When Lia Horita was born in December 2008, she was praised by the nurses for her "great disposition." Jinx. Within two weeks, Lia started to shriek and cry inconsolably for hours at a stretch -- a classic sign of colic. "Parents talk about it, and you read about it in magazines and books, but you will never, ever know exactly how terrifying it is until you experience it," says Lia's mom, Evelyn Perez-Horita, of Chicago. Swaddling, swinging, and other commonly used remedies didn't work. Perez-Horita remembers tearfully telling her husband, "I am such a bad mother." (The only plus: Thanks to all the stress, she dropped 30 pregnancy pounds.) She "counted down the seconds," she says, until her daughter turned 3 months old, the age when colic often magically ends. And it did. "Just when I thought I was destined to have a crying baby forever, it stopped," she says.
A colicky infant can be like a tiny Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. By day, he may seem normal. But in the evening, he'll typically scream?...?and scream, and scream. He'll stiffen his body, clench his fists, and pull his legs against his stomach. For years, colic -- which affects as many as one in five babies and usually lasts three to four seemingly endless months -- has stumped doctors and baffled parents. It often kicks in, alarmingly and mysteriously, when babies are 2 to 3 weeks old and peaks when they are around 6 weeks old. Over the years, doctors have blamed immature digestion, the still-developing central-nervous system, allergies, hypersensitivity, and personality mismatches between parents and babies, but these are primarily theories from the scientific community.
There is no blood test to confirm colic, and experts can't agree about the cause, treatment, or even the definition. Many doctors still use the "rule of three" description from pediatrician Morris A. Wessel, M.D., back in 1954: healthy babies who cry for more than a total of three hours a day, for more than three days a week, for more than three weeks. But a growing number of experts say those figures are arbitrary and outdated.
Put simply, "colic is crying too much," says Barry Lester, Ph.D., director of the country's only colic clinic -- at the Brown University Center for Children at Women & Infants Hospital, in Providence -- and coauthor of Why Is My Baby Crying? "If a child's crying is affecting her development and her relationship with her parents, it's a cry disorder, like a sleep disorder or a feeding disorder. When this happens, it's colic." His symptom checklist includes sudden onset, a high-pitched, screechy "pain cry," and inconsolability. But Dr. Lester says you shouldn't get hung up on any official definition. You suffer when your baby cries a lot. Period.
Regardless of what it's called, you know colic when you hear it. "It's not the same kind of cry you'd get with 'I'm hungry,' or 'I'm dirty,' or 'I'm tired,'?" says Parents advisor Jennifer Shu, M.D., coauthor of Heading Home With Your Newborn. "With a hunger cry, babies feel better when you feed them." With colic, you don't know what your baby wants.
So desperate parents have tried a slew of purported remedies -- midnight car rides, massage, acupuncture, battery-operated swings, white noise in the form of vacuum cleaners, DVDs of heartbeats, chamomile tea, and anti-gas Mylicon drops and "gripe waters" such as Colic Calm and Colic-Ease. It's very easy to find parents who have found success with any of these so-called remedies -- but there's little to no science to back them up, and many babies keep shrieking anyway. Researchers are actively working to solve the mystery of colic, but their answers can't come soon enough.
In the meantime, this is what leading colic experts know about the possible causes and the best ways to try to soothe your child.