There is nothing worse than a crying baby that you cannot console.
For many parents, this is the reality of their life right now. It is rough. And stressful. I have been there.
It sucks. A LOT.
Colic is defined as: Unexplained crying for 3 or more hours a day, for 3 or more days a week, for 3 or more weeks.
There is no known cause of colic, and no treatment, but interestingly it doesn’t occur in all cultures.
What is Colic?
Colic is an age old problem that has been poorly understood by parents and health professionals alike. Colic can be deeply distressing for infants and parents, and yet no one seems to have a practical approach to calming colicky babies.
There are many colic theories that have offered limited insight into the true cause of colic, or how to calm a colicky baby.
Colicky babies have repeat bouts of extreme fussiness for no apparent reason.
It is often assumed that colicky babies are in some kind of pain, as their screams are not relieved by the comforts of feeding and holding. They often writhe and grunt, may start and stop their screaming very abruptly, and have a shrill cry that resembles the sound they make when they are in pain, they are often said to ‘pull up’ their legs while crying.
Parents are given a variety of advice about how to calm a colicky baby which has not always been helpful.
Exhausted parents are often told that they must wait for their colicky babies to ‘grow out of it’. One of the compelling reasons why colic is NOT something parents have to put up with or accept is that in a number of cultures, colic is virtually absent.
Parents in these cultures are so adept at responding to their babies needs that the distress we associate with colicky babies is simply not present.
What Causes Colic?
Over the years many explanations have been put forward about the cause of colic.
Common explanations have included that colic is caused by:
- Maternal anxiety
- Tummy troubles
- Baby’s sensitive temperament
- Baby’s immature brain.
- Food allergies
- Stomach migraines
While there is an element of truth in all of these explanations, none of them fully explain colicky behavior, nor point to what we can do to calm a colicky baby.
The true cause of colic is what is now often referred to as a missing ‘4th trimester’.
The 4th Trimester
Human babies (as opposed to other animals) are born before their brains are fully developed, and before they are fully ready for the world, in order to stop their heads getting stuck in the birth canal.
To understand the missing 4th trimester as the true cause of colic we need to consider the conditions for baby inside the womb. This is the place that baby feels safe and content.
Inside the womb a baby is
- Very tightly bundled
- Constantly fed without being full, gassy or hungry
- Exposed to 80-90 decibels of ‘white noise’ 24/7
- Constantly swung and jiggled about
- Inside a perfectly warm sea of amniotic fluid.
These are the conditions that calm a baby in the womb, and unless we make a concerted effort to replicate these conditions once a baby is born, their absence will be a cause of considerable distress to a newborn.
For the first 3-4 months of a baby’s time earthside, it’s brain is still growing used to the big wild world. Particularly sensitive babies find this time quite disturbing, and let you know all about it.
Any slight discomfort or even a lack of cuddling can be enough to set off a crying fit. We must be compassionate to our little people, and recognize that what they are going through is hard for them. They will grow out of it, believe it or not, it is just a phase.
However, they need your support to get through it well. If you can replicate the womb environment and hold your baby as much as you can in those first few months, you will find that they adjust much quicker to the big wild world.
Babies that are well attached like this have been shown to have both higher IQ and higher EQ. You are not ‘spoiling’ a baby by holding it, nor are you ‘teaching it bad habits’ by letting it sleep on or with you. You are not ‘being manipulated’ this small baby is just doing what it’s life preserving instincts are telling it to do.
Just go with it, you will be happy with yourself for doing so in the long run. And your babies brain development will be better off for it too.
Replicating the Womb Environment
Many other cultures will carry a tightly swaddled baby in a sling carrier the whole day, and co-sleep at night. These babies are breastfed as soon as they become unsettled and are not expected to self-sooth or to go without their mother at all for the first 3 or more months.
Interestingly these cultures also do not experience colic in the way the western culture does.
This is not always practical for a busy, modern day mama, but if you think of the times of day your baby gets upset and try and re-look at your routine at this time of day.
It is often tea time – other children are tired and hungry and need their dinner/bath/bedtime routines too, so baby gets handed to someone else or left to their own devices while mom gets dinner ready.
Some suggestions for Coping with Colic
Try and get as much dinner prepared as possible earlier in the day when baby is settled – slow cookers or casseroles are great for this, chop your vegetables and have them in the pots on the stove ready to just switch on.
Have a dvd or something for the older children to keep them entertained/distracted while tea is getting ready to reduce squabbles and stress on mum and dad.
Get dad/granny/older child to finish preparing dinner while you sit and feed baby.
Put baby tightly swaddled in a bouncer or pushchair by the dinner table and keep baby moving with your feet while you eat.
Wrap style carriers or a Boba carrier are a lifesaver!! – pop baby in and have two hands free to continue with what you were trying to do. Baby is nice and close and can sleep close to your heartbeat and warmth, upright and jiggling so will usually sleep really well here during the day.
Sucking helps to relax and ease unsettled babies, if breastfeeding is well established have no guilt in giving baby a pacifier to suck. Breastfeeding every time the baby is unsettled can cause them to over fill their belly which will lead to further discomfort. It is easy to wean them from a pacifier when they are older, if they are kept only for bed times after 3 months of age.
Some babies find a deep, warm bath relaxing. Some babies prefer to have this with Mom or Dad, showers can work too. Some babies HATE it, so if that is the case, give a bath a miss.
If baby is unsettled it will do no harm to future sleep patterns if you spend the evening with baby napping on your chest in the lounge while you read or watch TV.
In fact you will both be more relaxed and baby will probably get more sleep then trying to settle them alone in their own bed.
If you choose to co-sleep it is recommended that you do so by using a ‘side car’ style bed – where baby has their own space.
You can achieve this by either buying a specially made sidecar bassinet or by removing one side of the cot and ensuring there are no gaps or height difference between the cot mattress and your own bed (bungee cords to attach one mattress to the other works well).
Warning: Bed Sharing /co-sleeping should not be undertaken by people who smoke, have been drinking alcohol or are under the influence of drugs, these things greatly increase the risk of SIDS (cot death). Do not co-sleep on a couch or lounger chair.
If you are really struggling with a baby with colic, you need to find some support. Talk with your partner and a good friend. If you ever feel like you might hurt the baby, put her down in a safe place and leave the room and cool off.
Endless screams are heart breaking, exhausting and frustrating. Reach out for help and support before you do something you will eternally regret.
Just know, this too will pass. Try and enjoy baby while she is not screaming, and lean on that bond when you are having a hard time. Hang in there mama, I have been through that tunnel too, it is dark, but there is a glowing light at the end, don’t stop treading towards it xx.