Helping Get Through the Crying of Colic

Fourth TrimesterIt’s a vivid memory. I was a new mommy with a very tiny new baby. I was just beginning to feel like I was getting a handle on mothering, when she began to cry. And cry. And cry. Every night, my tiny, precious baby would wail. It always happened after dinner, and always lasted for two or three hours. I was so very confused. She was well breastfed, lovingly carried throughout the day, changed, and clean. She was happy most other times and engaged in life. Yet night after night she would enter this crying zone and no amount of anything would console her. The doctor said she was healthy and thriving, and he could find no medical reason for her tears. So I did the only thing my heart told me to: I carried her and walked with her through her crying spells, until one day they just stopped, and our evenings became peaceful times of connection and play.

I am here to tell you that time passed quickly, as is often the case with babies, but the memory remains. I learned a lot through that process, and happily, my other three children did not suffer from colic, but I learned so much. I now share this knowledge with many confused parents of colicky babies. I also found that the information I learned about colic crying was easily applied to non-colic crying in most cases. So the comforting measures discovered to aid colic can be useful to help any parent of a crying baby.

What exactly is colic?

You may have heard the term “colic” applied to any baby who cries a great deal. However, not all crying babies have colic, but all colicky babies cry ¾ and they cry hard and long, as my story shows. They may stiffen their little bodies, or curl up as if in pain. They may cry so intensely that they don’t seem like they even know you are there. When babies cry like this, they take in a lot of air, which creates gas and more pain, which makes them cry even more.

Researchers are still unsure of colic’s exact cause. Some experts believe that colic is related to the immaturity of a baby’s digestive system. Others theorize that a baby’s immature nervous system and inability to handle the constant sensory stimulation that surrounds her cause a breakdown by the end of the day, when colic most often occurs. Others believe that some babies act as if they were born a few months too early, and so they find their new world too difficult to handle.

Whatever the cause, and it may be a combination of all the theories; colic is among the most exasperating conditions that parents of new babies face. It can help if you learn the symptoms of colic so that you can identify it in your baby, and so that you can (as calmly as possible) try the varying remedies to find what eases your baby’s tears.

How do you know if your baby is just crying, or if colic is the diagnosis? Here are the four key factors that point directly to colic:

  • A phenomenon that occurs only with newborn babies, up to about four to five months of age.
  • Involves a regular period of nonstop, inconsolable crying, typically late in the day.
  • The crying bouts last one to three hours or more.
  • Baby has a healthy and happy disposition at all other times of the day.

Can colic be prevented?

Given that we aren’t really sure what causes colic, we don’t know if it can be prevented. It has been discovered that even if you do everything “right” and take all the steps to discourage colic, it still may happen. If you believe that your baby has colic, it’s important that you talk with your health care professional and take your baby in for a checkup to first rule out any medical cause (such as allergies) for your baby’s crying. If your baby is given a clean bill of health, then you’ll know colic is the culprit in the daily crying bouts.

Since colic occurs in newborns, parents often feel that they are doing something wrong to create the situation. Their vulnerability and lack of experience puts them in the position of questioning their own ability to take care of their baby. Hearing your baby cry with colic, and not knowing why it’s happening or what to do about it is painful for any loving parent or caregiver. Not knowing how to help your baby can be heartbreaking, and frustrating. The most important piece of research I discovered was this: It’s not your fault. Nothing you have done has created colic, and nothing you can do will make it disappear. Any baby can have colic, and it will run its course and end on its own time schedule.

Things that may ease crying

While it is true that nothing you do will eliminate colic completely, there are ways to help ease your baby’s tears until his system is mature and able to settle on its own. That said, experienced parents and professionals can offer you ways to help your baby through this time ¾ ask around – because you never know which ideas will be the best ones for your baby. During my research, I uncovered the following suggestions for helping your baby feel better. I found that it helps to look for patterns in your baby’s crying, since every baby is unique; these can provide clues as to which suggestions are most likely to help. Stick with an idea for a few days to a week to see if it helps. Watch for any signs of improvement—not necessarily complete quiet, but perhaps a shorter term of crying or less intensity. Any ideas that help you become a calmer parent are very helpful as well. If you try an idea and that particular course of action doesn’t seem to change anything, don’t get discouraged ¾ just try something else. Here are the most common calming ideas that can help ease crying for a baby with colic – or any baby who is having a crying spell:

  • Invest in a good baby carrier and use it often during the day to ward off crying, and also during colicky periods. Carrying your baby in an upright position has been shown to be especially beneficial. Provide carriers for any adults who routinely care for your baby and encourage them to use them often.
  • If breastfeeding, feed your baby on demand (cue feeding), for nutrition as well as comfort, as often as your baby needs a calming influence.
  • If breastfeeding, try avoiding foods that may cause gas in your baby. Eliminate one possible cause for a few days and see if it makes a difference. The most common baby tummy offenders are dairy products, caffeine, cabbage, broccoli and other gassy vegetables. But don’t assume the culprit, if there is one, will be obvious: I know one mother whose baby reacted loudly and consistently after any meal that included eggplant, asparagus or onions.
  • If bottle feeding, offer more frequent but smaller meals; experiment with different formulas with your doctor’s approval.
  • If bottle feeding, try different types of bottles and nipples that prevent air from entering your baby as he drinks, such as those with curved bottles or collapsible liners.
  • Hold your baby in a more upright position for feeding and directly afterwards.
  • Experiment with how often, when and how you burp your baby. Burping is not an exact science and subtle changes in your routine may prove helpful.
  • Offer your baby meals in a quiet setting free from loud noises and distractions.
  • If your baby likes a pacifier, offer him one when crying starts.
  • Take a stroller walk outside, or if the weather’s too unpleasant for an outside stroll, bring your stroller in the house and walk your baby around.
  • Give your baby a warm bath or bring her into the tub with you.
  • Place a warm towel or wrapped water bottle on baby’s tummy (taking caution that the temperature is warm, but not hot).
  • Hold your baby on your lap with her legs curled up toward her belly.
  • Massage your baby’s tummy, or give him a full massage.
  • Swaddle your baby. Look into a Velcro-assisted swaddler for a nice, snug fit around the upper body, leaving more room in the hip area for natural movement of legs and hips.
    • Lay your baby tummy down across your lap and massage or pat her back.
    • Hold your baby in a rocking chair, or put him in a swing.
    • Invest in a baby hammock or swinging cradle which gently cuddles and sways a baby to sleep.
    • Walk or sway with your baby in a carrier in a quiet, dark room while you hum, sing or watch a movie.
    • Try keeping your baby away from highly stimulating situations during the afternoon and early evening when possible to prevent sensory overload. Understand that a particularly busy day may mean a fussier evening.
    • Do not allow anyone to smoke in the house or near your baby. Studies have linked second-hand smoke with an increase in colic symptoms.
    • Lie on your back and lay your baby on top of you, tummy down, while massaging his back. (Transfer your baby to his bed if he falls asleep, or if you feel like you are falling asleep.)
    • Take your baby for a ride in the car.
    • Play soothing music, lullabies, or turn on white noise recordings (rain or ocean waves), or play a recording of nature sounds.
    • As a last resort, ask your doctor about medications available for colic and gas.

Tips for coping

As difficult as colic is for a baby, it is just as challenging for the parents. This can be especially hard for a mother who has other children to care for, who has returned to work, or who is suffering from the baby blues or postpartum depression. Even if everything else in life is perfect, colic is taxing. Here are a few things you can do to take some of the stress out of these colicky times:

  • Know that your baby will cry during his colicky time, and while you can do things to make your baby more comfortable, nothing you can do will totally stop the crying. This is not a result of anything you’ve done or not done.
  • Plan outings for the times of day when baby is usually happy, or if outings keep your baby happy, plan them for the colicky times.
  • Take advantage of another person’s offer to take a turn with the baby, even if it’s just so that you can take a quiet shower or take a walk.
  • Keep reminding yourself that this is only temporary; it will pass.
  • Avoid keeping a long to-do list right now; only do what’s most important.
  • Talk to other parents of colicky babies so you can share ideas and comfort each other.
  • If the crying is getting to you and making you tense or angry, put your baby in his crib, or give him to someone else to hold for a while so that you don’t accidentally shake or harm your baby. (Shaking a baby can cause permanent brain damage, so if you feel angry, and the constant crying of colic can do that to you, put your baby down in a safe place and take a breather.)
  • This too shall pass.  Know that babies do not suffer long-term harm from having colic. Six months from now you won’t see the slightest effects of these crying spells.

When should you call the doctor?

Anytime you are concerned about your baby, call your doctor or medical professional. That goes for anything concerning your precious little one. In the case of colic, be sure to make that call if you notice any of the following:

  • Your baby’s crying is accompanied by vomiting.
  • Your baby is not gaining weight.
  • The colicky behavior lasts longer than four months.
  • Your baby seems to be in pain.
  • Your baby has a fever.
  • Your baby doesn’t want to be held or handled.
  • The crying spree isn’t limited to one bout in the evening.
  • Your baby does not have regular bowel movements or wet diapers.
  • You notice other problems that don’t appear on the previous list of symptoms.
  • Your baby’s crying is making you angry or depressed. (This could signal postpartum depression.)
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Elizabeth Pantley

Elizabeth Pantley is the author of the now-classic baby sleep book, The No-Cry Sleep Solution, as well as The No-Cry Separation Anxiety Solution, The No-Cry Potty Training Solution, The No-Cry Picky Eater Solution and The No-Cry Discipline Solution and seven other successful parenting books. She is president of Better Beginnings, Inc., a parenting education company. Elizabeth is a regular radio show guest and frequently quoted as a parenting expert in newspapers, magazines and websites worldwide. She publishes a newsletter which is distributed in schools, doctor’s offices and parent programs everywhere. She is a veteran babywearing mother of four.

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December 1, 2011
January 4, 2012