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Cry, Cry, Cry

The latest (not entirely reassuring) research on colic

By Vivian Manning-Schaffel |

Six thirty p.m. is the witching hour at our house. That’s when each day, without fail, our two-month-old daughter begins mewling and wriggling as if prodded by an invisible poker. This state eventually escalates into a non-stop, brain-piercing, four-hour crying jag.

My husband and I pass her back and forth for an hour and a half while getting our four-year-old fed, bathed and to bed. Then at eight, when we most want to collapse drooling and speechless in front of some banal reality show, the real work begins. We commence our fruitless ritual of pacifier, bottle, diaper, walking and swaddling. This provides her with little-to-no relief until, magically, we all collapse during the 11:00 Will & Grace rerun.

She’s got a textbook case of colic. And it’s kicking our ass.

“I never felt lonelier in my life,” says my friend Chris, who is also a colic survivor. “Everyone tells you how great it is to be a mom. No one tells you how hard it can be, especially adding colic to the equation.”

Ironically, we colicky couples are not alone in our loneliness. According to MayoClinic.com, colic may affect up to about twenty-five percent of babies. It usually improves by three months, but can last as long as nine.

“Having a baby is like being in a Las Vegas casino,” explains Dr. Harvey Karp, author of The Happiest Baby on the Block. “There is no concept of time. New parents are unprepared and overwhelmed at the fact that it takes them all day to get nothing done. Add three or more hours of crying a day . . . The more stress you add to that situation, the more it breaks down. They used to torture people with tapes of babies crying in Guantánamo!”

Torture indeed. Constant exposure to that kind of screaming will do a number on your people skills. My husband and I start each evening shouting at each other for volume’s sake and end up shouting at each other because the incessant shrieking (and our helplessness in squelching it) has frayed our very last nerve. We then turn on each other like cornered feral cats, hissing and clawing over transgressions legit or not, instead of teaming up to help our kid through her crisis.

Sharon Verhoff, a mother of four in Ottawa, Ohio, had marital stress when colic struck one of her now ten-year-old twins. “Between the lack of sleep and hearing the baby cry all the time, we were both on edge and would snap at each other over the littlest things,” she says. “It was wearing on our marriage.”

Dr. Barry Lester, head of the Brown Center for the Study of Children at Risk, founder of The Infant Behavior, Cry and Sleep Clinic (IBCSC), at Women and Infants Hospital and Brown Medical School, and author of Why Is My Baby Crying, sees how colic beats on couples every day.

“Colic can cause serious long-term emotional consequences,” says Lester. “It breaks down how the entire family unit functions. I’ve seen marriages break up and older children regress, all because of the tension colic brings into the home.”

For some, the fighting can get more intense. “The worst fights of our marital history happened when my daughter had colic,” says Chris. “After nine hours of hearing her cry, he’d come home from work, and I’d be like, ‘Take this thing!’ We are not yellers, but when our daughter was going through colic, we were screaming at each other at the top of our lungs. After one fight, I asked my husband honestly, would you rather work a thirty-hour shift at your job or stay home with this screaming baby? He thought about it carefully and said he’d rather work the shift.”

“My husband would come home from work and look at me like, ‘Why is it still crying? Do something!’,” says Anne Estes, a Brooklyn mom who’s on her second round of colic. “Usually when we face problems, we throw money at it, outsource it, or negotiate it somehow. You can’t intellectually, physically or economically control a helpless, screaming baby. Colic was the first time my husband and I looked at each other desperate to do something, with no idea of what could be done.”

In partnerships with egalitarian childcare responsibilities, colic can spur a competition to see who’s the better parent. It goes something like this:

Everyone says colic eventually subsides. But what are desperate parents supposed to do to in the meantime? “Don’t lay her down yet, she’ll throw up.”

‘I’m telling you she’s fine!”

“No she’s not — you’re just tired.”

“Trust me! She’s fine!”

“You never frigging listen!”

Kid throws up; litany of told-you-so ensues.

Of course, this scenario plays out to some extent in all households, but when you’re home with a kid who is screaming all day and your partner comes home, the issues of resentment and competition have an added punch. And kids with colic have far more gastric issues than kids who don’t, which makes things that much harder. To survive colic, parents have to muster up some mutual respect. “Being supportive of each other is the most important thing,” says Lester. “This situation is an emergency! It’s not normal and people have to get into that mode of being.”

On the bright side, Karp has seen marriages actually improve because they’ve weathered colic. “It becomes a bonding experience, because it’s a tribulation that couples have to learn how to work as a team to make it through,” says Karp.

Verhoff and her husband eventually found a way to communicate under the circumstances. “We’d be up juggling our screaming twins in the middle of the night, and would deliriously crack up laughing at the audacity of it all.”

Everyone says colic eventually subsides. But what are desperate parents supposed to do to in the meantime?

Harvey Karp has built a very successful business with his “Happiest Baby on the Block” methodology, a list of tips to help stop crying that many parents swear by. Some of these methods, like swaddling and white noise, have indeed been effective stopgaps for both my son and my daughter.

“The problem with gadgets, like vibrators and noise machines, is that they work for some babies, but not for all babies,” says Lester. “And when they don’t work, it sets parents up for failure. Stimulation like this only works when the stimulation is on, like the mother who drives her kid around at four in the morning, only to turn the car off and hear the kid scream again. It doesn’t teach the baby anything. They need to learn behavioral regulation and self control.”

Parents of colicky kids are also subject to new methods of behavioral regulation and self-control. Elizabeth Henschel, a mom starring in her own version of Colic: The Sequel, is on a daily regimen of herbal tinctures, teas and dietary restrictions. “I can’t eat this or that. It’s very challenging to be under a lot of stress and have to control it for the baby.”

Lester feels that although changes in your diet or your kid’s formula might work for babies with food allergies, they are often ineffective in generic cases of colic. “There’s no real evidence that stuff really works. But it makes people feel like they are effective, and that’s a good thing.”

On the opposite end of the spectrum is Estes, the Brooklyn mom, who is all about Western medicine and babysitting. “You have to get out once in a while. Other than that, Zantac and other parents saved me,” she says. “Doctors should round up a list of parents who are willing to listen to a new parent bitch, make them feel less alone, and show them a healthy kid who’s come out of it okay.”

Good luck. Many medical professionals don’t even take colic seriously. “People don’t pay attention to colic,” Lester says. “They see it as a short-term problem. But the difficulties go beyond what we see. Even when the crying stops, the damage from it still has to be repaired.”

Patients often arrive at Lester’s clinic in a state of complete desperation. Aside from the usual digestive disorder testing, his program takes both a physical and emotional approach to helping families cope with colic, assigning a social worker to each case over the course of a three-to-four-month treatment process.

Many medical professionals don’t even take colic seriously. A recent study conducted in Turkey supports this need, citing that moms of colicky kids achieved the most benefit from behavioral interventions, followed by natural therapies, and least from drug treatments. Researchers at the James Whitcomb Riley Hospital for Children also found that healthcare providers should offer support and adopt a bio-psychosocial approach in examining the family unit.

According to a study held by Dr. Lester’s clinic, forty-six percent of mothers with colicky children also suffer from moderate to severe depression. “Colic drives a wedge into the mother/infant relationship,” Lester explains. “The mothers feel inadequate and guilty, as if it was something they did that caused the colic.”

“She looked like she was in agony,” my friend Chris says of her daughter, “but every time I’d talk to a doctor, they’d just say it was colic and dismiss me. I tried everything, from drops to potions to the vacuum cleaner. I was exhausted. She may have been crying all the time, but I didn’t feel as sorry for her as I did for myself.”

“There isn’t enough emotional support for mothers with colicky children,” says Henschel. “Sometimes you just need a hug and to be told that you are doing a great job.”

Of course, there’s a difference between depression and depressing circumstances. Verhoff says she wasn’t really depressed during her daughter’s colic episode, because she had the support of friends and family members who survived it themselves. She was able to detach from feeling responsible, but was still sad about her circumstances. “What I did was mourn for the loss of a normal beginning,” she explains. “Those blissful first months, where people ooh and ahh over your baby are so fun. But we weren’t having a blissful experience. We were afraid to take her out in public.”

“Colic puts a bad taste in your mouth,” says Chris. “I know long after my daughter got past it, I kept waiting for the other shoe to drop.”

Evidence is mounting that the other shoe has something to do with a colicky child’s temperament. Lester believes colic and other behavioral regulation conditions, like ADHD, are linked at their root.

“There are two qualities that I’ve noticed in children of colic: sensitivity and passion,” says Dr. Karp. “When a baby is colicky, they become so aroused that they can’t control their crying,” Lester explains. “And that same sensitivity shows up again later. These children often go on to act out through impulsivity.”

A 2002 study published in Pediatrics concluded that infants with persistent crying problems and associated sleeping or feeding problems are at increased risk for hyperactivity problems and academic difficulties in childhood, with nineteen percent having pervasive hyperactivity issues.

Dr. Karp subscribes to a watered down version of this theory: “There are two qualities that I’ve noticed in children of colic: sensitivity and passion,” says Karp. “The colicky child is often expressive. They will laugh too loud, be sensitive to the label on the neck, will love a certain color, or will avoid foods that are too lumpy or smooth.”

This is certainly true of my son, who will hug anyone he sees in tears, and won’t stop squiggling long enough to put on a sweater.

Henschel sees something similar in her son, Max. “He’s very sensitive and quick to cry when he feels that things are wrong.”

Chris also sees this kind of thing in her daughter. “Now that she’s five, she’s become one of the most easygoing, reasonable people I’ve ever met in my life. But she’s a sensitive kid with a lot of empathy. Too much sometimes.”

“Looking at colic this way is a paradigm shift,” says Dr. Lester. “People are just starting to recognize that colic is a condition that needs to be explored emotionally as well as physically, in a familial context.”

Update: Our daughter is four months old, and has reduced her tantrums just long enough for us to hold hands during Project Runway.

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About Vivian Manning-Schaffel

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Vivian Manning-Schaffel

Vivian Manning-Schaffel has written for The New York Times, The Huffington Post, ParentsParentingThe AdvocateThe New York Post, and a variety of other publications. She lives and works in the heart of breeder Brooklyn with her husband and two kids. She's on the web at vivianmanningschaffel.com, blogs about pop culture on soapboxdirty.com, and spews her thoughts on Twitter @SoapboxDirty.

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17 thoughts on “Cry, Cry, Cry

  1. FussyBaby says:

    AMEN! lol. I came across your article just now after getting a google alert for ‘colic’. When my son was ‘colicky’ (which is a term I don’t really like – colicky suggests a few hours of crying in the evenings, with Sammy he cried and screamed all day long), we felt very isolated and like no one really understood how overwhelming it was.At the risk of being blatantly self-promotional, check out the website I started…I found all the sites out there talked about the symptoms of colic, but not one discussed in any depth the practical and emotional issues surrounding having a colicky or ‘fussy’ baby. http://www.fussybaby.caFabulous article!Holly

  2. NoVa Mommy says:

    Colic completely soured my experience as a new parent. Nothing is more isolating than beginning this journey with a partner who screams at you all day (the baby, not my husband.) In fact, I remember those first four months after my daughter was born as some of the darkest, most tear-filled in my life. The only thing that helped me was knowing a friend of mine whose son had been the same way as an infant. He turned out completely normal, so I had faith that it would end. In the meantime, I just had to live through it.I’m pregnant again and part of me (all of me?) is afraid that we’ll go through this again–this time while trying to wrangle a 3-year-old at the same time. The possibility of colic is THE only aspect of having this baby that I’m actually terrified of.One thing I wish I had tried for my daughter was probiotics. I’ve heard that moms who get antibiotics (b/c of group B strep, for example) during labor can often deliver babies w/ an overgrowth of yeast in their digestive tracts. My daughter had thrush and yeast diaper rash, so really, all the signs were there. This time around, I may just go with the infant probiotics from the get-go just to be on the safe side.

  3. Survived It Twice says:

    Try the Amby Baby. Yes, it costs a couple of hundred dollars, but holy cow it really made things bearable for colicky baby number two in our house. It’s not a miracle, but it gives you some control. I know nothing works for every baby, but for us, this thing was the ticket.

  4. CaliMama says:

    I think it is important message for parents to hear that sometimes a baby will cry no matter what they try…and it isn’t the parents’ fault. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to do things to make the babies’ entry into the world easier. Even if they don’t stop crying, you’re still sending the right message. What it DOES mean is that if you are an attentive, loving parent and your baby still cries, it is not your fault if your baby keeps crying.Maybe getting that message out will reduce some of the depression new parents feel when their baby is colicky.And isn’t it sad today that our social networks are in such shambles that we have to assign social workers to stressed-out parents instead of just having grandparents, aunts and uncles, and friends nearby? I mean, thank goodness for any support, but wouldn’t it be nice if some of that “old fashioned” family and neighborhood structure were still intact?

  5. RMommy says:

    You mean that not only did we have the crying-ist twins around, but that they have a 1 in 5 chance of being ADHD, too? Oh goodie!

  6. chattydaddy says:

    I feel for you all … we experienced maybe a half dozen evenings during which our first child was inconsolable, and they almost killed us.

  7. Lisaloo says:

    My first was an easy easy baby – maybe 5 times of crying inconsolably in his first year. But before I sound too smug, everyone warned us number 2 would be different… they were not even close – months and months and months of unmitigated hell. He’s almost 14 months now and he’s turned into a good little sleeper but what was said about sensitivity and passion – that’s my Luc. He’s extremely picky about food and I think it’s a texture thing, but he sleeps 10 – 12 hours straight through at night so I count my blessings. I look back on that last year and shudder – there I was, in dingy government housing north of sixty with -40 celsius weather, by myself alot because my husband travels for work, with a 2.5 year old bewildered boy, a dying, aging dog and a screaming, writhing, inconsolable infant. No family, no close friends, about as lonely as a human being can get. And sad – what a horrible way to start out in life – I was sad for Luc, for his brother and myself – and mad at his father for being able to get out of hell so often. The only bright light in all of that was a secretary of my husbands – she would call me once in a while and offer to walk the floor while I took our poor old dog for a walk – 45 minutes of peace under the northern sky was just what I needed to bear myself up for another descent into hell. When I think about that time, I think about her kindness and compassion and promise myself that when I’m well through this, I will “pay it forward” and walk the floor with someone else’s infant so they too can breathe in peace and quiet, if only for an hour or so…

  8. survivor mom says:

    Ok so I hate the term colic too because it basically stands for “cranky baby” in most people’s minds. Unless they’ve been through it themselves they just don’t understand that it can mean SO much more. My son was cranky from birth and got increasingly more demanding at around 6 weeks. My husband and I were at each other’s throats. We’d prepared (we thought) and read Happiest Baby on the Block by Dr Karp before our son was born and yes some of the time those techniques worked. but what Dr Karp never explains is how to put your baby down after they’ve been soothed. We’d rock and pacify and swaddle and shush and do whatever else necessary but the second we stopped any one of those things it was like opening the flood gates. We even figured out our son had Acid Reflux and so had him on Zantac and Prilosec for months but it didn’t solve all the problems. He didn’t start to settle down until he was almost 5 months old. He still has major freak out fits now so I do believe that colic is related to some emotional center. It was the hardest time on us as a couple and me as a new mother. I just didnt’ feel the connection to him because ALL of my energy was focused on getting him to calm down. Not to mention the fact that since I had to hold him for him to sleep I was getting almost no sleep every night. I wore a path down our hallway with all my walking and bouncing every night. If anyone I know ever has to deal with this with their newborn, I’ll so be there to help them through. It is so lonely when you don’t have support.

  9. kowhai says:

    As a single parent,I nearly lost my mind when my daughter had colic for the first five months of her life. Bouncing her up and down for hours every night doesn’t sound so bad but, boy, it was unbelievably lonely and torturous. I would often be crying and crying myself and hardly able to keep awake while her screaming went on and on for hours. In the end I happened upon a doctor who prescribed Bovine Colostrum and the colic went away over night! I was beside myself with happiness! He put it down tot he antibiotics I had to take when I had some issues with a retained placenta. I had to give it to her everyday three times for a couple months but the colic was cured immediately and never came back….Wouldn’t wish it on anyone! Colostrum is certainly worth a try..

  10. Writermom says:

    I have colicky twins and a three-year-old. Talk about hell. It may be the worst thing I’ve ever experienced. My twins cry off and on but mostly on from about 5 to 10 p.m. every night. And during the day they are crying on and off as well. They constantly need to be held but even that doesn’t console them much of the time. If I had this with my first daughter I don’t think I would’ve had another child. And shit, I’ve now got TWO more.It really does seem sometimes like I’m going crazy and it does make it tough to bond. But I just keep telling myself it’s temporary. It’s temporary. It’s temporary. And soon, hopefully, I’ll believe it.

  11. onlychildmom says:

    I hear you. My daughter was diagnosed with acid reflux…the meds (prevacid) did the trick, but I have been completely turned off on having another. Betwee the “colic” and the post-partum depression, I couldn’t survive the first 4-5 months of another baby. Looks like she’ll be an only child!

  12. Candice Dancer says:

    I am a fortunate woman–none of my three children had colic. When I was pregnant with each of them, I’d play games with myself, trying to will colic away. Let’s just chalk my inexperience with colic up to luck. Pure luck.

    According to several sources I’ve read, colic is nonexistent in various parts of the world. I don’t know what that says, exactly, about all the other parts of the world in which colicky babies and their parents reside, but I think it’s an interesting fact (if it is, in fact, a fact!). Also of interest is that there are compelling arguments stating that colic is not limited to gastrointestinal issues; rather, colic is thought to be due to neurological immaturity.

    At any rate, I feel for parents (and babies, but mostly parents) who have to endure colic. I mean, babies have no memories of their ordeal. Parents, on the other hand, have to live with having experienced a myriad of negative feelings toward their spouses and babies. It’s hard enough dealing with being a new, or even seasoned, parent once you bring your bundle of joy home–there’s sleep deprivation; worry over things like SIDS, breastfeeding issues, and day-to-day responsibilities; and making sure that you’re balancing all of your duties (kids, husband, home, work, school, etc.). Man, it’s a LOT!

    Nothing can brace a parent for the ups and downs that go with the territory, from the overwhelming waves of love that wash over you when you look at your beautiful baby, to the stark realization that you are about to clean out your bank account and run away to Hawaii if the baby doesn’t stop crying in the next five minutes.

    I’m grateful I didn’t experience colic. The universe spared me this, times three. For those of you who endured, I commend you, I really do!

  13. CHAVEN says:

    MY DAUGHTERS BABY HAD “WHAT THE DOCTORS CALLED COLIC” AND WHEN YOU ASKED NURSES ON THE HOTLINE THEY ALMOST LAUGHED WHILE THEY WERE TELLING YOU IT WAS “COLIC”. WE WHEN YOU READ THE ARTICLES- COLIC IS USUALLY DUE TO DIGESTIVE DISTURBANCES- (SO HELLO- ITS SOMETHING THEY ARE EATING) AFTER TRYING EVERYTHING- PILLS, SPECIAL FORMULAS THE DOCTOR HAD TO PRESCRIBE, WASHING MACHINE, CHARCOAL, I MEAN EVERYTHING- I RAN INTO A LITTLE ANGEL THAT WAS WORKING AS A GREETER AT WALMART WHILE MY GRANDAUGHTER WAS “COMING DOWN FROM ONE OF HER EPISODES OF DYING IN PAIN SCREAMING”. SHE TOLD ME THAT WHEN HER BROTHER WAS A LITTLE BOY HE WAS ALLERGIC TO EVERYTHING SO HER MOTHER GAVE HIM GOATS MILK. I ASKED HER IF THEY CARRIED IT THERE AND SHE SAID YES. WE BOUGHT IT- ITS A LITTLE EXPENSIVE BUT I DIDN’T CARE- OUR CHILD HAS BEEN A HAPPY CAMPER EVER SINCE. BE SURE THAT YOU DON’T GIVE UP THE FIRST DAY- THE CHILD WILL STILL HAVE TO PROCESS WHATEVER IS STILL IN HIS SYSTEM BEFORE YOU WILL SEE ANY RESULTS. BUT WHEN WE STARTED THIS-MY DAUGHTER CALLED ME THE VERY NEXT DAY AND SAID-SHES A GOATS MILK KID NOW. DON’T TELL YOUR DOCTOR- THEY LIVE OFF PASSING OUT PRESCRIPTIONS AND ORDERING MORE TESTS. I FELL SORRY FOR THE FOLKS THAT DON’T KNOW ANY BETTER. ITS A SHAME. PLEASE TRY THIS- YOU CAN’T LOSE- YOU’VE ALREADY LOST TOO MUCH SLEEP! YOU CAN GET GOATS MILK AT WALMART OR PUBLIX.

  14. CHAVEN says:

    MY DAUGHTERS BABY HAD “WHAT THE DOCTORS CALLED COLIC” AND WHEN YOU ASKED NURSES ON THE HOTLINE THEY ALMOST LAUGHED WHILE THEY WERE TELLING YOU IT WAS “COLIC”. WHEN YOU READ THE ARTICLES- COLIC IS USUALLY DUE TO DIGESTIVE DISTURBANCES- (SO HELLO- ITS SOMETHING THEY ARE EATING) AFTER TRYING EVERYTHING- PILLS, SPECIAL FORMULAS THE DOCTOR HAD TO PRESCRIBE, WASHING MACHINE, CHARCOAL, I MEAN EVERYTHING- I RAN INTO A LITTLE ANGEL THAT WAS WORKING AS A GREETER AT WALMART WHILE MY GRANDAUGHTER WAS “COMING DOWN FROM ONE OF HER EPISODES OF DYING IN PAIN SCREAMING”. SHE TOLD ME THAT WHEN HER BROTHER WAS A LITTLE BOY HE WAS ALLERGIC TO EVERYTHING SO HER MOTHER GAVE HIM GOATS MILK. I ASKED HER IF THEY CARRIED IT THERE AND SHE SAID YES. WE BOUGHT IT- ITS A LITTLE EXPENSIVE BUT I DIDN’T CARE- OUR CHILD HAS BEEN A HAPPY CAMPER EVER SINCE. BE SURE THAT YOU DON’T GIVE UP THE FIRST DAY- THE CHILD WILL STILL HAVE TO PROCESS WHATEVER IS STILL IN HIS SYSTEM BEFORE YOU WILL SEE ANY RESULTS. BUT WHEN WE STARTED THIS-MY DAUGHTER CALLED ME THE VERY NEXT DAY AND SAID-SHES A GOATS MILK KID NOW. DON’T TELL YOUR DOCTOR- THEY LIVE OFF PASSING OUT PRESCRIPTIONS AND ORDERING MORE TESTS. I FELL SORRY FOR THE FOLKS THAT DON’T KNOW ANY BETTER. ITS A SHAME. PLEASE TRY THIS- YOU CAN’T LOSE- YOU’VE ALREADY LOST TOO MUCH SLEEP! YOU CAN GET GOATS MILK AT WALMART OR PUBLIX.

  15. herbprof says:

    One simple remedy for colic and one of the possible causes has been known for years. This particular cause is the intestinal flora in the babies gut is out of balance causing poor digestion and gas pain. The remedy is simple probiotics (see study below) that you can find at any health food store, I have seen it work almost immediately. Buy only refrigerated for freshness as they tend to be of the better quality.

    Poor Intestinal Flora Symptoms: irritability, bloating, abdominal pain, foul smelling bowel movements, constipation/diarrhea, food sensitivities, rectal itching, spitting-up, poor immunity

    Colic Symptoms: crying suddenly after a feeding, crying is loud and continuous for one to four hours, baby’s face often is flushed or red, hands clenched, belly is distended or prominent, the feet are often cold, baby may arch their backs, draw up their legs to their tummy, extend their legs rigidly, pass wind.

    A 2010 scientific study published in the Journal of Pediatrics reports the effectiveness of a probiotic treatment for colic. The authors report states that the probiotic Lactobacillus reuteri significantly reduced crying time among infants with colic, compared to placebo. The subjects included 50 exclusively breast-fed infants, that were administered either L. reuteri or a placebo.
    Savino F, Cordisco L, Tarasco V, et al. Lactobacillus reuteri DSM 17938 in infantile colic: a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled trial. Pediatrics. 2010;126(3):e526-e533.

  16. Brynell says:

    Great tinhikng! That really breaks the mold!

  17. Easter says:

    Great thinking! That really berkas the mold!

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