Fussy Baby Network answers cries for help in community

November 30, 2004

Erikson Institute's Fussy Baby Network is meeting a real need in the Chicago community. Already, more than 200 families have received help from this first-of-its-kind program in Illinois that responds to parent concerns about their infant's inconsolable crying.

Twenty percent of infants struggle with excessive crying--about 37,000 babies in Illinois alone, regardless of their birth order, gender, feeding style, race, parents' education or income. It also could occur despite excellent care.

Excessive crying usually occurs during the first three months of life. Many of these infants have colic--crying for more than three hours a day at least three days a week for three weeks. Their parents often are frustrated and feel helpless trying to soothe their infant. The Fussy Baby Network is designed to assess the infant, support parents and reduce family stress.

"Parents are desperate by the time they call us," said Linda Gilkerson, Ph.D., network director and professor of infant studies at Erikson. "We help the parents find answers to their questions about their baby's crying and gain confidence in their ability to calm their baby.

The relatively new network offers resources, support and consultation for families concerned about their baby's crying, sleeping, feeding or temperament during the first year of life. Phone counseling, home visits and parent groups are just a few ways the program brings calm to chaos.

"Persistent, inconsolable crying is a trigger for child abuse in the first year of life," Gilkerson said. "So we take every call seriously."

A recent study published in Archives of Disease in Childhood found that excessive crying that continues more than three months of age was linked to behavioral and intellectual development problems by age 5. Difficulty in regulating crying can occur with other early challenges such as having a hard time sleeping or feeding. Also, these infants can have hypersensitivities to touch or movement, problems calming down and paying attention, and behavior issues. The Fussy Baby team of specialists works with families to get a needed evaluation and an appropriate intervention.

A partnership with University of Chicago pediatricians and LaRabida Children's Hospital connects parents to behavioral and developmental specialist Larry Gray, M.D., who serves as the Fussy Baby Network's medical director. Gray can examine a child more closely, and if necessary, make referrals to other specialists.

"In some cases, these parents have been told that nothing is wrong, but mom instinctively feels there is," Gilkerson said. "We don't brush off their concerns."

Excessive crying can be part of a cycle of mother/infant distress. Crying is both a trigger and a response. "If the mother is feeling overwhelmed or exhausted, or suffering from post-partum depression, this can increase the baby's crying and irritability or the baby can begin to withdraw," Gilkerson explained. "The relationship is just that--a relationship. Each person brings something to that relationship and responds to each other's cues."

The goal of the Fussy Baby Network is to prevent and interrupt that distressful cycle. Gilkerson believes early troubles in the family relationship can turn around. "This is a very open time psychologically for the mother," she said. "Information, support, empathy and coaching can really help."

Most parents get connected to the network through the Fussy Baby Warmline--a telephone call-in service that hooks up parents to a team of child development specialists. "Over the phone I hear high levels of anxiety," explained Susan Connor, program coordinator of the Fussy Baby Network. "Anxiety not only about what's happening now, but what the future is going to be like." Parents often are surprised by the loneliness and isolation that accompany an uncontrollably crying infant, she added.

A survey of emergency room admissions, conducted by Gilkerson and Gray, showed that of families bringing their young babies to the emergency room for crying, one-third of the visits were diagnosed as colic. The other infants had problems that required medical attention.

"The findings underscored the need for more resources to be made available to parents," said Gilkerson, who was originally inspired to form the Fussy Baby Network by her own experience as a parent of a fussy baby. Even pediatricians and other medical professionals call the Network asking for advice and help for their patients.

Many times the Fussy Baby Warmline phone calls lead to home visits by the network team. "People are surprised and grateful that someone will come and just sit with them, paying attention to their concerns and being patient," Gilkerson said.

Child development experts talk with parents about their baby's day, ways they can calm their baby and how they can take care of themselves. "We don't hold the babies," Gilkerson said. "We "hold" the parents. That is, we listen, observe with the parent, and at times, gently coach. The best moment is often when the parents calm the baby, and realize they can do this."

Sometimes it takes only one visit for parents to feel more comfortable and confident with their baby. But the specialists can work with the family for as long as it takes, averaging five visits over a two-month period.

The network, in operation since March 2003, also includes a drop-in time where parents come with their baby to the Erikson Institute to meet informally with other parents and with the Fussy Baby team. Parent groups are held throughout the area, too, that offer discussions on such topics as helping a fussy baby sleep, strategies to refuel parents and life after colic.

All babies have periods of crying that can't be soothed; but some have many more bouts of this kind of crying. The cause of colic is not known. For a relatively small group, crying may be caused by allergies or digestive problems such as reflux. Most recently, in the October issue of Pediatrics, a study shows smoking during or after pregnancy could be a trigger. Some doctors believe it's a matter of temperament--some babies take a bit longer to get adjusted to the world. But for most babies, there is no known medical or developmental cause.

Besides the University of Chicago and LaRabida, the Fussy Baby Network works with Northwestern Prentice Hospital, Healthy Families Illinois, Illinois Department of Children and Family Services, and Family Focus.
The Fussy Baby Network is funded primarily through a grant from the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation. The Irving Harris Foundation provided additional support.

The Fussy Baby Warmline is free. Home visits and parent support groups are offered on a sliding-fee basis. Any parent struggling with a fussy baby is encouraged to contact the network at 1-888-431-BABY or www.fussybabynetwork.org.

University of Chicago Medical Center

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