Babies cry — sometimes a lot. It’s how they communicate, especially in the early days. But what happens when your baby continues crying even after you’ve fed, changed, and soothed them? Well, you may be experiencing something called the “PURPLE cry.”
In short: The “Period of PURPLE Crying” is a concept specifically developed to explain this otherwise unexplained crying — and reduce incidents of shaken baby syndrome that can come out of the frustration that results.
The Period of PURPLE Crying starts when your baby is around 2 weeks old and generally ends when they reach their 3- or 4-month birthday. This idea that it’s a finite period — in other words, it has an end — is meant to give new parents hope that the unexplained crying won’t last forever.
And as you may have suspected by the all caps, PURPLE is an acronym. Each letter stands for an aspect of the crying and what you can expect.
- P – Peak of crying
- U – Unexpected
- R – Resists soothing
- P – Pain-like face
- L – Long lasting
- E – Evening
Again, while it may feel never-ending, this stage doesn’t last forever. Crying may be excessive at times, however. Unexplained, prolonged crying is the most common trigger for shaking a baby, so it’s important to know what to expect.
The good news is that understanding what’s going on is half the battle. Keep reading to find some tips that may help you cope until you get through to the other side.
The first P of the PURPLE cry stands for peak of crying. You may see an uptick in your baby’s fussiness starting around 2 weeks. This crying may crescendo to a peak between 6 and 8 weeks before lessening when your baby is 3 to 5 months old.
Of course, when your baby cries, you immediately run down that list of needs they may have. Are they hungry? Tired? Is their diaper wet or dirty?
Thing is, the nature of the PURPLE cry is that it’s absolutely unexpected. It may come out of nowhere and seem to be for no reason. It may stop just as unexpectedly.
After you’ve tried all your usual tricks, you may find that your baby’s still crying. No amount of bouncing or shhh-ing may quiet them. You may run out of ideas and get quite exhausted and frustrated. That’s because the PURPLE cry often resists soothing.
Related: What is a high needs baby?
If you take a moment to look at your baby through the tears, you may see that they look like they’re in pain.
Most sources on this matter explain that babies may look like they’re in pain even if they are not. But thinking that your little one is in pain can be a very difficult feeling, especially if your soothing measures aren’t helping.
Crying spells may last a long time during the period of PURPLE crying. Exactly how long will depend on your individual baby. But to be classified as a PURPLE cry, the crying lasts up to 5 hours each day and sometimes more. But it always ends — eventually.
Your baby may seem like all they do is sleep, eat, and cry. Hang in there.
Have you heard of the “witching hour”? This term describes crying that tends to appear or intensify in the late afternoon and evening hours, and it’s pretty common.
While much about the PURPLE cry is unexpected and maddening, you may be able to prepare yourself by understanding the rhythm of when it happens from day to day.
Seasoned parents and grandparents may say that your baby is colicky. But what exactly does this mean?
PURPLE crying and colic are two terms that describe the way some babies cry in the infant period. Dr. Ronald Barr, an American pediatrician and “world expert on infant crying,” coined the term PURPLE cry as a way to help parents understand better what’s happening when their babies cry in the colic period.
Information you’ll find on the characteristics of colic go hand-in-hand with the PURPLE acronym. The actual definition of colic may be somewhat different, but it is describing the same thing in the same age group. Colic is typically defined as your baby crying 3 or more hours each day for 3 or more days out of each week for 3 weeks or longer.
Most of the time, there is no identifiable cause for colic. Babies with colic — or, put another way, babies who are in the Period of PURPLE Crying — are generally healthy.
Related: Colic and crying
What to do? First of all, take a deep breath and remind yourself that this period of infant crying will not last forever. If you suspect your baby’s sick or has some other issue that needs attention, make an appointment with your pediatrician to rule that out.
Otherwise, it’s all about making a plan and staying sane.
- Try running through that list of needs. While PURPLE crying is unexpected, your baby may still be hungry, tired, wet/dirty, too cold/hot, or have some other need that needs to be addressed.
- Consider carrying your baby in a baby carrier or just in your arms. Being snug and close to you may help soothe them or even get them to sleep. It’ll also allow you to get some things done hands-free.
- While you’re carrying them, try gently rocking or bouncing. Any type of rhythmic motion may help — even if it means strapping your baby into their car seat and taking a short drive.
- Turn on tunes or other soothing sounds. Try singing to your baby or switching on a white noise machine. Any rhythmic/repetitive sound will do, and noise machines often come with a variety of options. Your baby may even have a preference, whether it’s ocean waves, a rainstorm, birds chirping, etc.
- Give your baby a bath or infant massage. Your baby may respond well to warmth and touch.
- Entertain them. You may consider pointing out different objects in your home. You can show them a mirror, book, or even the television for short periods of time to see if it helps them snap out of crying.
- Take a break. When all else fails, hand your baby to your partner or another caregiver. If you’re alone, it’s also completely OK to put your baby down in a safe space and walk away for a few minutes of respite. The crib should be free from toys, pillows, and blankets.
Related: Help! My baby won’t stop crying!
Excessive crying for weeks on end can be a lot to deal with. And it doesn’t happen in isolation to the other challenges of the newborn period, like recovery from childbirth, possible postpartum depression, sleepless nights, frequent feedings, and more.
Frustration with early infant crying is the leading cause of infant abuse. For this reason, it’s important to know that the Period of PURPLE Crying exists, and that there are ways to cope.
With shaken baby syndrome, a parent or caregiver shakes a baby hard enough to make their brain move back and forth within the skull. A baby’s brain is very fragile, so moving in this way may cause anything from swelling to bleeding to bruising.
While it can be difficult to understand why someone would shake a baby, it tends to happen out of frustration or even anger that a baby won’t stop crying.
Shaken baby syndrome can lead to complications like blindness, developmental issues, seizure disorders, and even death. Sometimes a baby may not exhibit symptoms immediately following shaking.
If you ever get so frustrated that you shake your baby, or even if you feel like you’re going to, get help right away.
Being a new parent is hard. Dealing with PURPLE crying and colic can feel impossible at times.
If you reach the point where you feel you may harm your baby, it doesn’t mean you’re a monster. It means you need a break — immediately.
Try to surround yourself with a support network of your partner and/or other people who can give you some respite. When that’s not an option, place your baby in a safe spot and take a few minutes to breathe.