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 that most new parents would never imagine that they might injure their new baby in a moment of anger.
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 a 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.
Here’s my new parent story: 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. I was ready, excited, and confident in my ability to slide right into motherhood.
Reality quickly burst my bubble.
From the time he entered the world, my son was a needy little guy who was rarely content and needed to be held basically all the time. He slept very little and only in short spurts. 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. His need to be held was hard, but 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. This was crying as I had never imagined. 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 I found myself 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 at the most important job I had ever undertaken.
My Breaking Point
Late one night I hit a breaking point. My son 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 glider 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 shouted at him. I 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 breaking point.
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 a crib or bassinet) and walk away. Take 10 minutes to calm yourself. Call a friend, step outside, or 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 are that it will end, even at times when it feels like it never will. My little guy was a high need, 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.
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