As new parents will attest, there's almost nothing more unnerving than a crying baby. Worse still? An infant who won't stop crying, regardless of what you do. If your baby fits this bill, it could signify that dreaded C-word: colic.
As many as one in five infants are colicky, a condition characterized by inconsolable crying and fretfulness for hours at a time -- sometimes round-the-clock but usually at the same time of day, typically in the late afternoon or evening. These babies often have excessive gas and may repeatedly pull their knees to their stomachs and clench their fists in distress.
The causes of colic still largely remain a mystery, although the most common theories are that colicky kids either have an immature digestive tract or nervous system, or that their temperaments make them prone to overstimulation or less adept at self-quieting. Nor is there a definitive test or X-ray doctors can use to diagnose colic in infants.
"Colic is a diagnosis of exclusion, which means you don't have another good explanation for it," says Dr. Terry Hatch, associate professor of pediatrics at University of Illinois College of Medicine in Champaign-Urbana.
No Cure Except Time
The positive news is that if it's just colic -- which usually surfaces at age 2 weeks to 4 weeks -- your baby isn't in any physical danger, and the remedy is relatively simple: wait it out. Thankfully, there's no evidence that colic is a sign of chronic illness to come, or that having one colicky baby ups your risk of having another.
"Colic is usually associated with a normal, healthy growing child," says Dr. Rob Squires, associate professor of pediatrics at University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas and chair of the American Academy of Pediatrics' section on gastroenterology and nutrition.
Colic typically disappears by age 3 months or 4 months, but unfortunately, there's no tried-and-true remedy for the problem. Doctors say that while certain measures may offer some relief some of the time, a sudden, miraculous cure probably means your baby was ready to outgrow the condition on his own anyway.
The 'Fussy' Diary
But the lack of a proven cure doesn't mean parents should ignore a baby's distress, either. For starters, if crying persists after you make the obvious checks -- dirty diaper? hungry? -- check with your doctor, who'll want to rule out any underlying medical conditions, such as allergies or gastroesophageal reflux (similar to adult heartburn).
Keep a log detailing your baby's fussy periods to help determine what, if anything, seems to trigger or relieve the discomfort. If you're a nursing mom, your doctor may suggest cutting dairy or gas-producing foods from your diet. Milk and soy formulas also may upset infant tummies, in which case a predigested hypoallergenic type formula may help.
If the verdict is colic, try to keep your cool -- even if the only way you can do that is by silently walking the halls with your screaming baby fastened securely in a Snugli infant carrier. Crying is one of the few ways a baby can communicate, and your responses reassure your infant that you're listening.
If a baby is crying excessively but has no discernible medical or physical problem, says Dr. Hatch, past chair of the AAP's section on gastroenterology and nutrition, studies have shown that "paying attention to it as opposed to ignoring it, you can reduce the period of crying each day by as much as 30% to 40%."
Nobody's to Blame
Although parental anxiety or inexperience won't cause colic (much to the relief of first-time parents), tension might make a baby's distress worse, says Dr. Squires. "Relax your shoulders, relax your hands, and continue to smile at the baby even though they're not smiling back ...it's hard but it'll have some positive impact."
"I think the best thing you can do is realize it's not the baby's fault or your fault," says Susan Cherry, a mother from Evanston, Ill., who survived two children with colic. "Do your best to bond with your baby in the very rare moments when your he's quiet and cuddly."
Other home remedies:
- Try a new position: Some babies are comforted by being swaddled tightly in a blanket or held close in an infant carrier. Skin-to-skin contact or infant massage may help. Or try holding your baby face down on your forearm with his belly resting on your hand (head cradled in the crook of your arm and legs dangling). Use your other hand to hold his back in place, and gently apply pressure with the hand under his belly.
- Change the scenery: The rhythmic sound or motion of car trips, stroller rides or swings may do the trick, as well as steady background noise from a vacuum cleaner, washing machine or radio. If car rides work but you can't get out, there's a product you can hang on the crib that simulates vehicle sound and vibrations. (One such device is SleepTight, made by Sweet Dreems, Inc., of Westerville, Ohio. A motion and sound unit costs $129.95 plus shipping; a motion unit and cassette tape goes for $89.95; call 1-800-NOCOLIC for more information.)
- Take a break: Friends, relatives or responsible babysitters are a great source of relief, especially if parental patience is wearing thin. "I didn't want to burden anybody with a screaming baby," says Cherry, "but what you often don't realize is that another person is not nearly as bothered as you are to hear your baby cry."
If all else fails, Dr. Squires urges a sense of humor. When you don't know whether to laugh, cry or take a picture, he says, the latter clearly has its benefits. "You want to capture this behavior so that when it's time for the bachelor party, it comes back at 'em -- 'We had fun with you, but I'll tell you, this is what you looked like.'"