Babies cry to communicate: cueing us to feed them, change them, warm and cool them, to give them rest, attention, and companionship.
But, an inconsolable, crying baby is torture. Literally.
This kind of sleep deprivation and constant exposure to babies’ screams are among psychological torture techniques banned by the United Nations, so calling the day to day experience of non-stop crying punishment is an understatement.
If you’re reading this, chances are you feel like your baby is crying harder, louder, longer, or more frequently than before or more than other babies.
The experience is hard for everyone, so soothing a crying baby means finding a solution that not only helps your baby but also provides relief to you.
My baby is full, has a clean diaper, is neither hot or cold and doesn’t want to sleep…
Why is my babycrying?!
The U.S. National Library of Medicine outlines many reasons for excessive crying in babies from birth to six months that are relatively harmless and treatable: conditions like diaper rash, constipation or the common cold.
It could also be a developmental phase which lacks a cure but that babies outgrow such as gassiness, colic, PURPLE crying, growth spurts or teething. Babies are also sensitive to medications and vaccinations. Immunize.org discusses what to expect after your infant receives vaccinations.
But it never hurts to get a medical opinion!
If you feel like your baby’s crying is a sudden change coupled with a high temperature, vomiting, or diarrhea, you should contact a medical professional. Possible persistent digestive issues such as excessive gassiness, reflux, GERD or a food allergy can also be diagnosed by your pediatrician according to KellyMom.
But, if all of these possible reasons have been ruled out, it could be what’s known as “colic.”
Colic: What in the world is it?
Colic is one of the most terrifying words to a new parent. The Mayo Clinic defines it as:
Persistent and inconsolable crying for (at least) three hours at a time, for (at least) three days a week, for three weeks or more in an otherwise perfectly healthy baby.
Other facts about colic include:
- It starts a few weeks after birth.
- The episodes come at a predictable time: usually in the late afternoon or evening and may end in the passing of gas or a bowel movement. (Your baby, not you.)
- Crying is intense, high-pitched, and sounds distressed. It sounds more like screaming than crying.
- Their face gets flushed and looks pained – like an “angry red raisin” as one colic survivor put it best.
- Is unrelated to any need. In other words, has no cause and comes out of nowhere.
- The baby’s legs curl, fists clench, and abdominal muscles tense up.
- The crying is unresponsive to all known soothing techniques.
In clinical practice, parents begin to contact me about colic symptoms when their infant is 2 to 3 weeks old. This phase can last a few months, ultimately self-resolving at around 3 months old. Parents describe their baby as difficult to console and are concerned about something very serious going on. Often, parents believe constipation is the problem because they notice the abdomen is firm and the baby seems to be “pushing.” The majority of the time, this is not the case and stools are soft or loose.
Dr. Leah Alexander, MD, FAAP
The mystery surrounding colic.
Doctors don’t know the precise reason for colic. It’s unknown as to whether it’s genetic or related to pregnancy and childbirth, but it is not a reflection of parenting skills, even though it may feel like it.
Certain conditions can trigger it:
Overstimulation: Newborns are born without fully developed senses and have the ability to drown out the environment around them.
When babies begin to fully develop their sense of sight, smell, and sound, which happens to correlate with the typical onset of colic, many children find this introduction to the environment overwhelming.
Excessive Gassiness: Austin-based pediatrician, Dr. Ari Brown, explains that all babies are gassy because they eat around the clock, producing endless gas. All babies need to pass this gas, but as Dr. Jennifer Shu, author of Food Fights: Winning The Nutritional Challenges of Parenthood Armed with Insight, Humor, and A Bottle of Ketchup explains that some babies have difficulty passing gas.
The telltale signs of this are excessive and pained fussing, squirming, and pulling their legs up. If babies are relieved after passing gas, this also suggests that gas may be the culprit.
I find that excessive gas is the most common cause of colic in my patients. In particular, bottle fed infants tend to have more intestinal gas build up than breastfed ones; the mechanics of drinking from a bottle cause more swallowing of air during feedings. I recommend a few techniques to reduce gas discomfort.
Burping is very important; the more air that is expelled during a burp, the less air makes into the intestines to cause pain. I find that the best burping positions are by holding the infant against a shoulder or in a “belly down” position across the parent’s lap. These two positions seem to relax the abdominal muscles better and allow for more efficient burping. Nemour’s Hospital https://kidshealth.org/en/parents/burping.html”>discusses this in more detail>.
Doing some “belly time” is also a great way to reduce discomfort when a baby is fussy. Not only does this give some “exercise,” but results in less abdominal pressure. Alternatively, a warm bath or warm washcloth on the tense belly can be comforting. Here are some additional suggestions from the AAP.
Dr. Leah Alexander, MD, FAAP
Infant Acid Reflux: Infant GERD (gastroesophageal reflux disease) can trigger colic as a result of an underdeveloped lower esophageal sphincter, the muscle that keeps stomach acid from flowing back up into the throat and mouth.
This acid can irritate the esophagus and cause pain. Symptoms include frequent spitting up, poor eating, crying when lying flat on the back, and irritability during and after feedings. GERD generally subsides by age one when baby is eating more solid foods.
This AAP webpage has additional information, including when to contact a doctor.
Food Allergies and Sensitivities: Stomach pain may also be related to diet. In formula-fed babies, this can be due to an allergy to milk protein and in some cases a. If breastfeeding, avoidgas-causing cruciferous veggies (like cabbage, cauliflower, and broccoli),, or allergenic foods like dairy, soy, wheat, eggs, peanuts, tree nuts and fish if there are signs of allergy (hives, severe eczema, etc).
Milk protein allergy in infants is typically associated with fussiness, weight loss, and blood in the stools. I have seen it as early as 2 weeks old. Most infants who are allergic to cow’s milk protein are also allergic to soy; I, therefore, recommend avoiding both cow’s milk and soy formulas in these cases. A hypoallergenic formula solves this problem. These options should be discussed with a doctor before introducing them. For breastfed infants, some of my moms prefer to avoid consuming dairy and soy in order to continue breastfeeding. Although this diet can be difficult for moms, their infants do very well. In most cases, infant outgrow this type of allergy by one year of age.
Dr. Leah Alexander, MD, FAAP
Tobacco Exposure: While the connection is unclear, several studies have shown that (like that from tobacco) either directly or from second-hand smoke, during pregnancy or as infants, were more likely to struggle with colic.
The good news? You’re not alone! 1/5 of babies develop colic. It begins to improve by three months with the majority of children showing improvement at four to five months.
Okay, I know what colic is. Now what?
Dr. Lester uncovered that the diagnosis of colic and the dismissive nature of “Just hang in there!” often given to parents from pediatricians could be devastating to parents.
If better burping techniques and “tummy time” do not seem to be enough to reduce discomfort, I recommend trying simethicone drops to my parents. These seem to be the only effective over the counter remedy as they break up the gas within the intestines, thus relieving the pressure. Although, there are a variety of homeopathic products on the market, I do not recommend them due to certain concerning ingredients.
Dr. Leah Alexander, MD, FAAP
The effects of colic can be a trigger for postpartum depression (PPD), and without any help for the parents, a real danger exists of failure to forge a bond with the child that is essential to the child’s development.
While it’s easy for someone else to tell you that “a few months is nothing” in the grand scheme of your baby’s lifetime, it can be excruciating to figure out how to make it through the night.
Or tomorrow. Or next week.
While your baby’s crying may be inconsolable at times, there are some measures that may help lessen the blow.
17 ways to soothe a colicky baby.
These soothing techniques can be useful to any crying baby, not just those struggling from colic! Any bouts of crying or excessive fussiness can be helped with soothing.
Rocking and Bouncing: One comforting technique involves rocking your baby in your arms in a bold, vigorous swinging motion with your feet hip distance apart, and your arms rounded widely in a barrel shape swinging them from side to side.
If you’d like the rocking motion to be a little less vigorous, you can try out a rocking chair or glider. Your baby may prefer bouncing which can be recreated by bouncing on an exercise ball.
Baby Wearing: If the only place your baby can be comforted is in your arms, you may want your appendages back before they fall off. Baby wearing is one way your baby can be soothed not just by motion, but by the familiar smell and sound of your voice, and by experiencing the new sights and sounds of the world in the security of your presence. Did I mention you get your arms back?
Swings and Bouncers: You can find swings and bouncers that will create a soothing movement and are electrically powered, providing you with a much-needed break. One note of caution: infant swings and bouncers are not safe for sleeping. They increase the risk of SIDS. Only put your baby in them when he or she is awake.
Good Vibrations: Many rockers, newborn nappers, and bassinets have a built in vibrating motion that can be turned on and off. Parents recreate this by placing their infant seat on appliances like a dryer (with caution and supervision!) or by driving around the block with the baby in the car seat. The “white noise” created in all of these scenarios can be soothing and help with sleep.
Swaddling: That tight, comforting space inside you that kept them feeling snug and secure can be recreated through swaddling to help soothe and make them sleep longer.
Sucking: Both WebMD and the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) insist there is nothing wrong with a pacifier. Some children have strong sucking needs and are quickly soothed by a pacifier.
Pacifiers not only reduce the risk of SIDS but can ease reflux by satisfying the need to suck instead of the excessive filling of their stomachs. Babies can learn to suck as a self-soothing technique which can help them regulate their emotional reactions.
Most babies give up the pacifier on their own around the seventh month. If yours doesn’t, don’t worry (unless they use it past the age of 2 which affects the teeth).. The AAP says it’s unlikely to harm their development. In a pinch, you can also use your finger (but for your baby’s sake, please wash it first).
Special Bath Time: A warm bath in a snug baby tub can also soothe babies, especially when they become part of a set routine, such as at bedtime. This can soothe a crying infant to sleep., vanilla, chamomile and rose are soothing scents that can also help with sleep. Scented baby bath products and lotions can be a nice addition to your routine to help calm your baby because newborns have an especially sensitive sense of smell. If using such products, test them on a small area of your infant’s skin first to be sure there is no skin sensitivity or allergic reaction. Lavender has been shown to have estrogenic properties, so skin contact with lavender oil or products should be avoided.
Sound: Babies aren’t used to silence. They remember the constant noise of your heart beat, blood rushing through your body and gurgling of your stomach. Providing white noise also blocks out other sources of stimulation that might be causing your baby stress. You can make white noise yourself by shushing loudly, continuously and close to your baby’s ear.
Babies are often comforted by the sound of appliances like vacuum cleaners, hair dryers, and other noisy appliances. Your baby may also respond to the sound of water while you shower or wash dishes. White noise machines are available but have become somewhat controversial in that they may not work, create dependency or be dangerously loud. So make sure the one you decide on works for your baby. (Or you.) There are also several apps that provide different soothing sounds that you can play from your smart phone over a Bluetooth speaker left in your baby’s room.
Soothing Environment: Create the calmest, quietest and most soothing environment for your baby by putting them in soft, tagless, comfortable clothes, dimming the lights, closing the curtains, playing soft music or white noise, removing any distractions like TV, and quell any commotion in the home. Doing so helps to minimize the overpowering elements that can overwhelm and overstimulate the baby. This may be a good starting point prior to attempting other soothing techniques. l.
Sleep: Colicky babies tend to suffer from poor sleep habits. There’s a vicious cycle: the baby exhausts themselves from crying, he or she becomes more exhausted, cries more, and then becomes even harder to soothe. So colic expert Dr. Pamela High, who works at Brown University’s Brown Center for Children at Risk, stresses that colicky babies need solid and balanced sleep, both during the day and night in a dark, peaceful, quiet setting. A baby’s need for sleep evolves as they do. So be mindful of these developmental stages.
Solids: Babies suffering from acid reflux can benefit from the introduction of solid foods as early as 4 months with the supervision of their pediatrician or gastroenterologist. It is recommended that babies with reflux start with foods that are low in acidity such as rice or cereal, avocados, pears, and bananas.
While there is no clear cause for colic, some soothing techniques that ease excessive gassiness, a frequent symptom of colic, may help.
Feeding Techniques: The method you use to feed and burp your may also help.
- While feeding, make sure your baby’s head is higher than his or her stomach.
- When bottle feeding, try to prevent the intake of bubbles that results from mixing formula by letting it rest before serving.
- Limit air that gets into their system by making sure the bottle is at an angle where the nipple is always full. Use a nipple that is slower rather than faster so that your baby isn’t gulping air to keep up.
- Burp your baby frequently during feeding. If possible, try to burp the baby after each ounce if bottle feeding. This may not always be practical, however, for very vigorous eaters. In this case, try to burp him or her half-way through the bottle feeding. If breastfeeding, I recommend burping before switching the baby to the second breast.
Colic Holds: Dr. Sears describes some of the most successful ways you can calm your baby just by holding and gently moving them around.
- Football Carry: Popular among dads, this involves placing baby stomach-down along the forearm, head towards the crook of the elbow and his legs straddling over the hand. Then press the baby’s tense abdomen against the forearm. This can also be reversed with baby head first, or you can also use your thigh instead if the baby is too heavy or forearm is too small.
- The Neck Nestle: Another favorite of Dr. Sears involves snuggling the baby’s head into the groove between your chin and chest and swaying back and forth, crooning a low, slow, repetitive tune. Not only is this soothing to baby, but it’s also great exercise.
- The Gas Pump: Start with the baby on their back facing you, with their legs up towards you and head resting on your knees or another safe surface. Pump their legs up and down in a bicycling motion. Dr. Sears suggests that animated facial expressions make this even more effective. Since the situation couldn’t be more awkward, it can’t hurt!
- The Colic Curl: Place the baby’s head and back against your chest and encircle your arms under their bottom, then curl your arms up. Or conversely, place the baby’s feet against your chest as you hold them so you can maintain eye contact. This way you can entertain them with the kind of silly faces that will mortify them as teenagers.
- Tummy Rolls: With a hand securely on the baby’s back, drape the baby over a large beach ball tummy-side down and roll in a gentle, massaging circular motion. You should find this entertaining to watch.
- Tummy Tucks: Place a rolled-up cloth or cloth-covered warm water bottle under the baby’s tummy. You can lay the baby stomach-down on a cushion with their legs dangling over the edge while rubbing their back. To make sure breathing isn’t obstructed turn their head from side to side.
Talk to your doctor: While colic alone is not the only medical condition that requires treatment, your pediatrician can suggest over the counter medications and remedies for gas such as Mylicon gas drops, probiotics to help promote intestinal health, and homeopathic remedies that can ease bouts of crying. The Journal of Family Practice published a study which showed the benefits of probiotics.
Here’s Looking at You, Kid: Sometimes it takes looking in the mirror for all of us to see what kind of a hot mess we are, babies included. When a baby sees his or her their own meltdown, it can be enough to shock many out of a crying spell. Just avoid evaluating the state of the baggage claim beneath your own eyes.
Here today and gone tomorrow!
“But it just worked yesterday!” cry frustrated moms everywhere.
Don’t feel defeated when your go-to soothing technique from yesterday proves useless today. It’s more likely that their symptoms are escalating than any failure on your part.
Try something new or build upon what you found your baby likes best.
While it’s not recommended that you throw the kitchen sink at the baby from day one, once you know what works you can try combining techniques.
For example, combining swaddling, using a pacifier and motion. Or, try giving a bath, in a dark and quiet room using scented bath products with the white noise of the water.
Live in the now!
Don’t get bogged down by dependency fears: Will my baby need a pacifier into childhood? Will we need a white noise machine forever? Will swaddling ruin their chances of going to the Olympics? If you have doubts, talk to your pediatrician. Otherwise, you can worry about those things when your baby has stopped their multiple hours of crying.
The importance of self-care.
While the colic crying alone cannot hurt your healthy baby, the stress of managing colic takes an enormous toll on parents who feel demoralized and incompetent when faced with inconsolable crying. Infants are only in any physical danger when this frustration becomes violent with child abuse and shaken baby syndrome.
The emotional consequences of stress from colic alone have lasting effects on the child’s development and life dissatisfaction of the family years later according to a Finnish Family Competence Study Project by researchers at the University of Turku.
A Canadian study expanded on this in the context of maternal bonding and postpartum depression. They found that while the crying alone is benign, the struggle of dealing with a fussy, crying baby lessens a mother’s ability to cope, and their corresponding negative mood state is perceptible to the child. which This erodes the foundation for a healthy relationship between mother and baby.
Colic is frequently a trigger for postpartum depression. This is in part due to the release of the hormone prolactin.
Prolactin is released at the sound of a baby’s cry, and triggers a mother’s urge to pick up and meet the baby’s needs. While no doubt having evolutionary value, when the mother can’t ease the baby’s cries, she feels like a failure.
As Dr. Lester attests:
“I think one of the most effective interventions we do — and do as soon as we can — is to in a sense let the mother off the hook. And to say this is something going on in your baby. Not something you did.”
Dr. Lester stresses that parents shouldn’t go through the experience alone before getting some help. Just like the classic flight instructions to put the oxygen mask on yourself first before helping others, to help your baby you need to attend to yourself first.
Ways to make the colic experience easier for you.
Gather the Troops: If you have relatives, use them. If you can afford childcare, get it. If you have friends, even if you think they have nothing to offer, call them anyway.
Ask anyone and everyone you know for help, whether they can take care of your baby, cook or clean, or provide moral support. This means taking the initiative and letting go of any shame or guilt surrounding having a colicky baby and not being able to take care of everything yourself. Colic or no colic, every mother has been there.
Get Dad Involved: If your partner isn’t already handling the colicky baby alongside you in the trenches, it’s time to get him involved. You shouldn’t have to go through this alone! If he has been unavailable, encourage him to allocate time to get involved.
Your partner needs to learn the basics of baby care for when assisting, as well as the soothing techniques for when it comes time for them to tag in during crying spells. Inform himwith what you know and face this as a team.
One thing to note: Dad’s can experience postpartum depression too. Here is what the AAP says about it.
Take a Breather: When the baby is completely inconsolable, you’ve tried absolutely everything, and feel like you’ve been through a meat grinder, sometimes the best thing you can do is walk away. When you’re confident your baby’s basic needs have been met, put the baby in a safe place like the crib or a swing and take a break. Put in ear plugs or use noise-canceling headphones to lessen the deafening sound if it helps.
While this seems outrageously out of tune with Dr. Sears’ attachment parenting and the need to attend to your baby’s every need, when your baby cannot be soothed, and you’re completely depleted, what you have to offer in that moment is of no value to anyone.
Regroup, take a break, and, when you find yourself in better shape, you’ll be of much greater help to your baby and family.
Join the Club: YOU ARE NOT ALONE! If only parents could proudly wear “Colic Survivor” t-shirts and get those colored ribbons and rubber bracelets to support colic research! (They should be the bright reddish purple color your baby’s face turns during a crying episode.)
Kidding aside, if 1/5 of babies suffer from colic, one in every five moms is in the same boat. Anytime you find ways to be around other moms, there is a greater chance you will encounter another mom dealing with the same struggles.
You can ask questions, exchange horror stories, and get support from fellow moms online in colic specific forums on Baby Center, What To Expect, etc. Many colic support groups are on Facebook. You can also talk to your OB/GYN about private therapy and support groups in your area.
In your moments of breathless desperation during those crying spells, it’s OK for you to cry too!
Here is an “action plan” if you feel overwhelmed.
Research into colic and excessive crying has found that it can inhibit brain development, depress their immune system, and alter the neurochemistry of their developing brain, increasing the risk of depression, aggression, impulsivity, violence and emotional detachment. It may lower their IQ, weaken social skills, impede fine motor skills, prevent abilities to modulate emotions and affect the sense of independence as a child.
It will also make them turn green, grow tentacles and develop a third eye on the back of their head. Well, maybe not the last three, but in your case maybe none of the above!
All the studies that found that these babies who had disrupted emotional, physical, intellectual, neurological and relationship development were in cases where parents or caretakers ignored and neglected their babies cries.
Every study points to the prolonged, neglected, unattended crying as the source of these problems. Infant developmental specialist, Dr. Michael Lewis concluded that “The single most important influence of a child’s intellectual development is the responsiveness of the mother to the cues of her baby.”
Even when soothing techniques don’t appear to comfort your baby, the simple act of responding to their distress and engaging with them while crying is helping them immensely in developing a secure attachment.
It may comfort you to know that while the attempts at soothing may not quell the crying spell itself, the building blocks of the relationship between you and your baby are being set, even when it feels imperceptible. This will enable your child to outgrow the distress of their colic in a matter of months.
Just make sure you are in a good mental space to respond. Colic isn’t just a diagnosis for babies; it affects the whole family.