Let's be clear: Babies cry. It is how they express themselves, especially during the first few months. But what if your baby seems to be sad all the time? Is there a deeper reason behind your baby's sombre disposition?
In this article, we'll try to decipher if your baby is just unhappy about something, if he's a high needs baby or he is depressed.
Babies cry all the time. That is their way of communicating with us and getting our attention. And for the first couple of months, that's the only way they know to tell us they're hungry, they're sleepy or that their nappy needs changing.
Babies fuss too. They fuss when they feel hot, they fuss when they don't like the feel of their clothes on their skin. They fuss when they hear some noise. If you don't know any better, you'll think that your baby just complains about everything and you can't do anything right. But again, it's normal for babies to cry and be fussy.
But if you had other children, or you have been around other babies, you may notice that your baby seems to cry more often than others, or just seems to be unhappy all the time.
Can my baby feel sad?
The answer is yes, just like us, our babies can feel emotions too. While they have a hard time expressing their happiness right now (it will change in a few months, don't worry), they also feel happy, excited and the easiest to tell, unhappy.
How do you know if your baby is sad? Well, aside from the crying, here are some signs that point to it:
- Baby's mouth is turned down. Admit it, mum, sometimes you can't help but think it's so cute when you see bub's mouth turned downward. But according to Baby Centre, it is one of the signs that your baby is feeling sad.
- They aren't eating or sleeping. Just like us grownups, our baby's appetite and energy are affected by her mood. A report from ABC News said that in addition to being irritable, depressed babies may have trouble eating or sleeping (more on this later).
- Their eyes don't meet yours. A previous article revealed that you'll know if your baby is really smiling if her eyes are big and looking brightly at you. So the opposite also holds true when your baby is unhappy. According to Smithsonian magazine, an unresponsive eye gaze is a common sign that babies are sad or depressed.
- They don't respond to play. It's amazing how playing with our babies can give us a clue about how they are feeling. For instance, if your baby doesn't respond to your invitation to play, it can only mean that something is going on and she's not feeling peachy about it.
Why is my baby sad?
Our babies cry or feel sad for the same reason we do - loneliness, discomfort, tiredness and hunger. Paying attention to her cues and her body language can make it easier for us to tell what she needs. Remember, crying is usually your baby's last "call for help" when she is sleepy or hungry.
Moreover, your baby is processing everything around him, and that includes your emotion. Research shows that babies learn best by imitating the people around them. So if you're showing signs of sadness, your baby may respond by mirroring your facial expressions to show empathy, an ability that begins soon after birth.
If your baby cries for a prolonged period of time (like three hours a day), she may also be having colic, which is causing her discomfort and fussiness. Colic can affect babies until their third or fourth month.
However, if your baby is way past her fourth month, but still being fussy and demanding, you may be dealing with a high need baby.
Signs of a high needs baby
A high need or a high needs baby is just defined as a baby who is needier than other babies her age. It is not a medical condition as babies are notorious for being fussy. It's just that on the spectrum of baby behaviour, yours may be on the needier side.
According to Healthline, the following are signs that you have a "higher maintenance" child on your hands.
Your baby rarely naps.
It doesn't mean that your bub never naps. All babies nap, of course. But while other babies can nap for two to three hours at a time, your baby's naps are very brief and when they wake up, usually 20 to 30 minutes after, you can count on it that they will be agitated and crying.
Your baby has separation anxiety.
Does your baby cry as soon as she's out of your arms and into her babysitter or grandparents? Does it take forever for her to warm up to them?
Separation anxiety or being anxious, when separated from his caregiver and into the hands of an unfamiliar person, is normal, especially at 6 to 12 months. But while some babies learn to adapt and get comfy with other people in time, high needs babies are less adaptable and take longer to warm up to other people.
Your bub has trouble sleeping on her own.
Does your baby cry as soon as she feels you putting her down in her crib?
High needs babies have more intense separation anxiety, so sleep training them proves to be more challenging.
Your baby hates car rides.
Some babies are soothed by car rides. But high needs babies don't like confinement and isolation, so they might throw a fit when you force them inside the car and buckle them on the car seat.
Your baby has trouble relaxing and self-soothing.
Self-regulation is something that babies need to learn. But some parents are lucky that their babies can stay put in their bouncers and swings while they have their meal.
Leaving your high needs baby to entertain himself is impossible, or is a recipe for disaster. He will either cry incessantly until you pick him up, or move around so much that you will need to keep an eye on him anyway.
Moreover, the "cry it out" method never works when your baby is high maintenance.
Your baby is sensitive to touch.
Does your baby always want to be held, yet she squirms when you try to wrap her up in a blanket? Does she hate the feel of wearing pyjamas and prefers to strip down to her diapers? If you've ruled out tactile defensiveness or eczema, you may be dealing with a high needs baby.
Your baby does not like overstimulation.
Some babies can sleep with music or TV on in the background, and not flinch at the sound of a vacuum cleaner or other loud noise. But even the slightest amount of stimulation can set off a high needs baby. It's too much for them to handle. Also, they might get so overwhelmed and have a total meltdown around a lot of people.
Your baby does not have an everyday routine.
Parenting gets easier when your child has a consistent routine. Unfortunately, high needs babies didn't get the memo. They are unpredictable and getting them to stick to a routine is impossible.
Your child never seems happy or satisfied.
Like we mentioned earlier, it may seem like your child is never happy. It may feel exhausting sometimes because no matter what you do, your child is always fussy and demanding.
Having a high needs baby may leave you feeling overwhelmed, drained, frustrated, and guilty at times. But know that your baby's temperament isn't your fault, and no matter how impossible it seems, believe that you and your little one are going to be okay.
Can a baby have depression?
It's one thing to have a sad baby from time to time, and to deal with a high needs baby. But if your infant appears to be quiet, withdrawn and is unhappy most of the time, your child might be suffering from depression.
According to Miri Keren and Sam Tyano who wrote a research paper on depression in infancy, while it is possible for babies to experience depression, it is not particularly common. An estimate of one in 40 infants experiences signs of depression.
Meanwhile, licensed psychologist Patricia A. Farrell, PhD explains that ittle is known about depression in babies because they don't have the language and capabilities to express their feelings, fears, or wishes. In fact, the only way to know that a child is depressed is to watch out for changes in their behaviour.
All babies have days when they are less socially or emotionally engaged. However, if your child exhibits longer-lasting periods of irritability or withdrawal, it can indicate that there's a problem.
To recognise depression in infants, try to check their emotional vitality. You can gauge this by asking yourself the following:
- Does my baby appear withdrawn, perhaps frequently staring into space?
- Does my baby's facial expression appear sad (infrequent smiling)?
- Is my baby expressing a vibrant range of emotions?
- Is it difficult to get my baby to engage with me socially?
- Is my baby quiet and subdued?
According to the "Diagnostic Classification of Mental Health and Developmental Disorders of Infancy and Early Childhood" (the DC:0-3R), which was published in 2005, for an infant to be diagnosed with depression, the following five conditions should be met:
- Extreme change in the emotional and behavioural patterns from what is typical for the infant.
- Constant depressed or irritable mood (present every day, most of the day, for over two weeks).
- Depressive symptoms should occur more than once, in more than one activity and more than one relationship (meaning other people at home should've noticed this too)
- The symptoms are causing distress and interfering with the child's functioning and development.
- The symptoms must not be due to a general medical condition, a medication, or an environmental toxin.
While the main cause for depression in infants have not been specified, experts believe that it is similar to child depression and might have been contributed by brain chemistry, environmental factors, genetics and the mental health of the parent or caregiver.
Babies who are just occasionally fussy and high need babies will eventually get over their temperament. But babies who show signs of depression are more likely to experience this and other mental health issues as they grow up.
So if you think your baby is sad because of a more serious condition, don't hesitate to talk to your child's paediatrician for a more in-depth assessment and treatment options.
This article was first published in theAsianparent.