Her newborn daughter was the perfect baby — for a week and a half. Then the screaming started. “She just cried nonstop, hours upon hours, pretty much all day,” Jenn Borst of Danbury, Connecticut, recalls with a shudder. “There was barely anything that would soothe her.” The wailing became a way of life for Borst, her husband and even her in-laws, who moved in temporarily to help. They took turns holding, rocking and soothing little Sydney around the clock. “The worst time was from 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. We used to go in 15-minute shifts because she would just scream,” Borst says.
A pediatrician diagnosed Sydney with colic at 6 weeks. Colic is inconsolable crying that typically lasts more than three hours a day, more than three days a week, for more than three weeks in an otherwise healthy baby. Having a name for the crying made it more bearable, Borst says, but it didn’t stop the tears. In fact, the doctor told them the only real cure was time. Most babies outgrow colic around 12 to 16 weeks. In Sydney’s case, the symptoms didn’t go away until she was about 7 months old. “You have that helpless feeling,” Borst says. “You think something’s hurting, but you never really know.”Experts aren’t sure exactly what causes colic — or how to cure it. The condition affects one in five babies, usually starting when they’re 2 to 4 weeks old. Some experts think the crying may be related to intestinal pain or an immature nervous system. Other theories include food sensitivities or allergies, and hypersensitivity to outside stimulation.
Desperate parents try just about anything to stop the tears. But what works for one baby may have little effect on another. Jessica Johnson of Beacon, New York, tried soothing her colicky daughter with long walks in the stroller, car rides and gripe water. “It all just came down to me holding, rocking and patting her back for hours,” she says.
What’s a distraught mama to do? Don’t give up, says Bryan Vartabedian M.D., author of Colic Solved and father of a once-colicky kid. In some instances, colic may actually be caused by acid reflux, a milk allergy or another treatable condition, he says. “I always tell parents to first rule out the really obvious problems that can make a baby cry — hunger or sleepiness,” he says.
The Infant Behavior, Cry and Sleep Clinic in Rhode Island tackles colic by pairing its tiny patients with a team of pediatricians and mental health professionals. Over multiple visits, families get customized treatment plans to address babies’ sleep, feeding and schedule problems — as well as an outlet for parents’ frustrations. Families treated at the clinic say so far, so good. A recent study found that babies treated there stopped crying at a faster rate and had a more rapid decline in the amount of crying per day than colicky babies who only visited pediatricians for routine checkups.If you’ve got a super fussy baby, chances are he’s not the only one crying. “The number one feeling I remember when she wouldn’t stop crying is how helpless I felt. At times I would cry with her,” Johnson admits. Feeling overwhelmed? Take a deep breath and try these:
Call in reinforcements: Family and friends will want to help, so don’t be afraid to ask. If someone can relieve you for even just an hour a day, that breather will decrease your stress.
See a doctor: Ask your ob-gyn for a referral to a therapist. Moms suffering from postpartum depression may benefit from a prescription antidepressant, and many are safe while breastfeeding.
Read up: Getting more info can give you peace of mind. Try: The Fussy Baby Book by Babytalk contributing editor William Sears M.D. or Colic Solved by Bryan Vartabedian M.D.Dealing with a crybaby? Don’t lose hope. “The idea that colic is normal and you just have to suck it up is simply not true,” says Colic Clinic founder Barry Lester Ph.D. Try these expert strategies for a colicky little one:
1. Switch up the menu. “Up to one in three babies with colic actually suffers with milk protein allergy,” says Dr. Vartabedian. If you’re nursing, cut out dairy from your diet for a few weeks to see if that helps. If baby’s bottle-fed, talk to your doc about switching formulas.
2. Help the food stay down. Almost all babies spit up, but spitting up paired with difficulty feeding may indicate acid reflux. Ease his discomfort by burping him frequently and keeping him upright 20 minutes after feedings.
3. Fix the flow. “A baby who’s working harder to get more food … is going to swallow a lot of air,” says Dr. Vartabedian. In a breastfed baby, check her latch. In a bottle-fed babe, talk with her doc to see if a faster-flow nipple might help.
4. Start the night right. Colicky babies may benefit from soothing bedtime routines, says Jean Twomey Ph.D., a clinical social worker and assistant professor of psychiatry and human behavior and pediatrics at Brown University’s Alpert Medical School. Dim the lights, play gentle music and rock her.
5. Boost good bacteria. Some doctors think imbalances in intestinal bacteria may make baby irritable. Giving a probiotic through drops or formula may ease tears. “There are a number of studies showing that L. reuteri has a significant impact on crying,” says Dr. Vartabedian.
6. Put the paci to work. Offer a pacifier if she needs soothing when it’s not mealtime. During the day, feed her every two to three hours.
7. Call in backup so you can get some Z’s. Once parents start sleeping better, the improvement in their emotional state and energy level is amazing. “It’s hard to overestimate the role that sleep has on a parent’s mental health,” says Twomey.
8. Step away. If nothing is working, put your baby in a safe place, such as her crib, and take a five- to 10-minute breather.