Purple Crying and Child Abuse Prevention: A Mom’s Story

If you ask a new parent their fears about parenthood, most will talk about disruptions in routine, feeding issues, sleep issues, and general questions about doing the right thing.  I would bet my socks that most new parents wouldn’t name a fear that they might in anger hurt their new child. However, every year nearly 1,300 children are injured by abusive head trauma, commonly known as “Shaken Baby Syndrome.”

According to the CDC, Shaken Baby Syndrome, or SBS, is a preventable, severe form of physical child abuse resulting from violently shaking an infant by the shoulders, arms, or legs. It may result from both shaking alone or from shaking with impact. Babies who have experienced a shaking injury can suffer permanent brain injury, cerebral palsy, blindness, and even death. When people have been asked what triggered them to shake their baby, the most common answer is inconsolable crying.


Crying baby


I can relate to this so very much. When I was pregnant with my first child I spent many hours dreaming of a beautiful, sleepy newborn who would snuggle in my arms, coo, smile, and gaze lovingly at me. I read all the books about how to structure a baby’s day. I had a ton of plans for maternity leave and was ready, excited, and confident in my ability to slide right into motherhood.

Reality quickly burst my bubble.


The Situation

From the time he entered the world my son was a needy little guy who was rarely content except when he was being held or nursed (or both). He slept very little, and only in short spurts at a time. For the first 12 weeks of his life I swear he lived in my arms, at my breast, or in my Moby wrap. He nursed what felt like constantly through the night and the day. The stuff hit the proverbial fan when he was about three weeks old . . . and the crying started.

Three and four hour stretches every day of high pitched screaming that nothing would soothe. Evenings were the worst (you could set your clock by his 7 p.m. wail) but he was rarely really content throughout the day. Day after day found me cuddled onto the couch, often in the same clothes I had slept in, trying once again to calm a crying baby who didn’t seem to appreciate any of my efforts.

I read every baby blog and parenting website you could think of. I devoured all the sleep books. I tried every trick that every “expert” swore by to get my guy to sleep more than 90 minutes at a time. We went to the doctor, who gave us a diagnosis of “colic.” We suspected a dairy sensitivity, so I started reading labels like a hawk and cut every trace of dairy out of my diet. That helped some, but it wasn’t the magic bullet I had hoped for, and more and more I felt like I was quickly failing in the most important job I had ever undertaken.


My Breaking Point

One night when my son was about 10 weeks old I hit a breaking point. He had been up most of the night, and I hadn’t gotten more than 30 minutes of sleep at any stretch. I was tired, frustrated, and hurting. My body was tired of bouncing and my arms felt like they were about to fall off. I knew that I should wake up my husband and have him take over, but I had this view that I should be able to handle it myself. If I were a “good wife” and a “good mother” I shouldn’t need to ask for help.

At some point after 3 a.m. I had spent all my energy. We had rocked for over an hour and every time I slowed the motion of the chair he started to scream once again. I stood up and started to dance around the nursery but the crying didn’t stop. All I wanted him to do was stop crying and go to sleep. It wasn’t logical, but I started scolding him, telling him he needed to settle down. I started to bounce a little harder, and I felt my arms and body start to tense. I held him up to my face and loudly told him to, “be quiet!” He kept right on crying and I started to cry, too. Finally I looked at my sobbing boy and realized I had nothing left to give him. I ran into our bedroom, shoved him into his father’s arms and cried, You have to take him because I’m afraid I will hurt him.”

Then I stormed downstairs to the kitchen and had a good long cry.


What I Learned

I’m not proud of that night. I should have asked for help sooner. I was sleep deprived, anxious, frustrated, and feeling inadequate as a parent.  It was a dangerous situation for me and for my child. Luckily I had a supportive spouse to turn to, or things could have turned out horribly different.

I share this story because I think it is so important for new parents to know that your baby does not hate you because he is crying, and you are not a bad parent if you are having trouble handling it. Anyone can get to a breaking point where they don’t know which way is up and they need a respite.  I’m so grateful that I had someone else to turn to and also that people had told me that it is okay to put your baby down and let them cry when you are at your wit’s end.


PURPLE Crying

The National Center on Shaken Baby Syndrome has a great acronym: The Period of PURPLE Crying. They use this as the center of a program to educate people about normal patterns of infant crying and ways to cope with that crying. It stands for:

P : Peak of Crying – Babies cry the most in month two, and then less by three to five

U: Unexpected – Crying can come and go, and you don’t know why

R: Resists Soothing – Your baby might keep on crying no matter what you do

P: Pain-like Face – Your baby might look like they are in pain, even though they are not

L: Long lasting – Up to 5 hours a day or more

E: Evening – Babies may cry longer in the late afternoon or evening


Child Abuse Prevention Month

April is National Child Abuse Prevention month. One important way to prevent child abuse is recognizing signs in yourself or your partner that you have had enough and could potentially lose control. As I found out as a new parent, that moment can happen in the blink of an eye. Understanding these normal patterns of infant crying, as well as the potential dangers can prove to be critical to preventing another needless tragedy of a shaking injury.

Here are a few things that can be helpful to remember at those low points.

  • Babies cry a lot. Up to three hours per day is considered typical, and some babies cry even longer every day.
  • Crying usually peaks at about four to six weeks of age, and gets better by about 12-20.
  • You can try soothing techniques like going outside, taking a bath, rocking, bouncing, or singing. Some techniques will work one day, and not the next. There is no magic bullet.
  • Your baby’s crying is not a reflection of your parenting skills.
  • You are not a bad person if the crying is bothering you.
  • Sleep deprivation that comes with the newborn stage may decrease your tolerance for dealing with a crying infant.
  • When you find yourself very frustrated, it is always okay to put a crying baby down in a safe place (like his crib) and walk away. Take 10 minutes to calm yourself. Call a friend, step outside, take a shower.

You Are Not a Bad Parent

To any parents out there who are currently in the PURPLE period, I feel your pain. I wish I could jump through my computer screen and give you a great big hug. You are not doing anything wrong, you are not failing, and you are a good parent.

The best words of encouragement I can give you is that it will end, even at the times when it feels like it never will. My little guy was a high needs, high crying baby who didn’t sleep more than a three hour stretch until he was 15 months old, but now he is one of the happiest kids that I know. It will get better, it really will.

In the meantime, accept any help that is offered, rest when you can, and find the thing that makes you feel human and prioritize it in your day. For me, that meant taking a shower and changing clothes at least once every single day. Above all, I hope that you will believe me that you are not a bad parent if you need to walk away from a crying baby. In fact, by doing that you are fulfilling your most basic parenting responsibility — protecting your child from harm.


Want more information? Check out these websites!

Sarah Bengtson
Sarah is a proud Iowa native who currently lives in North Liberty with her husband and 2 sons. She grew up in rural Benton county and moved to the Iowa City area in 2005 to attend graduate school at the University of Iowa in Physical Therapy. Now she balances raising two growing boys with a work as a pediatric physical therapist. Outside of work and family, Sarah loves music, playing her cello, running, baking, crochet, church activities, and cheering for the Hawkeyes and the Minnesota Vikings.

1 COMMENT

  1. Thank you for sharing this. It’s so important as the struggles of motherhood have not always been as shared as they are now. The self awareness and bravery you have are special. Thank you again.

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