It’s 9pm, and your normally placid 8-week-old starts screaming. You nurse her, burp her, swaddle her, sway her – but nothing works. The screaming continues, nonstop, for the next three hours. Your partner tries to help, but nothing he does makes a difference, either. Both of you feel helpless, frustrated, and begin questioning why you wanted kids in the first place.
If this sounds like what went down at your house last night, congratulations – you’re the proud owner of a colicky baby. “Colic usually begins at around 3 weeks of age, peaks at 8 weeks and usually is over by 12 weeks of age. It can last for up to 3 hours for at least 3 days a week and it drives most parents crazy,” explains Dr. Joshua Sparrow of the Brazelton Touchpoints Center. Unfortunately, no one really knows what causes colic, although most theories point to an immature digestive system. “When anyone is trying to double their weight in three or four months, your stomach can hurt all day,” says pediatrician Dr. Jay Gordon. But, he adds, that doesn’t make it any easier for the parents who deal with the condition. “The best thing they taught me during residency training is, if you have a family with a baby with colic, send them to a good psychologist because it is a really insulting ailment. The baby cries for three or four hours and tells the parents that, no matter what they do, they are not good enough.”
Dr. Dan Thomas, Head of the Division of Gastroenterology and Nutrition at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles, also feels for parents who desperately crave an answer to the nightly question of how to treat colic. “I wish I could tell parents that there’s a magic bullet. That there’s a remedy that I know will be 100% effective. That’s not the case. There isn’t one.” Dr. Thomas does suggest that certain remedies like probiotics or prescribed antacids might offer some relief, and also recommends that parents avoid overfeeding, and burp their babies frequently. Other than that, however, there’s not much modern medicine can do for colic.
Instead, experts recommend trying to deal with the stress that colic can cause for the family. “I would recommend, for a parent, if they are they are the only caregiver for that child, to get help. Find two or three hours of rest and to help take care of that child. (Colic) is a very frustrating and upsetting condition,” says Dr. Thomas. Sparrow goes one step further, advocating that parents are warned about the possibility of colic before their babies are even born. “It’s helpful for parents to know, so that they can be prepared… if you know it’s coming, you can try to get the help you need – relatives, friends – to give you some backup so that you can take a break, because it’s just really hard to deal with that crying day in and day out.”
Perhaps the most comforting advice, though, comes from a dad who’s been through it. Bestselling author and psychiatrist Dr. Dan Siegel (The Whole-Brain Child: 12 Revolutionary Strategies to Nurture Your Child’s Developing Mind; Mindsight) tells Kids in the House that his son’s constant crying had a silver lining: it taught him an important lesson about how to be a calm and compassionate parent. “I’d try to soothe him and help him feel more comfortable and sometimes it wouldn’t work so well; I started to feel incompetent. I started to feel impotent to help him, powerless. In that sense of powerlessness, I felt very vulnerable that I couldn’t be the strong, protective father I wanted to be. At that moment, instead of continuing to be supportive and sensitive to him, I actually found myself becoming very tight and rigid, very intolerant of him. In that intolerance, what I came to learn, with some deep reflection, is that I couldn’t tolerate a sense of being helpless inside of me. That was my issue to work on, not his as a baby. Instead what would happen is I would kind of flip out. I’d get really angry and agitated and, in doing so, I wasn’t able to be the kind of parent that I wanted to be. What I had to learn was how to be comfortable with my own sense of helplessness, my own sense of vulnerability. In doing that, I could be the kind, compassionate parent that I wanted to be because kindness is really honoring and supporting the vulnerability in others and in ourselves.”
Lastly, remember the old adage – this too shall pass. It may seem like an eternity, but most cases of colic resolve by the time a child is 3 months old. Keep your eyes on the light at the end of the tunnel, and in the meantime, don’t be afraid to ask for help.
For more information on colic, check out videos from these experts at Kids in the House: