Surviving Colic

“Does anyone have a clue what we’re going through?”

Likely nothing in our entire lives leading to parenthood will ever quite prepare us for the infant with colic. Though our three children are not genetically related (two are adopted), all three had severe colic from about 3 weeks of age until just after 3 months of age. The thought quoted above is in fact mine, one I had nearly daily throughout those horrible periods. What follows are some thoughts from a former fellow-sufferer and survivor.

So what exactly is colic? Most consider it excessive crying. And what is “excessive”? Most studies quote 1-2 hours as a typical range of crying newborns (birth to about 3 months). The articles I reviewed online suggest colic is 3 or more hours of crying, 3 or more times a week. Whew! That said, I wouldn’t get too hung up on the time of crying; it’s the intensity, the apparent over-the-top stress your baby appears to be experiencing that is so upsetting.

Remarkably, no one really has a clue what causes it. But several years ago I heard a rather profound observation by a pediatric gastroenterologist that has helped me in my understanding of why parents are going to feel so helpless during these episodes. She said that when infants less than 4 months old lose control and become upset, they lack the capability to soothe themselves, and get back under control. So, for example, even if an allergic reaction to cow’s milk provoked some pain and ignited the colicky episode, that pain didn’t last 3 hours. Rather the pain was the trigger, and then the baby lost control and couldn’t recover.

Understanding this concept may help you understand why virtually no remedy ever tried has really proved effective in treating colic. For quite a while we thought gas-drops might help. Then pediatricians moved on to probiotics. One in particular, containing lactobacillus reuteri, had a double-blind, placebo-controlled study to support its effectiveness in colic. Sadly, subsequent studies have not confirmed this.

As I alluded to, there are some conditions such as cow’s milk allergy, which provide the trigger for the colic, and thus are worth trying to identify and treat. I have seen some miraculous improvements just putting such a baby on an elemental formula. Be aware though, that the vast majority of infants with colic will have no such identifiable cause.

So what are some strategies that may help you survive this difficult period, should your baby develop colic? First, be aware of your baby’s remarkable sensitivity to the “energy” in her environment, and her inability to block it. Emily, our first child, seemed like an angel all afternoon when we hosted a group of couples at our home. Everyone commented how calm she was. Later, we were up half the night with her screaming with colic. It was like she was unloading all that energy she had absorbed during the afternoon.

The most intense colic seems to be in the evenings, though paradoxically, once that screaming is over, these babies usually sleep quite well during the night. So if you suddenly notice that you’ve had 2-3 particularly bad evenings in a row, ask yourself some questions: Did I run a lot of errands with Betsy? Could it have been the six friends I invited over for a raucous session of beer-and-pizza watching a Duck or Beaver football game? If in fact there does seem to be a correlation, you might consider a very quiet day at home.

Likely the most sage advice I’ve ever heard came from a small but remarkable study by T. Berry Brazelton, M.D. — one of the giants of Pediatrics. Dr. Brazelton enrolled about 70 or so couples with colicky babies, averaging at least 2 hours of crying a day. If absolutely nothing (from rocking, to holding, to feeding, to changing the diaper) had helped, then they were encouraged to put the baby down in his crib for 3-5 minutes. Parents were to go put their feet up, try to relax, try to calm themselves.

Remarkably, the average crying-time across the entire group of babies decreased from 2 hours to 1 hour a day. Thus, the strategy didn’t eliminate the crying, but it dramatically reduced it. Why? I think that in fact, the parents, being human, were communicating their “through the roof” emotional energy to little Tommy. It is so frustrating when nothing you do to calm your crying baby seems to be helping. Then you lay little Tommy on your shoulder, and what does he do? He becomes even more unglued! Putting him down for a bit, at least temporarily, reduces that extra stimulation.

The same principle explains why I also encourage parents, when possible, to take turns with a very colicky baby. My wife Kathy and I always had a 30-minute rule: One of us would take the colicky baby; the other would head to the other end of the house and try to relax. After 30 minutes, we would switch.

Mysteriously, the colic will end nearly as abruptly as it began. One day, typically around 3 months, you’ll suddenly realize that the intense crying is over, forever.

At my house, we called it “champagne night.” Get out the champagne and celebrate!