Ages and Stages of the Fussy Baby

9:34 am |

Ages and stages of the fussy baby: toddler in sweater outside
As I’ve been following the lives of fussy babies for years now (including my own 11 and 13 year old fussy babies), I’ve gotten to see how these littles ones grow and change over time.

When Sammy was a baby, I would have given anything to have an idea of what to expect as each month (and even week) passed. Something to give me hope that things WOULD get easier. Or if they weren’t going to get easier, I suppose I wanted to know that, too.

As I’ve mentioned before on the blog, it was when Sammy was 4 months old and STILL fussy that I started to realize that we were not simply dealing with ‘colic’.

I had read Dr. Sears’ article on the high need baby, and a lightbulb went off for me: This wasn’t colic. This was just the way he was (at least for now).

Although this realization invoked a period of grieving, it was also liberating.

I wasn’t doing anything wrong. And there was nothing ‘wrong’ with my baby. 

I was finally able to stop constantly looking for answers…Is he overtired? Is he reacting to something I ate? Is there something medically wrong with him?

And start focussing on how to live with him. And not only how to survive, but how to thrive, and how to adjust my life and my thinking to accept that this was who Sammy was.

Stage #1: The ‘Colic’ Stage

‘Colic’ typically begins at 2-3 weeks of age (or 2-3 weeks adjusted age for preemies), and ends around 3-4 months.

The official definition of colic is as follows: At least 3 hours of crying, 3 days a week, for 3 weeks or more. 

Colic typically looks like this:

Your baby has periods of inconsolable crying, most often in the evening hours. During the day, he typically has periods of contentment, but come evening, all hell breaks loose. You may find yourself walking, hushing, soothing, and carrying until the wee hours of the morning.

The latest research seems to indicate that colic is a developmental stage that babies pass through.  The research also indicates that:

  • Less than 5% of babies show evidence of a disease that would explain the crying
  • A normal infant may cry from 1-5 hours a day
  • Crying peaks during first 2 months of life
  • Crying lessens after the 4th or 5th month
  • Average crying bouts can last 35-40 minutes, up to a couple of hours
  • Usually occurs in the late afternoon or evening
  • Fussiness that gets worse after 4 months may be due to temperament
  • Colic gets better – if crying is due to temperament, it may persist.

The good news is that if your baby’s crying began at 2-3 weeks of age, and typically occurs at a predictable time of day, your baby most likely has colic and will outgrow it by 3-4 months of age.

If your baby is colicky, you can, most likely, stop reading now.

If you’re looking for further help with getting through this stage (I mean, who isn’t?!), I highly suggest reading and implementing the techniques outlined in The Happiest Baby on the Block.

But for some of you, your baby will have passed the 3-4 month mark, and he or she is still fussy. Did you just gasp a little bit at the last 2 points above? I did when I first read them. But keep reading…

How Do I Know if it’s Colic or Temperament?

This brings me to my next, very important, point. You may not like this, and there’s a chance I’m wrong, but I’ve seen this over and over again over the past 5 years.

In my experience, babies that are:

  • Very fussy right from birth, and
  • Fuss, cry or scream throughout the entire day and night (not just at certain times)

tend to be that way because of their temperament.

This is not ALWAYS the case. However I’ve seen it happen enough times that I can say with great confidence that it is OFTEN the case.

Now is the time to take a deep breath.

Things will NOT always be like they are now. Just because your baby has a sensitive temperament does NOT mean your life is over. It doesn’t even mean your life will always be difficult. It just may be a bit…different than you expected.

Stage #2: The High Need Baby

If your baby has passed the 4 month mark and is still fussy, or as I always thought of it, ‘high maintenance’, there’s a good chance she is high need.

Obviously, this term is simply descriptive. It is not a medical term, and it doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with your baby. It simply describes how babies of a certain temperament type behave as infants.

Much as we know that introverts need time alone in order to recharge, we know that some babies (approximately 1 in 5) need more stimulation and interaction to remain calm, have difficulty falling into feeding and sleeping routines, and are just generally more sensitive.

I like to think of these babies as passionate.

Passionate about what they like, passionate about what they don’t like. Able to voice their concerns loudly, and the life of the party when they’re happy. Full of energy and life.

And absolutely exhausting.

Wondering if your baby is high need?

Some of the main characteristics of high need babies are:

  • Intense
  • Hyperactive
  • Draining on parents
  • Feeds frequently
  • Demanding (requires a lot of attention)
  • Awakens frequently
  • Unsatisfied (read: grumpy)
  • Unpredictable
  • Super-sensitive
  • Can’t be put down
  • Not a self-soother
  • Separation-sensitive
  • Difficulty entertaining themselves
  • LOVES to be around people, noise and activity, OR
  • HATES to be around people, noise and activity.

Many, many parents I’ve spoken to report that their high need baby becomes easier and more able to self-soothe as they gain new skills and are able to become a little more independent.

For instance, we noticed a huge improvement in Sammy’s fussiness the very day he learned to crawl. Many parents say that they notice improvements with each new milestone: Sitting, crawling, walking, talking, etc.

We noticed the most significant improvements in Sammy’s fussiness at 6 weeks (at this point he started having periods of contentedness during the day), 3 months (he fussed most of the day instead of crying/screaming), and at 8.5 months (when he started crawling).

If you’re looking for more help at this stage, I recommend reading The Fussy Baby Book: Parenting Your High-Need Child From Birth to Age Five. While this book suggests that an attachment parenting approach will work best for high need babies, keep in mind that this isn’t the case for all high need babies; as always, do what works best for you and your child.

Stage #3: The Spirited Child

I think of high need babies as tiny versions of the ‘spirited child’. When a baby is around 4-12 months, it feels too young to give them a label such as ‘spirited’.

And yet, again, spirited is simply a way of describing a certain set of temperament traits.

Spirited children tend to be:

  • Intense
  • Persistent
  • Sensitive
  • Perceptive
  • unable to handle transitions well
  • Irregular in terms of eating and sleeping patterns
  • Slow to warm up to new people and situations

Many parents of spirited toddlers and preschoolers report that their little ones:

  • Have trouble with transitions such as diaper changes, getting dressed/undressed, getting into the carseat, turning off the TV or putting away a toy, etc.
  • Have trouble with changes in routines, such as after an illness, a holiday, a visit from family, etc.
  • Have intense temper tantrums
  • Can go from happy and laughing to upset and screaming in seconds, for no apparent reason
  • Don’t settle into routines like other kids (for instance they may get hungry or tired at different times each day)
  • Wakes up unhappy after sleeping, even if he’s fully rested
  • When happy, are the life of the party
  • Gets bored with toys & solitary play quickly
  • Are active
  • Need a lot of physical contact
  • Are not easily distracted.
For us, and I know for many other parents of spirited children, the ability to vocalize thoughts and feelings facilitated a huge change in our child’s behaviours. The more they are able to verbalize their frustrations, the less they need to act them out through crying, fussing or tantrums.

*I have also noticed that many spirited children tend to demonstrate the above characteristics only when they are with close family members. Many of the parents of spirited children I have talked to report that their child behaves well (even above average) at daycare or school.

If you’re looking for more help at this stage, I highly recommend reading Raising Your Spirited Child: A Guide for Parents Whose Child Is More Intense, Sensitive, Perceptive, Persistent, and Energetic.

Summary: What to Expect by Age

Birth – 3 Weeks

If your baby is ‘simply’ colicky, the first 2-3 weeks should be relatively calm. Your baby will likely sleep and feed much of the time, and be relatively content when awake.

If your baby cries/screams frequently starting right at birth, he may be doing this because of his sensitive temperament.*

*You will want to consult with your physician to be sure there’s not something physiological going on, such as reflux or an allergy.

3 Weeks – 4 Months

If your baby has colic, you’ll start to notice an improvement in fussiness and crying around 3-4 months of age. The fussiness may gradually decrease, or it may end suddenly.

If your baby is high need, the crying and fussiness will also likely begin to improve around 3-4 months of age. The fussiness will likely not disappear entirely, however the all-day inconsolable crying should end. You may notice that your baby simply needs a lot of attention, movement, and carrying in order to keep from fussing. You’ll also begin to notice how much fun your baby can be when she’s happy…her smile and laugh light up the room, and stranger may comment on how charming and happy she is (if only they knew what she was like at home!).

4 Months – 1 Year

If your baby had colic, he has very likely outgrown the crying and fussiness. He may still struggle with post-colic sleep issues – babies that are used to being carried, rocked or held while they fall asleep may need to learn to self-soothe at this point.

If your baby is high need, you’ll likely be finding it difficult to establish feeding and sleeping routines at this stage. Life is likely MUCH easier than it was the first few months, however your little one can still be draining at times.

When your baby is happy, EVERYONE is happy. She’s the life of the party. You’re finally beginning to understand why many parents actually report liking parenthood!

But when she’s upset, watch out. She will let you know, long and loud. You’re becoming an expert at the art of distraction. You find keeping her busy and entertained whether with games, music, baths, outings, or walks keeps her mostly content. However she’s probably not that great at playing independently for more than a few minutes.

You’ll likely see improvements in the fussiness at each new milestone: Sitting independently, crawling, walking, learning basic commands in sign language, or speaking his first few words.

Life with your little one still may not be how you pictured parenthood, and the memories of the first few months still linger. But overall, life is getting easier, and you’re feeling connected and bonded with your baby.

You’re figuring out strategies for enjoying life with your baby, and are learning to accept him as he is, instead of who you thought he would be.

You’ve likely settled into your ‘new reality’, and life is feeling much more normal.

1 Year – 3 Years

This is the stage that differs greatly from child to child. Parents of spirited toddlers typically report tantrums starting early, sometimes as early as 15 months. Tantrums may be frequent and intense.

While you may find your toddler is a picky eater and is slow to warm up to new foods, she has likely settled into a more predictable eating routine.

She is likely very active and playful, but may still be struggling with night wakings (naps are probably  a little more regular at this point). She may need some assistance learning how to sleep at this point.

When she’s happy, she’s VERY happy and a joy to be around. She is quick to laugh, and is a little charmer.

She may still have difficulty playing independently, and may need adult interaction in order to keep occupied.

Transitions are not her friend: Giving her lots of warning before a transition is about to occur is helpful. Diaper changes, getting dressed or undressed, ending or starting a new activity may elicit cries of protest. Establishing a daily routine is important at this age so she knows what to expect throughout the day.

3 Years +

As your child becomes more independent and more verbal, life is becoming much more manageable. The tantrums may be gone, or at least getting less frequent.

Your child is really coming into his own: The more trying traits of the spirited personality are not being displayed as frequently, as he is beginning to learn how to deal with his intense emotions.

He is likely still very sensitive. His feelings get hurt easily, and he feels thing intensely. He is likely still very active, intense, and persistent.

Teachers or daycare providers may report that he is a joy to have around. That he listens well, gets along well with the other kids, and is quick to pick up new skills and abilities. They may even report that your child is above average in terms of intelligence or social skills.

You can say at this point that you are HAPPY to have a SPIRITED CHILD! You thought this day would never come, but the memories of the first months are fading, and you feel lucky to have such a sensitive, passionate child.

You have had to adapt a different, more flexible parenting style, but overall life is so much easier and you’re loving parenthood (most of the time).

I hope the above timeline is helpful in terms of knowing what to expect at each age and stage with your fussy baby. I think it goes without saying that each child is unique, and the ages and behaviours discussed above may not apply to every child.

However after talking with hundreds (thousands?) of parents of fussy babies, and having had 2 of my own, I’m confident that many spirited kids fall into the timeline above.

The Fussy Baby Survival Guide

If you’re looking for more answers and guidance regarding your high need or fussy child, you might be interested in my new ebook, The Fussy Baby Survival Guide. It’s jam-packed with information, strategies, stories and the full results of two surveys I’ve done of parents of high need babies.  It answers questions like:

  • How do I know if my baby is colicky, high need, or something else entirely?
  • Will my high need baby ever get easier? And if so, WHEN?
  • Is “high need” a real thing? Is there any research to back it up?
  • What are the most effective strategies for helping my high need baby sleep?
  • How do I deal with my child’s INTENSE tantrums?

For more info or to grab your copy now, click here!


photo credit: Philippe Put baby walking via photopin (license)

Holly Klaassen has been running The Fussy Baby Site since 2007. Inspired to start the site after giving birth to her second child, the site aims to provide support and information to parents of fussy, colicky, high need or 'spirited' babies and kids. The main message of this site? You are not alone! When Holly isn't writing for The Fussy Baby Site, she can be found writing for other businesses on topics related to digital marketing, social media, business, and of course, parenting.

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Category: Colic, High Need Babies, Spirited Kids

Comments (19)

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  1. Keri says:

    I am fairly certain my spirited little girl had her first tantrum at 9.5 months and has been having them ever since.

    • Brandi says:

      7 months here. I remember it clearly. That is when I had to start putting my hands behind his head when I put him down, to gauge if he was going to throw himself back in a fit or not. Eventually he got smart and started to look to see what kind of surface he was on and if it was a good idea to throw his head back or if slapping the ground, screaming, looking at me offended, and kicking the ground would be enough.

    • Sarah says:

      My little girls has had tantrums for months now(15 months now). She is a nightmare to drive with still and I avoid taking her in the car alone. However I did take her on a cruise with my mother and husband. It was mostly a success . She loves crowds and charming people . Dinners quickly became a crying fit because she wants to always run and explore. My high needs child hates being strapped to anything, me, the car seat, the stroller anything. We bought a backpack leash so you could walk on her own and that helped a lot. Needless to say life is getting better but she still doesn’t sleep through the night and will through a fit as soon as we won’t let her do exactly what she wants. I envy the women who have children that sit peacefully in their strollers and car seats.

  2. Daisy says:

    This sums up my 6 month old baby. After his colic stage deminished, he seems to be very demanding, not a self soother, he fills the list. Toddler stages he shows signs of,the hates getting dressed, and he hates car seats. Very nice to see something we can relate to.

  3. Caitlinn says:

    This article has brought me great comfort. My daughter is now 14 months and she is still as fussy and persistent as ever. Your timeline matches up perfectly as of yet. My first child, my son Elijah, was a calm and very relaxed baby- so my daughter was quite a shock. It is great to know it will (most likely) get better and manifest into a positive personality trait. Thank you so much. (I also found the “It’s not just colic, etc” article extremely comforting. After dealing with this “temperament” for over a year…I finally do not feel so alone. I wish I stumbled upon your website sooner!! haha)

  4. Cara says:

    Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. I thought that it was just my baby who was like this. This post has made me feel so much better. I have spent the last months waiting for the fussiness to magically disappear as book suggest but with the help of my pediatrician we have come to the conclusion that it is just her temperament. I went down the list of characteristics of high need babies and my 4 month old daughter fits all but one. Now I can get on with our lives together in confidence, stop wishing for her to change and be content that she is who she is.

  5. Terra says:

    Wow this is exactly what my child is like. She is only 18 months old now but is following along this timeline exactly. It’s good to know what the future will likely be like. I’m reading this after a morning that involved her screaming and crying for 4 hours straight for no apparent reason and my nerves are fried. Knowing people have similar children really helps!! Thanks!

  6. Jessica says:

    My wee girl is 20 months and this describes her perfectly. She is my first so i thought she was normal, until i saw her around other babies! What a shock that was.

  7. Jennifer says:

    We are at 3.5 months and things seem to be getting worse, not better. I definitely think we fit into the “high needs” category but instead of things looking up, we find ourselves feeling more and more lost.

    • Holly says:

      Jennifer, I’m sorry things aren’t improving yet. Your comment was last week…has anything gotten better? Both colicky and high need babies usually experience some improvement by 4 months, so don’t lose hope!

    • Brandi says:

      Hey Jennifer,
      That was about the point I was ready to run away and never come back. I hadn’t slept in 3.5 months and I lived in fear of what would piss him off next. I can’t tell you that it gets better in a week or two, like others did to me, but I can tell you that you are not alone. I can tell you that your kid is fine just the way they are and the best thing I did was learn who he was and how to deal with it instead of hoping things would get “better”. Things really didn’t get better until he started crawling, like the article said, things got amazing and I finally understood why people wanted these little creatures when he started walking, just like the article said. He’s not easy, but his milestones are so much cooler than other kids his age. I love his differences and how he knows what he likes.I learned to love it I think, but at the point you are I hated everything about it. Hang in there, you have a sweet and unique child in there. Their little bodies just need to catch up to their sharp and intense minds.

  8. Lacey Craig says:

    So glad to have found this article! My son is 13 months old and a very fussy, grumpy fella. He throws a tantrum through about 80% of diaper changes. He is very clingy at times and starts fussing as soon as I return home from a 1 hour outing. As a stay/work at home mom, the days get very long! I had an inkling this was just his personality, as I have taken him to the doctor and we’ve found nothing wrong. I am relieved to read this article, confirming my thoughts, and reassuring me that I’m not alone. Thanks so much!!

  9. Brandi Lauer says:

    Amazing article. I did figure out almost immediately that nothing was "wrong" with my kiddo and this was just how/who he was. I did this all as a single mom and with no family help or anyone to guide me. I still don't know how I survived it, but I know I am not out of the woods yet. It's so hard and I am so drained that often I have a good cry and beer in the shower lol. He is everything you stated here and the timeline and praise seems about right. It's been hard, but I think it is more rewarding. You can't hold his hand, it makes him mad, but this morning on a walk to stop him from crying he reached his little hand up and took mine. These moments that are so normal to other parents are so magical to me.

  10. Jennifer Hajdu says:

    You described our 4 1/2 month old perfectly. We are happy to be out of the all day screaming routine and into the I must consume all of your attention phase. Still draining but with lots more smiles.

  11. Squeaky says:

    My son should be the poster child on the site!It’s so isolating and yes a time of grieving for the child you thought you’d get. Then there are the good parts that make me feel terrible for complaining! Love the feedback from other parents, if only you lived down the street and we could meet it would feel like I’m the weird mom with the crazy child. 🙂

  12. Annie says:

    Hi there – I have a 6 week old son (almost 7 weeks) and I’m starting to think this may be him. He doesn’t cry nonstop, but cries very intensely when he doesn’t like something – often when he’s moved, held for too long, or put in a carrier or carseat. It sounds like many of these high needs babies need to be held all the time, but he doesn’t really like to be held and is more content in a bouncy chair or just lying on the floor. But he’a very alert and interactive and seems to enjoy people. He likes to be held (or tolerates it) only if we are constantly bouncing or walking with him. He isn’t a fan of carriers until he falls asleep in them – but wails loudly until we’ve walked for a bit and the bouncing calms him. Is this indicative of a high needs baby in some cases? I’m worried he won’t ever like being held or cuddled, and it’s just not quite how I pictured it to be with a newborn.

  13. Lindsay says:

    You hit the nail on the head. My baba is 9.5 months and has been fussy since week 2 ( week 1 and 2 she slept all the time). Then she started fussiness and crying non-stop until 4 months which my pead said was colic…. The sleep deprivation, guilt over not being able to breast feed and the realization that it wasn’t what I thought it would be lead to an intense panic attack and PND. She could not sleep more than 15 minuets and struggled to feed so when I went to my GP for a PND consult he said something that will never leave me… He said a baby needs sleep and food, get those things right and there will be a difference. At 4 months we met with a baby care and sleep consultant… We put her on a routine (with a lot of crying) and after about a week there was a great difference but not entirely. The sleeping and feeding improved but she was still fussy. The pead then diagnosed her with silent reflux, she went on Nexium and there was an improvement, but she was still fussy. After that it’s been a blur mostly, but with every development milestone she improves incrementally. My hubby and work like a well oiled machine by helping each other and loving our baba no matter how much her screaming makes me think she it trying to say “I hate you… Can’t u just give me what I want!!!” Because of reflux she hates being on her tummy so she still isn’t crawling, but she seems to pull herself in a standing position so something tells me she will skip crawling and go straight to walking. She’s smart, already talking a bit – she says hello, mama, dada, NO, go-go and a few other words. My sister is still convinced there is something medically wrong and insists that I must tell my pead to do blood tests ( which he thinks is not necessary) but in my heart and after reading this… I just think she is spirited and has her own little personality, we just need to let her be herself and love her all the time.

  14. DawnL says:

    This sounds a lot like our twenty month old. She is incredibly happy and charming and sociable… Until she is not, in which case she proceeds to attempt to destroy our eardrums with screeches that sound like we’re torturing her in unspeakable ways. Crying it out doesn’t work, she just gets more and more upset until she throws up. She’s a terrible sleeper, too. She does not self sooth. I’ve been at my wits end a million times. But it is getting better slowly. The tolerable days are coming more often.