During 35 years of studying interactions between mothers and babies, Dutch Paediatricians, Hetty van de Rijt and Frans Plooij observed consistent stages that mothers identified as ‘difficult’.
The fussy periods became known as The Three Cs – Clinginess, Crankiness and Crying, and a key part of understanding the Wonder Weeks.
Preceding each Leap, and lasting from only a day or two, to as long as several weeks, these fussy periods reflect the changes occurring within your baby’s brain.
These are the times when your baby will show signs of needing extra support and understanding, feeding and sleeping patterns might change, and you will find parenting just that bit more demanding.
The Wonder Weeks – The 3 Cs
The newborn infant has no awareness of self. British psychologist Donald Winnicott described this perfectly in 1947, famously stating: “There is no such thing as a baby … if you set out to describe a baby, you will find you are describing a baby and someone’’.
For a newborn, his mother is part of him. Her chest, her breasts, and her arms are extensions of his own body. It is normal and natural for a baby to become distressed when laid on his back without human touch; his primitive brain tells him this is dangerous.
Wrapping and swaddling of infants has been practised throughout the world as a way of reassuring babies they are being held. Their immature brains mistake firm wrappings as their mothers’ arms. Babywearing is an ancient way of securing a baby against his mother’s body, allowing her to go about her tasks while continuing to hold her baby.
At this time, a baby begins to understand he and his mother are separate, and she can leave him. Fear of being away from his mother can overwhelm a baby, even if she has just handed him into the safe arms of another trusted adult.
The clinginess which occurs in the fussy period leading to each Leap seems to be an accentuated response to a baby’s primitive reflexes and survival responses. While he is challenged by the increased brain activity necessary for new development, he seeks the reassurance of his mother, needing more time at her breast, in her arms, or asleep against her body. He quite literally doesn’t want to be put down, in case he is abandoned just when he needs his mother most!
In our modern context, and seen through our adult brains, there is no logic to this behaviour. But to an immature infant, it makes complete sense.
Your rapidly developing baby might seem miserable in the period before a Leap – and he probably is. His sleep is easily disrupted, he might become fussy or distracted during feeds, and he can’t seem to decide which position is most comfortable, as you try to soothe him.
It might appear there is something wrong. Is he not getting enough breastmilk? Does his formula not suit him? Is he getting sick? Teething? Or are you, his parents, doing something which causes his discomfort? Why does something that made him happy last week suddenly seem to make him mad? His favourite lullaby annoys him, he doesn’t like being bounced today, and being taken out in the pram upsets him, when he usually drifts off to sleep.
Many parents find it easier to surrender to these periods of disharmony in their baby’s life. Once you rule out any issues with feeding, and you’re sure he is not unwell, you can focus on supporting and reassuring him during this time, rather than trying to find a cause or a solution. Sometimes, bad days just are!
All babies cry. Some cry more than others. They cry to communicate their distress – from hunger, thirst, discomfort, boredom, or feeling overwhelmed – and every other physical or emotional sensation they experience.
Babies exhibit cues prior to crying – feeding cues, sleep cues, or signs they need to rest or withdraw from activity – but it will take time to recognise them, and to learn how to respond quickly enough to prevent crying.
Overwhelming crying, which seems to have no cause and no solution, is hard for parents to hear. Mothers are wired to become anxious at the sound of their baby’s cry, and when the crying continues, so does the anxiety. Fathers and others respond differently to an infant’s crying.
There are times in the early months when increased crying – known by many different names, including colic – is common. Science has yet to identify exactly why babies seem to cry increasingly in the first six weeks, and then gradually ease back to a less intense level around 12–16 weeks.
As well as crying to communicate need, and crying for unidentified reasons, babies also cry increasingly during these fussy periods before a Leap. They might be crying as part of the clingy or cranky behaviour pattern, or perhaps it is associated with the development in the brain and central nervous system.
Identifying the cause of a baby’s increased crying is not always possible. When your baby cries, and another feed, a nappy change, or extra cuddles don’t help, it is important to have a toolbox of alternative tactics to try. As your baby grows, and his needs change, your tools will change too.
It is also important to have a support system in place, for your own sake. Frequent crying is overwhelming for parents, and can lead to feelings of anger or frustration. If you ever feel you are reaching breaking point when your baby cries, place him in a safe space, like his cot, and take yourself to another room or go outside. Phone a friend or family member for help, or ring a helpline that offers non-judgemental support for parents.
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