Fussiness in Infancy May Predict Future Behavior Problems, Study Finds

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Parenting a Fussy Child -- Interventions for a Less Fussy Future?

There are various factors influencing later behavioral problems, ranging from a genetic predisposition to parenting style to stress experienced while still in the womb. Exactly how these factors interact and play out during a child's development is not well understood, but researchers have noted that childhood environment, including parenting style, in combination with infant fussiness are powerful predictors of future problems.

"The vast majority of infants are born completely disregulated. They have no ability to self-soothe, they adhere to no schedule of sleep or elimination, and they must learn how to feed. The infant becomes regulated only via the infant-care giver relationship, and is therefore quite dependent on a reliable and empathic care giver," says Briggs.

The question becomes, how can caregivers parent in a way that enables children to learn good emotional and physical regulation skills?

What these children need is a great deal of structure, Wolke says: "They need predictable patterns for eating and sleeping. They need to be allowed to calm themselves or they will always depend on [the crutch] of being held or fed or whatever is used to soothe them."

Babies who are difficult to soothe often spur parents to resort to soothing "tricks," such as rides in the car, feeding the baby into submission, or constant holding. Though these techniques work in the short-term, the fussy infant never learns how to soothe themselves.

Parents shouldn't take a child's fussiness personally, but they should take a personal interest in learning special skills that will equip them to deal with their child's needs, says Judith Myers-Walls, professor emerita of child development and family studies at Purdue University.

"Having a child like that is not necessarily a result of anything the parents did or didn't do, [but] parents can always improve their responses to the child," she says.

Seeking the counsel of the child's pediatrician is also a wise move if a fussy baby remains difficult to soothe well into the first year of life.

"It takes more to adequately parent a child who presents behavior challenges. So the entire process can become a spiral downward when an infant is difficult to care for. It is critical for professionals to help families deal with these difficult situations in order to break the cycle," says Myers-Walls.

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