Typical newborn cryingOne of the biggest surprises new parents face is just how relentlessly a normal, healthy infant can cry during their first few months of life. This crying can lead people to question their fitness as parents, raise unnecessary concerns about their child’s wellbeing and result in overwhelming feelings of anger, frustration and guilt.

Research shows that bouts of prolonged, unrelenting crying is the No. 1 reason parents – and other caregivers – shake a baby. Shaken baby syndrome can cause blindness, seizures, physical and learning disabilities, and even death.

Thankfully, research also has shown that simply understanding the normal pattern of infant crying and learning a few coping skills significantly reduces the likelihood that a child will be shaken or abused.

Tools and tips are available

The National Center on Shaken Baby Syndrome (NCSBS) has developed an evidence-based program called the “Period of PURPLE Crying” to help parents and others who care for newborns understand this normal behavior, how to cope with it, and how to keep a baby safe. The materials are based on more than 25 years of research led by Ronald Barr, MA, MDCM, FRCPC, a pediatrician at British Columbia Children’s Hospital.

The materials for new parents include an easy to read, 11-page booklet and a 10-minute PURPLE video (in 10 languages), as well as a 17-minute video about the Period of PURPLE Crying, titled “Crying, Soothing and Coping: Doing What Comes Naturally,” that shows real families talking about what they experienced and how they coped.

Seattle Children’s convened the Abusive Head Trauma Prevention (AHTP) Task Force of Washington in 2010 to spearhead a three-dose, community-wide effort to get the word about the Period of PURPLE Crying out across Washington state.

  • Dose 1 focuses on getting birthing hospitals throughout Washington state to share materials and messages about PURPLE with new parents before they leave the hospital. Currently, about 50% of families with newborns now receive PURPLE before being discharged and taking their baby home.
  • Dose 2 centers on prepping professionals who have contact with caregivers of newborns – like pediatricians, primary care providers, childcare providers and public health nurses – to reinforce messages about the Period of Purple Crying and have them share PURPLE materials with families who have not yet received them.
  • Dose 3 is a public awareness campaign to educate the entire community about this normal period of crying and to encourage support of parents and caregivers when babies are crying.

“Even 20 minutes is an eternity”

“I was very self-conscious when Henry cried in public. I thought people thought I was a terrible mother,” recalls Sarah Stempski, of her young son, now 9 months old. “My husband and I were surprised by the volume of his cries – he was so loud we couldn’t talk over him. Even 20 minutes feels like an eternity when your baby cries like that.”

While she was pregnant, Stempski saw a display case at Seattle Children’s about the Period of PURPLE Crying so she knew a little about what to expect and what to do. “The display helped me realize ‘this is normal, it’s not me. I’m not a bad mom. It’s OK if I put him down’.”

Stempski finally saw the PURPLE videos when Henry was 4 months old and the worst of his crying had already passed. “I remember thinking ‘where was this information before he started crying?’. I hung on every word my doctor told me before sending us home from the hospital with our newborn. That video would have been really helpful.”

“PURPLE helps people prepare”

Jay Mason has experienced the jarring reality of crying infants from a couple of vantage points in the past year as the dad of a 10-month-old, a detective with the Tumwater Police Department and as a member of a child abuse prevention task force in Thurston County,

“As a detective, I’ve met parents who have hurt their child after a crying jag because they feel that they’ve run out of tools to cope and they’re failing as parents,” notes Mason, who has seen an increase in shaken babies in his jurisdiction in the past few years – an unfortunate trend that often accompanies a downturn in the economy.

“The great thing about the PURPLE materials is that it helps people prepare. The midst of a crisis is not the time to come up with ideas about what to do. We practice driving, how to parallel park, how to stop. You want to know how to do these things before you have to,” says Mason, who watched the PURPLE video for the first time while his wife was pregnant with their first child, Caleb, now 10-months.

A few months later, he thought about the video as he sat rocking his crying son. “Caleb would cry for 30 to 60 minutes and was tough to soothe. The bottle wasn’t working, walking wasn’t working, and none of my tools worked. I could feel the stress of the situation and the sweat breaking out on my forehead. I thought of parents who deal with the crying for hours at a time. It was a real eye opener for me as a parent.”

Learn more about the Period of PURPLE Crying and what parents can do to soothe their infant at www.dontshake.org, or at www.purplecrying.info.

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To arrange an interview with Dr. Ben Danielson, clinical chief at Seattle Children’s Odessa Brown Clinic, or another child abuse prevention expert, contact the Seattle Children’s public relations team at 206-987-4500 or press@seattlechildrens.org.