I know that babies cry, but by the time my daughter was 3 weeks old, it was clear that something was wrong. She would cry literally for hours — sounding to me as though she was in pain — and nothing my husband or I tried would console her. After struggling through two sleepless nights, we took her to the pediatrician and handed over our wailing, red-faced infant, hoping the doctor could fix the situation. A few more trips to the doctor’s office, and we eventually got little more than condolences and a diagnosis of “colic.”
“What do you do for that?” my husband asked hopefully. The answer at the time was stunningly discouraging: “You can try your best to see what soothes her, and it should go away when she’s about 3 months old,” the doctor said.
A common problem
I look back on those colicky three months as one of the hardest times our family has endured, and my story is not uncommon. According to American Family Physician, up to 25 percent of infants are born with colic -- and no one knows what causes colic. For years, it’s been speculated that colic may originate in a baby’s intestines. “But new information is starting to rule that out, mainly because the therapies for it have not been effective,” says Dr. Drew Fillipo, a pediatrician at North Seattle Pediatrics.
Some newer studies suggest colicky babies may be extra sensitive to the stimulus of the outside world. “It’s an idea I think is very possible,” says Fillipo. “Some infants may just be born with immature brain development, causing them to be more fussy.”
All babies cry, so when is it colic? Jeanne Schneider, a facilitator for a postpartum support group at Evergreen Hospital and Regional Medical Center in Kirkland, says a normal newborn can cry off and on for a total of about two hours a day. “But when you have a truly colicky baby, it doesn’t sound like a normal cry; it’s more of an intense sound,” she says. Because of this, when colic first comes on, many parents think there is something physically wrong with their baby.
Fillipo says a good pediatrician will rule out gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), as well as an ear or viral infection. Then the doctor can use the “rule of threes” to help determine if it’s colic. That’s when a normal, healthy baby has long periods of crying lasting three or more hours a day, for at least three days a week, for more than three weeks. Many times the crying episodes will begin in the early evening, last four hours, and then abruptly stop.
Parents can try various soothing techniques to quiet the baby, such as swaddling, movement (using an infant swing or stroller, or putting the baby in a sling), shushing sounds or a pacifier. But Fillipo discourages folk remedies such as peppermint oil, gripe water, herbal teas or simethicone drops. “There’s really no medication or treatment that works,” he says. “The best use of a parent’s time and energy should be spent finding support.”
Support for colic
A colicky baby can put tremendous stress on a family, and Schneider explains that it’s common for parents to experience marital problems as well as anxiety or depression. This can turn into a cycle wherein the tension of the household can feed the baby’s anxiety, causing even more crying.
Liz Warren, a West Seattle mom who had a colicky infant last year, remembers, “My daughter cried a lot of the time she was awake, and she liked being held all the time. I could never put her down, so I didn’t sleep much at all.” The combination of the continuous crying and a lack of sleep put a strain on her marriage and led to her depression. “I remember at the end of last summer, it was so beautiful out, and I had a new baby, but I basically couldn’t enjoy anything. It was like my whole world was just surviving the day.”
When each day seems like a struggle, Fillipo warns parents to be aware of their own limitations, because a colicky baby is at risk for shaken baby syndrome. “It’s OK when you get frustrated to put your baby in a safe place and walk away for five or 10 minutes to calm yourself,” he says. Fillipo also recommends reaching out to your spouse, friends and family to have someone take the baby for a bit of time each day to give the primary caregiver a break.
Warren was lucky to have family nearby she could call for help. “There was one day that I told my husband, ‘I can’t do this anymore. She’s not going to be safe. I think you need to call your mom to come help me.’ I would never hurt her. But I can see how someone can do that,” she says.
“If a mother does have depression, she should definitely get counseling,” Schneider advises. “And accessing a support network will really help. But it’s important to not have critical support. If a mom is getting a lot of ‘You shoulds …’ that’s not good support.
“Kind, loving support is really what she needs.”
Katie Amodei is a Lynnwood-based freelance writer, mother and stepmother who had a colicky baby in 2001.