A parent’s guide to surviving colic

Colic is not something that just your baby experiences—it impacts the whole family.

help for parents with a colicky baby

A friend and I were chatting the other day about how we both had babies that were pretty fussy when they were tiny. She said something like, “I always felt bad because it seemed like my baby was the only one crying when we were out in public."

I agreed with the feeling, “It's because all the people with fussy babies stay at home." We both laughed, but knew deep down it was probably a sad truth.

All babies cry, of course, but if you've had a baby with colic you know it's a whole other level of crying. Hours of crying for no apparent reason. Even after the feeding, changing, rocking and soothing, he still cries.

It can be overwhelming and stressful for any parent. It's also confusing—is there something wrong with my baby? Is he not eating enough? When will the crying end? These are the questions that keep parents of colicky babies up and night…in addition to the crying.

As someone who survived a colicky baby, I remember the confusion, stress and questions. Unfortunately, research cannot completely enlighten us on the topic of colic but there are a few facts and resources that can help.

Understanding colic

Unlike many conditions, modern medicine and science really have few answers when it comes to colic. Although doctors believe that as many as 20% of babies have it, it is poorly understood. Usually, the definition of colic focuses on the level of crying:

  • Crying for more than 3 hours a day
  • At least 3 days a week
  • For more than 3 weeks

This definition might be helpful for discerning if your baby's crying is more than average, but it tells us nothing about the nature of colic itself.

There are many theories as to what causes colic including an immature digestive system (causing spasms), over-sensitivity to stimulation, hormones or gas. None of these, however, have been proven by scientific studies.

The one theory that seems to have strong evidence, however, is the idea that colicky babies are very sensitive to stimulation. Being neurologically immature, all babies are sensitive to noise, light and sensation, but colicky babies seem to be even more so.

A few studies of older children who were colicky as infants showed that they were more likely to be sensitive to physical touch, fabric tags, or just overall become irritated more easily than average. This is not proof of a connection, but it is some evidence that over-stimulation might be a factor in colic.

What you can do about colic

A quick search online will provide you with a plethora of ideas for soothing a colicky baby. Swaddling, holding positions, swings, swaying, bouncing…so many options that your head will start to spin.

I think there are so many ideas, in part, because each baby is so unique.

If your baby's colic is related to over-stimulation, then white noise might work.

If you baby's colic stems from stomach discomfort then the different holding position might be the answer.

The problem is, it seems, is that there are as many different causes for colic as there are babies. In the end, the answer for me and my colicky son was learning about his temperament so I could help him meet his needs.

For him, over-stimulation was the main source of his colic. He was “jumpy" so that every sound or bright light would disturb him and set off the crying. White noise and lots of bouncing turned out to be the best thing to help.

For your baby, it might be some other combination of ideas. For many parents, seeking out help from other caregivers to help diminish the stress is key. Most times, babies just have to mature enough to master a little more self-soothing and then the colic diminishes. Most babies outgrow colic by the time they are 3-4 months old.

Secure your relationship with your colicky baby

Beyond the stress of the crying itself (which is significant), one of the main difficulties of colic is the strain it puts on the relationship between parents and baby. Many doctors report that parents, especially mothers, often feel that they must be doing something wrong if their baby is colicky.

For this reason, colic and mother's depression are closely linked. Many mothers start to feel inadequate as parents and perhaps feel anger toward their baby. This sets us a cycle where they then feel guilty and even more depressed.

Although colic itself is not known to have any long-term effects on children, the disruption of the parent-child relationship can. Therefore, the crucial piece of “treating" colic is finding ways to maintain the bond between parent and baby.

In many cases, this means the parents getting help from outside caregivers from time to time. If parents feel so stressed by the constant crying that they start to feel resentful towards their child, then having a loving grandparent, friend or babysitter step in for a few hours might just be the relief they need to maintain their mental health.

The good news about colic

If there is any light at the end of the dark tunnel of colic it is this—babies with colic have no greater risk for behavioral problems than other babies, if parents and caregivers are responsive and loving.

Several studies have shown that babies with difficult temperaments are actually more influenced by the actions and care of parents. That means that although they may strain our parenting skills, if we can remain responsive, then they often turn out to be outgoing, friendly, well-adjusted children.

This ties in well to the over-stimulation theory of colic. These little ones may be so sensitive to the world around them that they take everything in—sensations, stress, but also love and care by parents who are trying to help them cope with this big world.

Colic is not something that just your baby experiences, but really the whole family. One bright point to remember is that all the effort, love and support you pour into your colicky baby will one day be evident in a happy, well-adjusted child.

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