Fussy or irritable child

  • Definition
    • Young children who cannot talk yet will let you know when something is wrong by acting fussy or irritable. If your child is fussier than usual, it could be a sign that something is wrong.

  • Alternative Names
    • Inconsolability; irritability

  • Causes
    • It is normal for children to get fussy or whiny sometimes. There are lots of reasons why children get fussy:

      • Lack of sleep
      • Hunger
      • Frustration
      • Fight with a sibling
      • Being too hot or too cold

      Your child also may be worried about something. Ask yourself if there has been stress, sadness, or anger in your home. Young children are sensitive to stress at home, and to the mood of their parents or caregivers.

      A baby who cries for longer than 3 hours a day might have colic. Learn ways that you can help your baby with colic.

      Many common childhood illnesses can cause a child to be fussy. Most illnesses are easily treated. They include:

      Although less common, your child's fussiness may be an early sign of a more serious problem, such as:

      • Diabetes, asthma, anemia (low blood count), or other health problem
      • Serious infections, such as an infection in the lungs, kidneys, or around the brain
      • Head injury that you did not see happen
      • Hearing or speech problems
      • Autism or abnormal brain development (if fussiness does not go away and becomes more severe)
      • Depression or other mental health problems
      • Pain, such as headache or stomach ache
  • Home Care
    • Soothe your child as you would normally. Try rocking, cuddling, talking, or doing things your child finds calming.

      Address other factors that may be causing fussiness:

      • Poor sleep patterns
      • Noise or stimulation around your child (too much or too little can be a problem)
      • Stress around the home
      • Irregular day-to-day schedule

      Using your parenting skills, you should be able to calm your child and make things better. Getting your child on a regular eating, sleeping, and daily schedule can also help.

  • When to Contact a Medical Professional
    • As a parent, you know your child's usual behavior. If your child is more irritable than usual and cannot be comforted, contact your child's health care provider.

      Watch for and report other symptoms, such as:

      • Belly pain
      • Crying that persists
      • Fast breathing
      • Fever
      • Poor appetite
      • Racing heartbeat
      • Rash
      • Vomiting or diarrhea
      • Sweating
  • What to Expect at Your Office Visit
    • Your child's health care provider will work with you to learn why your child is irritable. During the office visit, the provider will:

      • Ask questions and take a history
      • Examine your child
      • Order lab tests, if needed
  • References
    • Saunders M, Gorelick MH. The acutely ill child. In: Kliegman RM, Stanton BF, St. Geme III JW, et al., eds. Nelson Textbook of Pediatrics. 19th ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Saunders Elsevier; 2011:chap. 60.