Coping with Colic

Read More of Dr. Laura's Parenting Tips

All babies cry. Most babies cry a lot. Some babies are more easily comforted, others can routinely work themselves into a frenzy. Of course it sends your heart racing. That's Mother Nature's way of insuring that the human race survives.

"She cries a lot. How do I know if this is colic?"

Colic is traditionally defined as 3 hours or more of daily crying, at least three times a week. 20% of babies are diagnosed with colic. But it probably doesn't matter if it's actually colic, unless when your baby's crying gets almost unbearable, it helps to realize that there's nothing wrong with you or your him; it's just colic. Whether it's actually colic, or just lots of crying, it is always stressful, and it helps to know that it's normal, it won't last more than 3 months, and you will eventually have a perfectly cheerful baby.

"What causes all this crying?"

I'm assuming you've eliminated the obvious causes -- i.e., the baby has been fed and burped and changed, and you've picked her up and moved around jiggling her, but the crying has continued. If you haven't tried all this, start there.

The truth is that we don't know what causes colic. There may be differing contributing causes for different babies, such as sensitivity to formula, food allergies, or gastrointestinal upset. In one study of colicky babies, when the moms stopped drinking cow's milk, half the babies' colic vanished. The other half, unfortunately, kept crying.

A new study (reported in the January 2007 issue of Pediatrics) of breastfeeding colicy babies gave half of them 5 drops daily of beneficial gut bacteria (the probiotic L. reuteri). All the moms were asked to eliminate cows milk from their diet. 95% of the probiotic babies improved, as opposed to only 7 percent of the control babies, with crying improving somewhat in the first week and dramatically within a month. If this study is repeated with the same results by other researchers, probiotics will soon be prescribed as the cure for colic.

The other recent theory that's popular with doctors, however, is that colic results from an immature brain and nervous system and is the baby's way of releasing tension.

Newborns are used to being tightly held in a dark, muffled, soothing environment, which often lulls them with rhythmic motion as their mother walks. They must be dazzled and overwhelmed by the feast for the senses that greets them with every new day in the world. Their immature brains and nervous systems need time to mature and to handle all the stimulation we take for granted.

"He didn't cry much for the first couple of weeks, but now he cries every evening for a few hours!"

This is very common. As babies become more aware of their surroundings, and stay awake for longer periods during the day, they cry more. Apparently, babies get more and more stimulated all day, and by evening, have no other way to relieve their anxiety. The result is the behavior we call colic: crying for many hours, often late into the night.

"But I don't know how to comfort her and I feel so inept!"

After attending to your infant's physical health and safety, learning to comfort her is one of the most important tasks you face. That's not because crying is so terrible for infants, but because your feeling like a competent parent is a crucial building block in your relationship with your child. The most effective way to reduce crying is to recreate a womb-like environment for your baby. Below, I tell you how to do that.

But while you can probably reduce your baby's crying, I urge you to let yourself off the hook here. There may be absolutely nothing you can do except hold her. Haven't you had times when what you needed was just to cry and to have someone there so you wouldn't feel so alone?

"But I worry that there might be something wrong with him!"

Every parent worries when their baby cries and they don't know why. But if you've looked for obvious causes (did you eat spicy food before you nursed him?) and his doctor sees him regularly and has pronounced him thriving, you can rest assured that crying -- even long periods of incessant crying -- is considered normal for infants in our society, and there is nothing wrong with your baby.

"Why do you say it's normal in our society? Don't babies cry everywhere?"

Actually, no. In cultures where the infant is held or worn fairly constantly, colic is virtually unknown and babies rarely cry for long.

"Does baby-wearing really help? Why?"

Research shows that babies who are held or carried more (both during the colic spells and at other times) are definitely less susceptible to colic. It is possible that wearing babies is so soothing that they are less overwhelmed throughout the day and build up less tension. I used to think of myself as the lightning rod for my infants.

But another way to interpret this data is just that some babies need to be held virtually all the time. When they are put down, they cry. When they are picked up, they often stop.

"I do hold and carry my baby a lot. But in the evening, it seems that isn't enough, and he just cries and cries even though I carry him."

Sometimes holding is not enough, and babies don't stop crying unless they are walked, jostled, danced, bounced, rocked or subjected to some other rhythmic motion, which seems to dissipate their tension. I ruined a mattress with each of our babies, because I found that holding them while jumping on the bed soothed them better than anything during that first three months, and wearing out the mattress seemed a small price to pay for a happy baby.

Whatever movement your baby responds to, it takes a lot of energy. But it is infinitely better than listening to a baby cry. And the gift to your baby is enormous, as he gets the message that you can be depended on when he's miserable.

"I've tried everything: wearing her much of the day in a snuggly, holding, soothing, swaddling, rhythmic motion. She's still crying! What do I do?"

You witness. Sometimes people, especially babies, just need to cry. You override any needling suspicion in your mind that there is anything wrong with your parenting by reminding yourself that "Sometimes people just need to cry" and you hold your child, and she cries, and you do whatever you need to do to stay sane.

If you can pay attention to her, sing to her, empathize, that's great. If not, then put on headphones and listen to music that blocks out her crying. Don't be surprised if holding her, in your new calm state, helps her to stop crying, especially if you start dancing or singing to the music on your headphones.

"I just can't calm myself down when he cries like this. Even when I put the headphones on, the crying seems to reverberate in my head. It's driving me crazy!"

If you can't calm yourself, put the baby down. It helps babies to be held while they cry (true for most of us) but not if the adult is experiencing extreme anger or anxiety.

If you think you might lose control and shake your baby, it simply isn't worth taking that chance. Put the baby in a safe place (crib, car seat, strapped in a baby seat or swing) and shut the door to the room. Put on headphones so that you can't hear the crying through the door. Now do whatever you need to do to calm yourself down. Step outside for a moment or open the window, and breath in some fresh air. Feel your tension draining out through your feet. Call another adult to come over. Remind yourself not to take the crying personally, and that this too shall pass.

It also might help you to remember the old proverb about children each offering a finite amount of grief to their parents, just so you know that you're getting it over with up front and the teenage years will be easy!

Dr. Laura Markham
Aha! Parenting.com