Handling Baby's Colic

The frazzled parents' guide to dealing with colic.

For Cryin' Out Loud!

Crying Blonde Haired Girl Sucking Thumb

"What's wrong with your kid?" That's what I thought all of my friends and family were silently asking me every time we brought my firstborn around for a visit. Call it paranoia, but if you're the parent of a baby with colic, you know what I'm talking about. You're at your parents' house for a family dinner. Your beautiful (and thin) cousin, who had her baby just days after you, joyfully passes her 2-month-old around the house from person to person. Her baby smiles and coos, and then quietly closes her eyes and drifts off to sleep as the family dinner begins. All the while, you've worked up a full-grade sweat, trying to rock, bounce, and shush your baby to stop her wailing and screaming. You're lucky to gulp down a lukewarm dinner roll in between the pacing and patting, and you're trying not to cry as you wonder what your cousin has done so right and what you've done so wrong. Sound familiar?

When faced with a colicky baby, even the best and most attentive can feel exhausted, overwhelmed, resentful, and guilt-ridden, but you can formulate a strategic plan to manage those cries and reclaim your sanity!

Why All the Tears?

The true medical definition of colic is unexplained crying for longer than three hours a day, more than three days a week. The first time I read this, I had to laugh, because looking back, my daughter blew this guideline out of the water! Was there a "super" category of colic for babies who cried all day and all night? She'd have definitely taken the award if that were the case! The truth is, all babies cry periodically, but colicky babies cry with a force and focus that is unparalleled. It's thought that up to 25 percent of babies fit the description of colic. Symptoms usually begin around 2 to 3 weeks of age, peak in intensity around 6 to 8 weeks of age, and begin to subside around 3 to 4 months of age.

So what specifically sets a baby with colic apart from a baby who's just fussy? It's a matter of degree. Because colic isn't a disease, but rather a behavioral pattern of excessive crying, the diagnosis is very subjective. There is no "test" for colic, and we've struggled to understand what even causes colic. For all of these reasons, making the diagnosis is tricky. Some doctors avoid the term altogether, feeling like it is a label that is too ambiguous and fraught with misconceptions. Other doctors favor more descriptive terms like "high-needs baby" or "immature nervous system." Ask five different doctors to describe what colic is and you'll undoubtedly get five different answers. They will all probably touch upon the same basic features (length of crying time and age of the child) but ultimately, whether or not a baby is diagnosed with colic is a matter of opinion.

Even the actual cause of colic is ambiguous. Once thought to be a digestive problem, because of the way in which many colicky babies frequently draw up their legs and cry out as if in pain, there has never been any proven link between stomach ailments and colic. It is certainly true that colicky babies tend to be more gassy, but this is probably more a result of the crying, not a cause of the crying. Some experts believe that colic may be a combination of a baby's inborn personality and an immature nervous system that leads to their inability to handle stimulation from the world around them. Think of it as a circuit overload: These babies take in information from their environment but quickly become overwhelmed by even the simplest of things, including being fed. The result? Seemingly unexplained crying that only worsens with the well-meaning attempts of the caregiver to provide comfort.

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