I sat on a canopied café patio with my partner, another couple, and our respective babies. My 6-month-old perched on my knee, swiping at my breakfast burrito and iced coffee, making a respectable effort to pull both off the table. Our friends’ daughter, who was the same age as our son, started screaming, eyes shut, mouth gaping and contorted. Neither bottle nor toy soothed her, so we parents soldiered on in our attempt to be the sort of new parents who do things like leave the house and have conversations with other adults.
“She’s been fussy today,” our friends explained.
It seemed like an understatement.
Before I became a parent or moved in baby-saturated social circles, I equated “fussy” with a mild negative affect, picturing a sour-faced infant emitting occasional cries of displeasure. Surely a fussy baby existed in the same emotional octave as an adult who’s fussy about punctuation: a low simmer of complaint, not a rolling boil. But in conversations with pediatricians, postpartum care providers, and fellow parents, I heard the term applied to a huge swath of the affective spectrum. Sometimes it meant the fleeting irritation I’d imagined. Other times it meant incessant, tortured screaming—what I would have called “completely losing it,” or “having lost it so thoroughly that having had it at all is only a dim memory.”
There was even a medicalized term for persistent fussiness in newborns: colic. The conventional definition is intense crying for 3 or more hours a day, at least 3 days a week, for 3 weeks. But “colic,” while often unquestioned as a matter of medical fact, is an arbitrarily defined and poorly understood term that is more a description of a symptom than it is a conventional diagnosis. Other pediatricians, I found out later, have rebranded this early part of a baby’s life (roughly 2 weeks to 3–4 months) as “the period of PURPLE crying” to try to normalize it for shocked parents. We balked at the idea that intense crying was inherently unusual, but nobody ever told us about PURPLE. We were stuck with “fussy,” which came along with us as our baby grew from newborn to infant.
Perusing dictionary definitions of “fussy” confirmed its inadequacy for describing such a broad range of behavioral phenomena: “hard to satisfy or please,” “too concerned about having things exactly as you want them,” “anxious or particular about petty details,” “excessively busy with trifles.” These definitions exude more than a hint of judgment and dismissiveness. To call someone “fussy” is to accuse them of overreaction based on a subjective determination of “reasonable” behavior in a given situation. And if their behavior is excessive or unjustified, that suggests they could—and perhaps should—behave differently.
In light of these subtexts, fussy is an odd way to describe babies. Because they’re, well, babies. Beyond a handful of empirically verifiable needs (food, sleep, affection, clean diapers), much of the infant experience is unknowable to us, which makes any finding of unjustifiable behavior presumptuous. Babies are pure id. They enter the world devoid of self-awareness, perspective, or the ability to mediate their emotional reactions. (Such an ability would, in fact, be maladaptive—crying is a critical tool for communicating their needs.) To be a baby is to be engulfed by the stimuli and sensations of the present moment. If anyone should be spared from expectations of modulated behavior, it’s those whose age is measured in months.
I’m not suggesting that using the word “fussy” implies a particular perspective or parenting style. None of this was on my mind when fussy took root in my vocabulary during the undead haze of early parenthood, and I suspect I’m not alone. My exhaustion was such that I often forgot what my partner and I had said to each other minutes before, and I struggled to summon basic words like “dishwasher.” I was in no state to consider the semantic implications of my parental vocabulary. Thanks to fussy’s ubiquity in the babysphere, it was simply the most convenient way to describe a common phenomenon.
Is the term’s popularity coincidental, or is its incumbency attributable to some inherent functionality the word offers? In those initial months, my partner and I often ran through well-marketed acronymic checklists of soothing strategies while our newborn’s crying escalated to an animalistic wailing we called “goat mode.” We felt responsible for his emotional state, and that sometimes led to feelings of guilt or incompetence when we didn’t know what was wrong or how to remedy the situation.
Enter the word “fussy.” It’s analgesic, dulling the empathic pain caregivers feel when their infant is crying. Fussy isn’t a label people often apply to themselves, so it’s harder to empathize with. This creates emotional separation. If a baby is fussy (instead of a more legitimate form of upset), maybe they’re not really suffering that much—just overreacting. And maybe we can feel a little less responsible for their experience if we’re struggling to understand and soothe them. Looking back on those goat-mode moments, the appeal of these implications, even if subconscious, was unmistakable.
I aspired to decrease my reliance on the word fussy but found it as stubborn as English ivy. It escaped my lips before I could remember to substitute an alternative, like upset. What finally steeled my resolve was an accidental connection to another word. My partner and I worked with a sleep coach to help our son learn to fall asleep independently in his crib. She asked us to keep a comprehensive sleep log, including noting the baby’s disposition when placed in the crib. I resorted to using “fussy” with the modifiers one finds in consumer sentiment surveys: a little fussy, somewhat fussy, moderately fussy, very fussy, or extremely fussy. For the times when extremely fussy couldn’t sufficiently capture his level of upset, I settled on a word that was more definitionally extreme: “hysterical.”
Calling babies “fussy,” I realized, shares something with calling women “hysterical” (although the former pales in comparison to the problematic history of the latter). Both words skip past curiosity to judgment. Both minimize and delegitimize the experience of others by dismissing behavior as unjustified. Both lump an expansive variety of experiences under a reductive umbrella term. Even if this isn’t our conscious intent in using fussy, it’s hard to see how it advances a nuanced and developmentally appropriate understanding of our children.
It’s been many months since I last described my son as “fussy.” I don’t think there’s one perfect alternative, although my current favorite is “experiencing distress.” It’s nonjudgmental, and it possesses a certain humility: We may not know why he’s distressed, but we can still acknowledge it. What I value most is describing my son’s experience with the same palette of adjectives I’d use to describe my own. He might be feeling upset, fatigued, frustrated, alarmed, overstimulated, uncomfortable, ignored, afraid, or distressed. But now I can confidently rule out fussiness.