categorize as a high-need baby.
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How a High-Need Baby Fusses Differently
Some babies can be pretty easily soothed or pacified, even if they aren’t getting exactly what they want. Not a high-need baby. Until they get precisely what they want (need), they will not relent, and they will not self-soothe.
If any of this sounds familiar to you, then you already know how absolutely EXHAUSTING this is, especially from a responsive/attachment parenting mindset.
You’ve probably lamented to your husband, mom, or bestie, “I can’t put him down!”
All Babies Have Fussy/High-Need Spells
Even if you don’t have a “high-need” baby per se, you’ve probably experienced fussy spells where it seems like just NOTHING will satisfy whatever need it is that you can’t seem to figure out. At the very least, your baby probably has a witching hour where they fuss for no apparent reason.
Babies cry for lots of reasons, and there are lots of posts to help you figure out what need they are attempting to communicate and how to meet it. This is not one of those posts.
If that’s what you’re looking for, check out this comprehensive article from Healthy Mama Hacks.
But if you feel like you’ve tried everything and there doesn’t seem to be any clear reason why your baby is STILL fussing, read on, Mama. This post is intended to help you once you feel like you’ve exhausted all possibilities, probably even more than once, and your baby is still fussing.
PLEASE NOTE!! If you think there’s even a slight possibility it could be a medical reason, talk to your pediatrician! “Babies just cry” is an easy explanation to throw around, but not all crying is normal. There is a stark difference between fussiness and inconsolable crying.
But, assuming there’s no medical cause, your baby is extra fussy, and you can’t find a reason why, you’re ready for this post.
Welcome to the Witching Hour
You might be discovering a certain window of the day (probably in the evening) where you can’t seem to do anything right by your infant.
Most babies have a “witching hour” in the evening somewhere between 3 pm and 9 pm. Kind of like “morning sickness” or “rush hour,” witching hour is a bit of a misnomer because this fussy spell can last for what feels like close to half the day.
Don’t take it personally. You are a good Mama and the witching hour is not your fault!
Why this occurs still remains largely inexplicable, but part of the cause may be to initiate cluster feedings to help establish your milk supply and prepare for nighttime sleep.
Curious to know why I don’t want my baby to sleep through the night?
Regardless of the cause or reason, now is not the time to leave your baby alone to figure out his own problems. You need to be there for your baby to meet his needs, but how on earth do you do that when you’re not even sure your baby knows what those needs are??
Before I get to my tried and true tips, let’s get some misconceptions out of the way…
You’re Spoiling that Baby!
“You can’t let him get away with that!”
“You just need to train her.”
“He needs to understand that the world doesn’t revolve around him.”
“If you don’t let her cry, she’ll never learn to self-soothe!”
“If pick him up whenever he cries, he’ll learn he can manipulate you.”
In my opinion, these are examples of some of the most destructive parenting advice being thrown around. Our culture has been ingrained with the expectation that babies should become independent and convenient as early and quickly as possible.
This is the mindset of detachment parenting. That we need to train babies not to need us.
First of all, can we just take a moment to think about how absolutely ABSURD we sound!? If a person’s age can reasonably measured in DAYS, we should not expect any degree of independence from them.
You need to understand that this philosophy will not teach your children not to need you. It will just teach them not to trust you.
And if you try any form of detachment parenting with a high-need baby, you will most likely find that it only exacerbates your baby’s needs. While other babies may be taught not to express their needs, a high-need baby will simply be given more needs to express, and ANGRILY, when he finds that you are not responding to him.
Save yourself the headache (and heartache). I am giving you permission to hold the crap out of that baby (but please don’t squeeze the crap out of your baby).
This post will give you some tools to hold your fussy-butt baby as much as she needs and not go absolutely bonkers in the process.
Why Babies Cry
- Crying is a reflex;
- Crying is designed to trigger you;
- Crying is a baby’s last ditch effort to communicate.
Babies do not cry:
- To enact revenge on their caregivers;
- To make you look like a bad parent;
- To manipulate you;
- For absolutely no reason.
When babies cry, they’re trying to tell you they’re hungry, sleepy, overstimulated, hurting, messy, need to potty (it’s true, though you might not have realized it), thirsty, uncomfortable, hot, cold, lonely, insecure, or just plain don’t feel ‘right.’
While it takes time and practice, you will learn to recognize your babies cues and cries and pretty accurately interpret what is wrong.
That Is…Until Witching Hour.
Which for my baby, was more like Witching Five Hours. Babies are known for having an evening fussy period where nothing in particular seems to be wrong, but they are very difficult to soothe.
I can’t remember just how old Carrots was before these witching hours faded into the past, but this went on for the first several months of her life.
For these three to five hours every evening, I walked miles around our little DC apartment. Just holding my baby wasn’t good enough. She needed me to be up and moving, even when I was feeding her, and every day was absolutely exhausting.
Along the way, I’ve found a few unique tricks that helped to soothe my high-need, fussy baby, and my hope is that by sharing them, at least a couple will work for yours too.
Tips You’ve Probably Already Heard
- Wear your baby in a wrap or sling
- Use a white noise maker
- Offer a pacifier
- Burp the baby
- Go for a car ride
These are great tips, don’t get me wrong, and if any of them work for you, keep them in your toolbox! However, they didn’t always work for me when my baby was inexplicably fussy; only when there was a specific, identifiable cause. They weren’t typically as effective during witching hour.
Now here are some tips you might not have heard before.
9 Unique Techniques to Soothe a Fussy Baby
Tip #1. Wear Your Baby…in the Shower!
This is my absolute favorite tactic when I’ve tried EVERYTHING and cannot get my baby to chill out. While I don’t want to tell you it’s been 100% effective, let’s just say I can’t remember a time it has ever not worked…
Here’s my method.
- I use this ring sling that was made for the beach or pool, but I actually got it with the shower in mind! (I have also seen wraps made from the same mesh, but I like the ring sling because it’s so easy to nurse in.)
- I set the water to a safe temperature, and while it warms up, get the fussy-bum situated in the ring sling. I definitely recommend that you are comfortable using a ring sling before attempting babywearing in the shower.
- Once we get in and get a little wet, she roots around to nurse pretty quickly, so I feed her.
Showering together is an amazing hack because not only does it calm my baby down, it calms me down, too. By the time I resort to co-showering, I am usually rather frazzled myself, so the relaxation is a win-win.
Most of the time, she falls asleep and we just take our time in the steamy shower for a while.
If your baby absolutely hates showering and you don’t think there’s any chance that will change, you can try bathing together. Coupling a warm bath with breastfeeding and/or skin-to-skin can work, too.
Tip #2. Whisper
This probably won’t work when your baby is little little, but once my baby started showing an interest in voices and what we were saying to her, I happened upon this method.
When she’s fussy, sometimes it works to start whispering in between cries.
The quiet voice catches her attention and forces her to calm down, at least for a moment, if she wants to be able to hear what I’m saying. As long as I have her attention, I continue whispering anything and everything that comes to mind.
Sometimes I recite song lyrics, or describe the living room in detail, anything to keep talking. Once in a while, she will forget that she was upset. This tactic doesn’t usually work as a stand-alone, but I can follow up with another soothing technique once she is a bit calmer.
Tip #3. Change Your Environment
Ever get a little stir crazy being in the same house, seeing the same walls, the same furniture, the same stuff every single day? Your baby does, too. Some days, you can mend a fussy baby’s mood just by getting out of the house.
Even if it meant just stepping outside of my apartment for a couple of minutes (looking like the casualty of a circus train wreck) for a walk around the outside of the building, my baby usually appreciated the fresh air and would seem renewed when we went back inside.
Tip #4. Change Hands (or arms)
As much as your baby loves Mama and might favor you the majority of the time, she may calm down or fall asleep more quickly just being held by someone else.
I know this is not always possible. For many months, my husband was gone from before I got up in the morning until after the baby went to bed at night, and I didn’t have family close by. For those 15+ hours a day, it was just me and Carrots.
However, when you do have the opportunity, if you find this change of arms does work, don’t take it personally. Your baby loves you as much as ever, but hey, even I get tired of myself sometimes.
Your baby also might be a little confused about what she needs from you. Even now, when Carrots gets sleepy, she thinks she needs to nurse to sleep if I am holding her. But when my husband has her, her expectations are different and she (usually…) goes right to sleep for him.
Tip #5. Try Different Holding Positions
Even if your baby normally favors a certain position, if it’s not helping to calm them, try switching things up. Sometimes Carrots really wanted to be upright so that she could see everything that was going on, and sometimes it was really soothing to her to be held on her tummy facing the ground with all of her limbs hanging limp.
A note of caution: Carrots would sometimes try to sucker her Daddy into thinking she didn’t like any of his positions so that he would keep moving her around (and thereby help her stay awake!). If this happens, see Tip #8.
Tip #6. Offer a Baby Massage
Sometimes when Carrots was fussy as a younger baby, I would recline on the couch, lean her against my knees facing away from me so that there was pressure on her tummy, and rub her lower back.
My thinking was that maybe her intestines weren’t feeling so good and a focused massage might help whatever was bothering her move through. I don’t know for sure if I was correct, but it frequently helped calm her.
Maybe her gut was upset, maybe the massage was just relaxing, maybe both.
Tip #7. Stroke Baby’s Face
Some swear by this trick, and while it didn’t consistently work for me, some days it was like magic. You can try stroking your baby’s face with varying degrees of pressure, continually moving around the face, sometimes lightly stroking the cheek, sometimes pressing your finger along a brow bone.
If your baby is congested or you suspect sinus pressure is bothering him, you can actually relieve some of that build up by pressing down firmly (but gently) on and near the sinus cavities.
Tip #8. Struggle Snuggle + Sleep Prop
Frequently, you’ll notice–especially with a high-need baby–that your little stinker is intentionally fighting sleep. I find few things in this world more annoying than a sleepy child who intentionally won’t sleep. Good golly, baby, just give us both a rest!
Carrots would do anything to keep herself awake, but one of her favorite tactics was to make us think she was uncomfortable so that she could change positions. But no, that’s the wrong one, so she’d get adjusted again. And again. I caught on real quick, but my husband just wanted to make her happy and obliged! The result was that she used him to keep herself awake.
Here’s the solution. Two words: struggle. snuggle.
It might sound a little brutal, but it’s not. Think of it as human swaddling.
When Carrots would get shifty and start bucking and wiggling, I might try to accommodate her at first, but once I saw she was fighting sleep, I would just hold her firmly in a cradle position and pair it with sleep props (bouncing, swaying, shushing, singing).
Mamas, when you do the struggle snuggle, you might need to hold Baby up higher on your body than you would to nurse so that there’s no expectation.
Most of the time this was very effective unless she had another need (hunger, diaper, etc) that had gone unaddressed. If it’s not working, see if you missed anything, and then you can try again.
Tip #9. Read Aloud
On a couple of rare occasions, I have been able to calm my fussy baby and actually put her to sleep just by reading aloud. With older babies, you have to be a little more content-conscious, but what you read aloud does not have to be a children’s book! Boring them to death sometimes really works.
The rise and fall of your voice will give your fussy baby something to focus on, and feeling the vibrations is soothing if they’re laid against your chest.
Free Printable Reference Sheet
Here is an quick reference to help you remember the techniques in this post. It’ll look way prettier on your wall than if you print out this whole article.
The Most Important Thing to Remember About a Fussy Baby
You might try everything you find on this list and still not find the right trick to pacify your baby.
Remember, if your baby is crying inconsolably for long stretches of time, call your pediatrician! Do not worry that anyone will think you’re paranoid or overreacting. You are your baby’s only advocate, and your instincts are worth at least a darn and a half.
But medical issues aside, you might feel like you are failing because you can’t get your baby to stop fussing or make your baby happy.
I have some news for you, Mama dear.
It’s not your responsibility to make your baby stop crying.
If you have listened to your baby’s needs and made your best efforts to respond to them, you have done all you can and have nothing to feel guilty about.
If your baby continues to fuss, then the best thing you can do is to stay calm, continue to comfort and reassure them, and revisit their basic needs that you know arise frequently.
If you have a high-need baby, then I highly recommend “The Fussy Baby Book: Parenting Your High-Need Child from Birth to Age Five” by Dr. William Sears. To know that someone else experienced the same thoughts and challenges that I am facing nearly brought me to tears, at times. I came away so encouraged to realize that it’s not just me: many of my struggles are a result of having a high-need child, not my inability to parent.
This season will feel like it lasts an eternity, but you will get through it. I don’t know anyone who looks back and says, “Boy, I wish I hadn’t held my baby so much.”
Look at it this way: your fussy baby is forcing you to slow down and maximize the time you have together so that you don’t let this short and incredibly precious phase of life pass you by.
Have you experienced the witching hour yet? How do you soothe your fussy baby? Let me know in the comments!