by Alan Greene, MD, FAAP
Colic can be very difficult. As your baby's birth approached you probably experience increasing anticipation and eagerness about the upcoming new beginning. The birth experience and the first week or two afterwards probably seemed like a wonderful dream.
But then, just about the time the sleep deprivation caused by feeding every two or three hours began to really set in, your baby quit being the quiet, peaceful, miracle baby and began screaming every evening.
It is no wonder that parents become frustrated, discouraged, and depressed. Before we look at things you can do to help your baby's colic, let's examine why nature might have designed this difficult rite of passage.
Almost all babies develop a fussy period. The timing varies, but it usually begins at about three weeks of age and peaks somewhere between four and six weeks of age. For most infants the most intense fussiness is in the evening. When the crying lasts for longer than three hours a day, it is called colic, but the phenomenon is present in almost all babies -- only the degree is different.
I believe that colic exists in order to change deeply ingrained relationship habits. Even after the miracle of a new birth, many parents and families would revert back to their previous schedules and activities within a few weeks -- if the new baby would only remain quiet and peaceful. It would be easy to continue reading what you want to read, going where you like to go, doing what you like to do as before, if only the baby would happily comply.
Instead, the baby's exasperating fussy period forces families to leave their previous ruts and develop new dynamics which include this new individual. Colic demands attention. As parents grope for solutions to their child's crying, they notice a new individual with new needs. They instinctively pay more attention, talk more to the child, and hold the child more -- all because of the colic. Colic is a powerful rite of passage, a postnatal labor pain where new patterns of family life are born.
Helping a child with colic is primarily a matter of experimentation and observation. Different children are comforted by different measures. The process involves trying many different things, and paying attention to what seems to help, even just a little bit.
Holding your child is one of the most effective measures. The more hours they are held, even early in the day when they are not fussy, the less time they will be fussy in the evening. This will not spoil your child. Singing lullabies to your baby can be powerfully soothing. It is no accident that lullabies have developed in almost every culture.
As babies cry, they swallow more air, creating more gas and more abdominal pain, which causes more crying. This vicious cycle can be difficult to break. Gentle rocking can be very calming (this is directly comforting and seems to help them pass gas). When you get tired, an infant swing is a good alternative for babies at least 3 weeks old with good head control.
Holding your daughter in an upright position may help (this aids the movement of gas, and decrease heartburn). Often a warm towel or a hot water bottle on the abdomen can help. Some children seem to do best when they are going for a ride in the car. If your daughter is one of these, you might try a device developed by a pediatrician to imitate car sounds.
Some parents report an improvement by giving simethicone drops, a de-foaming agent which reduces intestinal gas. It is not absorbed into the body and is therefore quite safe. If nothing else seems to work, you might try pretending your baby is sick, and taking a rectal temperature. This will often cause babies to pass gas and obtain relief.
There are a lot of stories about foods that breastfeeding moms should avoid. Most often I hear about abstaining from broccoli, cabbage, beans, and other gas producing foods. Studies that have looked at consumption of these foods do not show any increase in gas or crying in the babies. This makes sense to me. The gas we get from beans comes from the undigested part that remains in our intestines. The portion that enters our blood stream and then makes its way into the breast milk is not the part that causes gas.
Stimulants such as caffeine, or caffeine related compounds (those found in chocolate) should be avoided. Conversely, a single glass of wine in the evening may help mom and baby both relax. The other foods in mom's diet that are most likely to cause a problem are dairy products and nuts. I would try eliminating these for a few weeks. Other foods may irritate the baby. Again, experimentation and observation will guide you.
Even though I believe colic exists to bind us closer us a family unit, taking a break is a good idea. Each of you can take charge and spell the other. Perhaps you can find someone else to give you both a break together. Time for oneself is an important part of the new family dynamic. You will be able to pay more loving attention to your baby when you've had a chance to get refreshed.
Colic will not last forever! After about six weeks of age it begins improving, slowly but surely, and is generally gone by twelve weeks of age. In the meantime, as you try many different things paying attention to your baby's subtle responses, and as you work together supporting each other, lasting new depths of relationship will be forged.
Dr. Alan Greene, author of Raising Baby Green and Feeding Baby Greene, is the founder of Dr.Greene.com and the WhiteOut Movement. He is a frequent guest on such shows as Good Morning America, The Today Show, and the Dr. Oz Show. He is on the Board of Directors of Healthy Child Healthy World and The Lunchbox Project. Dr. Greene is a practicing pediatrician at Stanford University's Packard Children's Hospital.
Copyright © Greene Ink, Inc., all rights reserved. Permission to republish granted to Pregnancy.org. Reviewed by Khanh-Van Le-Bucklin M.D. & Stephanie D'Augustine M.D. June 19, 2008.