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.