Colic: The Symptoms, Tips and Reflections from Science

{What is colic and how to get relief from one mother who lived to tell the tale.}

I recently came across a very interesting article from The New Yorker entitled, The Colic Conundrum and oh, how I could relate to this article. My son (now 19 months) was quite fussy as an infant and although he was never formally diagnosed with colic, I believe that's probably the only label that would describe his behavior.

Although he did not have all the "symptoms" described in this article, he did have to be held, bounced, rocked, and nursed the majority of the day in order for him not to cry for long periods. He slept fairly well at night (2-3 hours at a time) but in his early months the only way he slept that long was for him to sleep on either mine or my husband's chest.

Additionally, he HATED the car seat. Once strapped in it, he might be content for 5-10 minutes and then it was blood-curdling screaming the rest of the time. Needless to say, we didn't leave the house much. I rarely discuss my son on this blog, but I felt like this topic was one where my personal experience might help other new moms out there who are struggling with this difficult issue.

You Can Survive Colic
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The Colic Mystery

The main point of the New Yorker article was that, despite years of research, doctors and psychologists really do not know much about what causes colic or how to treat it. Before having a child, I always thought colic was a gastrointestinal problem in which the baby has a difficult time digesting milk and this causes stomach pain. Although some infants with colic do have digestion problems, including reflux, many babies do not and simply seem to cry for no reason.

One researcher who has done quite a bit of work in recent years on the subject of colic believes that these babies are "hypersensitive to normal stimuli"; that is, "they perceive and react to changes in their bodies (such as hunger or gas pangs) or in their environment (such as loud noises or the experience of being touched) more acutely than do other babies." Although I don't know if there is much research to support this hypothesis, I think this is one of the best theories I've heard. 

Like many parents, I had read Dr. Harvey Karp's The Happiest Baby on the Block, while pregnant and I understood the neurological immaturity of newborns. Dr. Karp argues that the first three months of a newborn's life are really like a "fourth trimester" in which they have to adapt to life outside the womb. Unlike other mammals, humans are born still being very immature, both physically and neurologically. They go from existing in a warm, dark environment of constant movement, noise, and nourishment to a world that is bright, cold, and by their standards, quiet.

After carefully observing my son for weeks, I began to see that this theory seemed to fit him. He was especially sensitive to stimuli and had very little ability to self-soothe. Of course, no newborn has much ability to self-soothe but you may notice that some young infants will suck on their hands or take a pacifier. For others, like my son, none of these strategies offer comfort. My son was very alert and for lack of a better word, "jumpy." He often startled easily at the sound of the air conditioner turning on or cars driving by. On the other hand, he was soothed by the sound of things like the hair dryer or the vacuum cleaner (great tip from Dr. Karp's book!). He loved constant motion like being in the front pack baby carrier while bouncing on an exercise ball.

Colic Relief

Theories aside, I write all this to say: colic does get better! This is hard to hear if you are trying to cope with a baby who seems to cry endlessly, but know that it does get easier. Around 3 months my son started having longer and longer periods of awake, happy time and by 6 months he had established a fairly regular sleep schedule and would actually nap during the day for more than 30 minutes at a time. I am happy to report that now he is a very happy, healthy, active (climbing on everything!) toddler who has learned to self-soothe and will actually tolerate the car seat.

One issue the New Yorker article points out that I feel is very important is the fact that having a baby with colic often puts moms at risk for depression and a poor infant-parent relationship. It's easy to see why this could happen. Professor Barry Lester who studies colic, describes it this way,

"The most common thing our patients say is, ‘I must be doing something wrong.’ It triggers a whole cycle: the mother feels inadequate and unable to parent effectively. And when these mothers get angry at their baby, they feel guiltier: ‘How can I get angry at my baby?’ The problem spirals out of control.”

When to Seek Out Help

Feeling as though you cannot do anything to soothe your child is very discouraging, but it's important to realize that, in most cases, you are doing all you can do by simply responding to the baby's needs as best you can. Even if the baby continues to cry despite the rocking, feeding, etc., I firmly believe that the baby internalizes the fact that you are there helping him/her try to cope. Studies have shown that babies who are responded to promptly (especially in the first 3 months) will, over time, cry less frequently.

If you have a colicky baby, it's also important to seek out support when you need it. I was very fortunate to have a wonderful husband, parents, and in-laws to help provide support (and keep things in perspective) when I needed it. Even if you can find a trusted person to just hold the baby for an hour so you can take a break and gather your thoughts, it will make a difference in your state of mind.

You may feel (as I did) that colic "stole" the first few months of you and your baby's life together, but know that all the efforts you put forth for your baby will ultimately pay great dividends with a happy, content baby. In a few months when you see your baby contently playing with a toy, you will not take that happiness for granted.

Additional resources:

Digestive Health (at least one study has linked this strain of probiotic to decreased crying in colicky babies)


Anonymous said...

Oh, I wish I had a dollar for everything about babies that doctors haven't quite cottoned out yet. No, wait, I'd trade that dollar for a good answer. But you're right: it all works out, one way or the other!

Brandon said...

Wonderful post. My wife and I went through the same thing that you are describing and all of my human developoment background and studying of the transition to parenthood could not have prepared me for a baby that would only sleep about 4 hours total a day including naps and who cried literally all the time no matter what we did. But by around 4-6 months she just grew out of it and was as happy as ever. You can survive!


Shannon said...

Thank you for this post!

Melissa said...

Is there anything new in this field? My baby has had colic for the last two weeks and nothing seems to work. I can sooth her for short while by taking her outside into the cold but that's just about it. No long term solution.

Amy Webb, PhD said...

Of course, it's always a good idea to get the baby checked out by a doctor. If she's overall healthy, some recommend probiotics for colic. It didn't seem to help my son but I don't think it can hurt (ask your doctor of course). Hang in there!

Anonymous said...

This all sure sounds familiar. My first daughter had terrible colic and my husband and I tried everything imaginable. We did finally find a few things that helped like tightly swaddling, tiger in a tree hold, then bouncing her to sleep on a yoga ball. The best site we found for useful info was It’s got a good list of remedies with info and videos.