Every New Parent's Nightmare: Colic

Learn what causes colic and how to deal with it.

Q-tip

Your baby does not have colic if one of the following is true:

  • She cries for quite some time, but then falls asleep.
  • Her crying sounds no different from her usual cry.
  • Her crying ends within a half an hour.
  • Your efforts to soothe her work for more than a minute or so. (If the crying has an identifiable cause, it's not colic.)
  • Her crying starts again only when you stop doing whatever worked to halt the crying.
  • Your baby stays happy for at least 15 minutes, and then starts crying again.

If your baby has colic, nothing is likely to soothe her. Colic is a pattern of unexplained, inconsolable, and intense crying that can continue for up to three months. Neither an illness nor a disease, colic apparently does no harm to the baby, but it can drive the baby's parents crazy. Unable to console their child, parents can feel like failures. Despair, frustration, and anger commonly result.

If your baby does develop colic (though let's hope not), it will probably make its first appearance when she is three or four weeks old. Once a day, usually in the late afternoon or early evening, your colicky baby will begin crying. Her cry will sound much more intense and higher pitched than it does when she is hungry, hurt, cold, or lonely. Your baby will not just cry, she will scream. Often, a baby with colic draws her legs up to her chest or belly (as if it ached terribly). She may also clench her fists, appear restless, and become red with crying.

If your baby has colic, your attempts to discover and deal with the cause of her crying will meet with only fleeting success, if any. When you try to feed your baby, give her a pacifier, burp her, rock her, caress her, or sing to her, she may stop screaming-for at most a minute. Even then, she will continue to sob and tremble before starting to scream again. The crying will last anywhere from one to four hours. Then, as suddenly as it began, the screaming will stop.

The good news: This crying jag generally happens just once a day. The bad news: It happens every day, almost always at about the same time. At all other times, your baby will seem perfectly normal. She may eat and sleep well. When she gets hungry, tired, lonely, or hurt, she will cry-but it won't be anything like that daily dose of colic. Her needy crying will have a cause-and a remedy.

The Mystery of Colic

If the cause of colic could be pinpointed, it could also be treated and perhaps even cured. Unfortunately, no one yet knows the cause. Current theories suggest that it may be caused by cramps or spasms of the intestinal tract. However, you may want to take this theory with a grain of salt. In the past, colic has been attributed to the following:

  • Milk flowing too fast, causing overfeeding
  • Milk flowing too slowly, causing underfeeding
  • Milk that was too hot
  • Milk that was too cold
  • Milk that was too strong (not enough fluid)
  • Milk that was too weak (not enough nutrients)
  • Gas
  • Appendicitis
  • Gall bladder ailments
  • Allergies

None of these theories ever proved true.

Babyproofing

If at all possible, get some help during these colicky hours. You need all the support you can get from your partner, family, and friends. Help that allows you to take a break from the screaming will ease some of your frustration and stem negative feelings that you might be developing toward your child.

What to Do (Besides Tearing Out Your Hair)

Whatever the cause, if your baby has colic, you're in for a very stressful couple of months. You can't just let your baby cry until he's done. So try everything suggested here and keep trying—but don't expect anything to achieve lasting results.

Because you can probably set your watch by your baby's colic attacks, schedule your day around them. Free your afternoons and evenings of all other activities. That way, when the screaming starts, you'll be able to deal with it as best you can.

Be as patient as you can and wait it out. Yes, it's going to be rough, but colic almost never lasts longer than 12 weeks-and sometimes much less. (Granted, that's still a lot of time to listen to your baby's screaming.) Remind yourself that it won't last forever. And hang in there.

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