Colic 101: What It Is and What to Do

More Calming Tactics

Don't Be Afraid to Take a Break

McManus still vividly remembers the day when her daughter, Caitlin, was 7 weeks old and was squalling so inconsolably she finally put her in the crib and walked away. "I couldn't deal with it anymore," McManus admits. "I said, 'I love you, but I have to get away from you right now.' It's terrible, saying this to your little baby. But you're exhausted, you've done everything you can, and you've reached your limit." Sitting outside for 10 minutes, while still within earshot, allowed McManus to regroup. "I told myself that it was going to be okay. And then I went back inside, picked her up, and tried to calm her down again."

New moms often feel guilty or self-indulgent for wanting a break from their newborns. But doctors say that putting the baby in a safe place, such as the crib or the playpen, and walking away -- even for a couple of minutes -- to take a shower, brush your teeth, make some tea, or call a friend or a counselor is exactly what you should do when crying threatens to push you past your limit. "It's not selfish, it's smart," Dr. Weissbluth says. That's because there's a strong association between excessive crying and infant injury. A survey of parents of more than 3,250 infants in the Netherlands revealed that more than 5 percent had slapped, smothered, or shaken their baby at least once because he or she was crying.

Get Some Support

Find at least half an hour a day that's yours alone. Enlist your spouse, the grandparents, your siblings, trusted friends, or a sitter to help with the baby -- although it's a good idea to warn them of what to expect so they won't overreact. Pennington-Cross ceded the nighttime routine to her husband. "He would wear Jesse in a carrier, and I would get an hour to 90 minutes each night to read the news or hang out on the computer and play video games," she says. Another idea: connect with a moms group, in person or online, so you don't feel isolated (try the discussion forums at americanbaby.com or mamasource.com). "It's easy to convince yourself that you're the only one, that there's something wrong with you, and that people think you're a bad parent because you can't get your baby to stop crying," says Laura Jana, MD, coauthor of Heading Home with Your Newborn (American Academy of Pediatrics). "Getting support lets you maintain your sanity and gives you some distance and a little perspective."

Is It Sickness or Colic?

If your baby's crying is incessant, no doubt you've already had several powwows with your pediatrician. "Even though colic is normal, it's not something you should keep quiet about, because there will be babies who do have something else," says Dr. Scherzer. Apart from fussiness, additional red flags that could indicate a more serious medical condition include frequent vomiting, fever, loose or bloody stools, poor weight gain and feeding, eczema, and lethargy. Keep a diary that tracks how often your baby cries, sleeps, eats, and poops and pees. Any difficulties with feeding or spitting up may help you discover if there's a pattern to the crying.

Colic Fact and Fallacy

Myth: Colicky babies grow up to be unhappy kids.
Fact: "Colic is not your baby's defining personality trait," says Dr. Jana. "Once the colic is gone, your child can have a completely different personality -- spunky, sensitive, crabby. But colic is not going to tell you which, because it doesn't carry over."

Myth: Colic results from overstimulation.
Fact: Colicky kids cry because they miss all the noise and stimulation they got in the womb. "If you take them to a noisy basketball game, they usually go to sleep," notes Dr. Karp.

Myth: Your new-parent anxiety is making your baby cry.
Fact: "Babies aren't sharks in the water, and they can't smell your anxiety," Dr. Karp says. What they can pick up on: body temperature and how relaxed you are -- or aren't. "When you're anxious, you may jump from one thing to another because you're uncertain, and they can sense that," he adds.

Myth: Medications can relieve colic.
Fact: Some parents think that diphenhydramine, an antihistamine also sold as a sleep aid, will help calm tears. But it makes some babies cry more. Reflux meds also don't often help -- only about 2 percent of colicky babies have the type that warrants medicine. "Doctors know better, but under parental pressure they often medicate these kids," says Dr. Weissbluth.

Originally published in the July 2008 issue of American Baby magazine.

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