The Myth of Colic

The creator of The Happiest Baby on the Block book and DVD clears up long-held misunderstandings about fussy babies.
How to Soothe a Crying Baby
How to Soothe a Crying Baby
soothing baby

Alexandra Grablewski

Question: In what way are new moms like Navy SEALs?
Answer: They both have to endure exhaustion and the sound of screaming babies.

You read that right. SEALs are trained to tolerate torture by prolonged sleep deprivation and having to listen to hours of infant screams—which can spike to 100 decibels—blaring from loudspeakers.
All new mothers expect to be sleep-deprived, but many don't realize they'll probably also have to deal with lots of crying. Research has shown that a baby's persistent shrieks—and the profound fatigue they provoke—can contribute to a stark list of problems, including depression, marital conflict, SIDS, suffocation, shaken baby syndrome, breastfeeding failure, and even maternal smoking and overeating.

About half of all babies fuss or cry for more than 90 minutes a day, and 15 percent wail for more than three hours a day. These super-cranky babies are the ones doctors typically diagnose with colic, a term that technically means severe abdominal pain but is often used to mean an extremely fussy baby. The incredible thing about colic, though, is that there's really no such thing. Before you protest, hear me out.

The year 2012 marks ten years since I released the DVD and book The Happiest Baby on the Block, which is filled with advice on calming babies, and over those years I've learned that many parents and even some doctors still don't understand this critical point: Babies are rarely fussy because of an intestinal (or even a medical) problem. Only 5 to 10 percent of babies who cry frequently have health issues like a milk allergy, an ear or a urinary tract infection, constipation, or a hernia. Parents have long assumed their babies had stomach pain, or "colic," because they would often double up, grunt, and cry in the middle of a feeding. But these same babies often calm down after taking a car ride or listening to a vacuum cleaner—remedies that do nothing to reduce stomach pain. (Would you take a drive or flip on the hair dryer to stop your own cramps?)

So what is happening? Babies may be having an overreaction to a normal sensation called the gastro-colic reflex. After we eat, our stomach sends a message to the large intestine to start squeezing to push out the poop and make room for more food. Most of us don't feel this reflex, but some infants freak when it happens. (These kids are often the same ones who startle and cry when the phone rings or you laugh too loud.) Babies who cry after they eat are often said to have gastroesophageal reflux, but if a baby is growing properly and not vomiting more than five times a day, she does not have reflux. She just needs to be calmed properly.

Some experts mistakenly believe that babies cry from overstimulation. They say "colicky" kids should be left in a dark, quiet room to blow off steam—as if they were little pressure cookers! Yes, newborns can get overstimulated, but what these docs are not grasping is that most babies are actually understimulated all day. They're not getting the holding, rocking, and sucking they need to keep them in balance. Cuddling your newborn 16 hours a day may seem like a lot to you, but it's a rip-off compared with the round-the-clock "holding" he got in your womb.

I've come to learn that 90 percent of the time, parents can calm their baby's screams in minutes. But first they need to understand the concept of "The 4th Trimester." In a certain sense, babies are born about three months before they are really ready for the world. They have to come out after 9 months, or else it's too hard for their head to pass through the birth canal. But they're so immature at birth that it takes at least six weeks before they can even smile. Luckily they're also born with what's known as the calming reflex, an automatic response that's almost an off-switch for crying and an on-switch for sleep. The calming reflex is virtually guaranteed to end fussing during the first three to four months. But only if you know how to tap it.

For thousands of years, seasoned moms have instinctively copied five sensations found in the womb to turn on the calming reflex and soothe their baby: They swaddle the baby, hold him in the side/stomach position, shush him, swing him, and encourage him to suck a breast, a bottle, or a pacifier. Turning on the calming reflex is a cinch when you do these 5 S 's correctly. (See box on page 82.) But don't worry if you have a little trouble with them. Just double-check your technique to make sure you're doing them right. If you're certain you are, and your baby is still fussy, call your doctor to make sure she doesn't have a medical problem.

It's also crucial to have everyone who cares for your baby learn the 5 S 's. Dads are often the best calmers because we're terrific at swaddling (it?s an engineering task), swinging (our arms are long and strong), and shushing (we're willing to shush a little louder).

Like riding a bike, these calming techniques may seem awkward at first, but with a little practice you'll find they get easier. So give it a whirl. Within a few days, I bet colic won't even be part of your vocabulary.

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