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The link between crying and shaking

Inconsolable crying is the most common reason given by perpetrators for shaking an infant. In fact, infant crying has been identified as the most common trigger for infant abuse in general.

All babies cry – it is one of the main ways they communicate. Crying normally starts to increase at about two weeks of age, peaks in intensity during the second month, and has decreased and stabilized by the fourth or fifth month of life. The average amount of crying is between one and two hours a day at the peak of crying, but some infants will cry less than that, and some will cry more. Some infants might cry for almost six hours a day during the peak of crying. If a baby is otherwise healthy, the crying is unlikely to be a sign that something is wrong with the baby or with how the baby is being cared for. This applies in most cases, even with babies who have colic.

What is “colic”?

It is now believed that most infants who are considered “colicky” are simply normal healthy infants who cry a greater amount and more intensely than the average baby.The main symptom of colic is a lot of intense crying.

In medical terms, the word “colic” indicates that there is intestinal distress involving the bowels. Therefore, the term suggests that a physical problem is causing the baby to cry. It is not known for sure what causes colic. It has never been shown that infants who cry a lot have something wrong with their bowels. Also, there is no strong evidence that the problem is due to gas, wind or food allergy. Crying causes babies to swallow air, which they burp up or pass as wind. Because they strain and tighten their stomach muscles, this also forces air out of the rectum. In other words, it may be that crying causes gas, rather than the other way around! Studies suggest that babies who cry a lot are not crying because they are in pain. There appears to be no lasting harm for babies with colic.

For all babies, the period of increased crying will include times when a baby cannot be consoled no matter what a caregiver does. Many parents and professionals believe that loving, skilled caregivers should always be able to quiet a healthy baby. This misperception can cause a caregiver to feel frustrated with the crying baby.

Studies have shown that parental complaints about crying are not proportional to the actual amount of crying [3]. Simply put, some people have a lower threshold for crying than others. The amount of crying is not what determines whether or not the crying of a particular infant is problematic, rather it is the parent’s or caregiver’s perception of that crying.

Educating people about what constitutes normal crying, and providing parents and other caregivers with the skills and knowledge they need in order to deal with a crying baby can help prevent some cases of infant shaking and other types of abuse.

This site includes information for parents/caregivers and many resources that can help you educate others about infant crying and help prevent SBS. Click here to view a Professional Development Session on the following topics:

  • Shaken Baby Syndrome
  • Risk factors
  • The link between crying and shaking
  • What constitutes normal infant crying
  • Alberta SBS Prevention Campaign and resources