Surviving Colic

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:

Keep a colic diary

The Colic Clinic provides parents with a diary that divides each 24-hour day into 15-minute sections, each with check boxes for if the child is crying, sleeping, feeding, and/or awake. At the end of every week, the four behaviors are highlighted in four different colors. "This allows a parent to see how much a child is actually crying and when it is most likely to occur."

A diary also can make parents aware of what they may be doing to exacerbate the situation. "A mother may realize that, gosh, she's been feeding the baby 20 times a day, or putting him down every night at 11:00 pm. She might, then, try to modify these behaviors to see if the situation improves."

In the very least, keeping a diary gives a parent a better sense of control and a clearer perspective of a situation that may otherwise seem to them like a shapeless, sleep-deprived abyss.

Give yourself permission not to suffer

When I decided to allow my first child to start crying himself to sleep, I laid myself right down on the floor next to his crib until he uttered his last pathetic whimper. "Somehow," I thought, "I wasn't being cruel if I was miserable right along with him."

Maybe I was jaded the second time around, maybe I was just too darned exhausted from caring for a toddler and a colicky baby. But when Noah refused to stop screaming in the middle of the night, regardless of how I tried to comfort him, I closed my bedroom door and went to bed.

Lester endorses the response: "Mothers must regain ego strength and take time to care of themselves," says Lester. "That means getting adequate sleep. It can even simply mean taking a nice long shower. If the kid cries for 15 minutes while you're bathing, it's OK. You need the time to cool off."

Get relief

Though it's not true for all colicky babies, Noah's crankiest periods were generally predictable. I knew that come three o'clock, the really serious fussing would begin and it would keep going strong until bedtime. With these parameters in mind, I used my very limited babysitting budget to pay a neighborhood teen to simply walk, hold, and stroll with Noah from the onset of witching hour until my husband got home from work.

I, meanwhile, used the down time to chill out with my older son, prepare dinner, and simply enjoy having an empty pair of arms. I also found that just having a fresh face in the house and a quasi-adult to talk to brightened my spirits.

At the Colic Clinic, part of the marching orders for mothers is that they must go out with their partner twice a week -- sans baby. If paying a sitter is out of the question, recruit a close friend or family to watch the baby. And don't consider it a luxury. "This is vital to your well-being and to your relationship's well-being," says Lester, adding that it's perfectly all right to leave a screaming baby behind. "The child will be all right, and the babysitter will survive, too."

Talk about it

Caring for a colicky baby can be terribly isolating -- not only because a mother may hesitate to impose her child's behavior on others, but because of the often painful feelings she tends to keep bottled up inside herself. "It's OK to express what you're thinking, even if it's not very positive," says Lester.

Often what you may get in return is affirmation from someone else who's been through what you're experiencing. Turning to a therapist may also be extremely helpful. "Mothers who come into the clinic often admit that it's the first time they've felt comfortable expressing what they really feel. Often, the simple fact that professionals are acknowledging that a mom has a challenging kid on her hands legitimizes what she's experiencing and provides a great sense of relief," notes Lester.

"Getting to that point -- where you can say, 'Hey, my child has a problem, it's not me' -- even admitting that your baby is a pain in the neck -- is very freeing and very healthy."