Fussy Newborn: 8 Causes

causes of fussy newborns

Image credit: mcguirk on Flickr

For the first three months of life, babies have very few ways to communicate. Generally, they let you know of their unhappiness by fussing. Most of the time, it’s cute. At 4 a.m. when you have to get up for work in three hours, not so much. Having raised three little ones, and spent many hours puzzling over the reason a newborn is fussy, I’ve come up with this list of usual suspects.

1. Hunger

Newborns eat about every 2-3 hours, day and night, nonstop, for the first few months of life. If your newborn starts fussing, and you haven’t just physically removed a nipple from his or her mouth, it’s probably feeding time again. This one is easy to test for, fortunately — you just offer something to eat and see if the baby takes it. Just try not to get into the habit of feeding your newborn every half hour.

2. Indigestion (i.e. About to Spit Up On You)

Many newborns — and preemies especially – are born with immature digestive systems. In other words, they spit up. A lot. They need to be burped. And when their tummies get upset, they fuss. The best way to handle this kind of situation is to get out in front of it. Burp early, burp often. Keep your little one upright for a bit after feedings.

We had some success with Mylicon, whose active ingredient (simethicone) is a sort of soap that helps bubbles in the tummy merge together so that they can be burped out. We also tried Gripe Water, which did seem to calm our fussy baby sometimes, though it’s inexplicably pricey.

3. Time for a Diaper Change

We might as well follow the digestive tract down to usual suspect #3, a wet or dirty diaper. Modern diapers are pretty amazing in their ability to absorb things and wick away moisture, but even so, they have their limits. You’ll develop a good sense for detecting when it’s time for a diaper change, but once in a while we’ll still miss one. Then we check just to be sure, and have to admit, “Oh, so you did have a dirty diaper.” It happens.

Watch for Diaper Rash

On a related note, if your newborn develops a diaper rash, it can easily cause fussiness. Even if the diaper is clean, the irritated skin causes discomfort, so they’re just not happy. Especially in the car seat or Bumbo or any sitting position that puts pressure on it. There are about a million different topical creams for diaper rash. Hands down, the best one we’ve ever used is Dr. Smith’s. When that runs out, we prefer the “cream” treatments over the gels.

4. Sleep Problems

Humans in general tend to get cranky when they don’t have enough sleep, and this is certainly true of newborns. Probably because they can’t have coffee. You’ll be keenly aware of this fact if your newborn gets off of his or her normal sleep schedule. Babies need 14-18 hours of sleep per day, and when they don’t get enough, they let you know about it.

Newborns tire quickly. It’s easy to keep them up a little bit too late, which gets them over-tired, and then it’s harder to fall asleep even though they need it. A little bit of baby sleep training will go a long way.

5. Infant Colic

A colicky baby is, by most accounts, one of the most difficult challenges new parents can face. The medical definition of colic is a baby that cries for hours at a time, at least three times in a week. Surprisingly, we don’t know much about the actual cause of infant colic. There are many theories. Even if we don’t know the cause, we know the effects: a baby that cries constantly and can’t be soothed.

There also seems to be a “witching hour” for newborns (colicky or not) at around 5-6 p.m. when nothing seems to make them happy. Our pediatrician mentioned that it’s probably a combination of hunger and end-of-the-day tiredness that brings this on. A good napping schedule, timely dinner, and an early bedtime are probably the way to go.

6. Different Personalities

Even at the newborn stage, babies can have very different personalities. I know this quite well because I have twin boys and they couldn’t be more different. One was relaxed, laid back, and completely calm about everything. Slept wonderfully. Rarely cried. The other was high-maintenance enough for both of them. So personality does make a difference, and sometimes (by the luck of the draw; it’s not your fault) you get a fussy, needy baby. I’d love to tell you that they grow out of this completely as they get older, but ah, well, you’ll see.

7. Loneliness or Fear

Newborns are quick to recognize their parents, to become familiar with their face, scent, and the sound of their voice. They have a pretty good idea who loves them the most! And their vision isn’t very good for the first couple of months. So if they can’t see or hear you, they might fuss a little. Just to get some attention. The good news about this is that picking them up for a snuggle usually does the trick.

8. Teething or Sickness

There are occasionally real, medical/developmental causes of newborn fussiness. Teething is one that you generally don’t have to worry about until 3-6 months, but an early tooth coming in will make them fairly miserable. See our baby teething guide for some help there.

Alternatively, you might be dealing with a baby who’s got a little cold or stomach virus. A sick newborn is a rough experience, and I hope you don’t have to go through it. Those who have begin to understand the “Have you washed your hands?” onesie.