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Surviving Colic

WebMD Feature

Dec. 4, 2000 -- Just about the time my second son, Noah, was 11 weeks old, my husband and I seriously considered putting him out on the curb, with a pair of Bruce Springsteen concert tickets tucked into his blanket, hoping someone would run off with the package.

Luckily, we chickened out. The concert turned out to be great. Oh, yeah -- and Noah hasn't turned out so bad either. At 14 months of age, his curly red hair, playful spirit, and passion for all things muddy have made him the card of our small clan. But during those first jaw-clenching, scream-pierced weeks of our son's life that we now refer to as "colic hell," it was hard to imagine he'd ever do anything to make us laugh.

The experts define colic as a state of fussiness or crying that lasts for more than three hours a day, for at least three days a week, over a period of three weeks or more. Various researchers and experts have attributed this infantile affliction, which usually starts about the second week of life and abates some time around the fourth month, to everything ranging from gastrointestinal distress to an immature nervous system to excess serotonin levels in the brain.

Down in the trenches, I as a parent saw colic as a trial that could bring even a childrearing veteran to her knees and leave her weeping with exhaustion, frustration, and guilt. But in those bleak moments I discovered that besides the various remedies you can employ to soothe your baby, there are many techniques available to help your family weather the colic as well.

Focusing on the family

It is this last perspective on colic -- the toll it takes on an infant's parents, and siblings to a lesser extent -- that is a major focus of Barry Lester, PhD, and his staff at the Colic Clinic of the Women & Infants' Hospital in Providence, R.I.

"We view colic as psychosocial issue that involves everyone in the home, not just something that is happening to the child. That is why, when a mother (and it is the mother in most cases) comes in with a screaming baby, we consider her a patient, as well," says Lester, who is also a professor of psychiatry and pediatrics at the Brown University School of Medicine.

Lester is quick to point out that his approach in no way targets the mother as a cause of colic. That old-school attitude "does no good and in fact, makes matters worse," he says. Instead, Lester sees the situation more as a vicious cycle -- a crying, irritable child can make a mother miserable (45% of the clinic's mothers are diagnosed as depressed, more than double the normal average), can compromise a marriage, and can even cause siblings to develop problems, such as bedwetting.

Of course, the Colic Clinic does devote significant attention to the infants themselves. All who come in are thoroughly examined and screened for possible causes of their irritability, such as heartburn, sleep problems, or food sensitivities. Parents are also given comprehensive guidance regarding how they might try to soothe their child.

Still, a great deal of the clinicians' time is spent teaching coping strategies to the parents. For, as Lester points out, "if we don't intervene, colic can affect the parent-child relationship long after the crying stops."

Here are some of the Colic Clinic's suggestions for parents:

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