Although only about 20 percent of babies cry enough to fit the guideline pediatricians currently use to diagnose colic—inconsolable crying for three hours or more a day—most babies have increased fussiness during the first 12 weeks that can make coping difficult for parents.
After decades of research on the cause of colic, from painful gas to overstimulation, the standard bottom line has been that nobody really knows what causes it. But a more accurate conclusion is surfacing: There may be different causes and various combinations of contributors for different babies, which means there are a lot of things you can do to possibly help your baby through her crying peak—whether colic-related or not.
Take care of yourself
When nothing you do seems to soothe your baby’s crying, it can feel as if your “It’s wonderful to meet you, baby!” is met with a screeching wail that suggests the sentiment is not reciprocated. Combine this discord with hours of listening to your baby cry, and you could be at risk for postpartum depression (PPD) faster than you can say “gripe water.” A recent study lead by Jenny S. Radesky, MD, showed inconsolable crying that lasted more than 20 minutes was associated with a 400 percent increase in PPD. That’s a duration most parents have to deal with at some point during the first 12 weeks and well below the three hours required for a colic diagnosis!
Because being a healthy, happy parent is important, sleep and support are paramount postpartum.
Reduce stress and ignore your iPhone during the two weeks after birth when your baby is still relatively sleepy. After that, the crying can begin to escalate as your baby’s brain wakes up to the world. Don’t waste that peaceful period! Use it to refuel your mind, body and spirit, and log as much sleep as possible before the crying peak hits.
When you have a fussier baby in the first three months, it’s important to have help that extends beyond the first week or two with baby. Scientists who study colic have plotted baby crying on a graph, and it seems to peak for most babies—with or without colic—around six weeks after the full-term due date. An extra set of hands can help with housework, cooking and, most of all, holding (or jiggling or swinging or rocking) your crying bundle.
If your baby does begin to have intense crying spells, go in knowing that it’s not your fault. In fact, it’s not even a reaction to you. Your little munchkin is just having a hard time and letting you (and anyone within earshot) know about it.
Studies show that how effective mothers believed they were at soothing their babies better predicted their risk for PPD than the actual amount of crying their babies did. Plus, additional studies suggest there is a lot you can do to reduce prolonged crying, particularly through hands-on soothing.
“Babies have a calming reflex, just like we all have a knee reflex,” says Harvey Karp, MD, creator of The Happiest Baby on the Block books and DVDs. “By teaching parents the combination of techniques that turn that reflex on, we can reduce crying quickly and dramatically,” he adds. Just like the knee reflex, soothing skills have to be precisely executed. This means you can pace the halls for hours with your baby without hitting on just the right technique. Karp’s strategy—referred to as the 5 S’s: swaddling, “shushing,” side position, swinging and sucking—is designed to mimic the womb, which has proven to be a magic recipe for many babies.
Christopher Greeley, MD, at the UT Physicians Colic Clinic at The University of Texas in Houston, is currently using this soothing combination of S’s in his latest study. At his colic clinic and pediatric practice, Greeley has seen crying often helped by parental soothing techniques and believes this current research will finally offer empirical evidence of what bouncing, jiggling and shushing parents seem to know intuitively: Sooth-ing does help. “It’s certainly worthwhile for parents to try various combinations of soothing techniques,” says Greeley.
“Many will hit on something that works.” He adds that the winning combination is indeed often something that mimics the womb. “Noisy, one-beat-per-second music, as is common in rap and heavy metal music does the trick for some babies,” Greeley adds. “It seems similar to what they hear in the womb from their mother’s heart beat and rushing blood.”
Other studies suggest that colicky babies (those with prolonged crying episodes in the top 20 percent) may have brain chemistry that makes it more difficult for them to be soothed in ways other babies are. This means a lot of experimentation may be in order to help customize a soothing routine that works best for your baby. Swaddling and white noise (as loud as a shower in your baby’s ear), as Karp’s 5 S’s exemplify, are the best place to start when it comes to soothing, but you may find an additional trick that seems to turn on a calming reflex for your baby.
“You matter,” says Bruce D. Perry, MD, PhD, child psychiatrist, neuroscientist and senior fellow at ChildTrauma Academy in Houston. “Even though you may not get the crying to stop, you are still effective in just being there for your baby,” he says. That is, of course, until you need a break. Experts agree that it’s imperative to be able to hand off a screaming little one during the witching hour or put him down in a safe crib when you need to calm down yourself.
Soothing strategies can make a difference for your little scream machine, but for some babies, you won’t be able to entirely prevent or stop the crying episodes. Give it your best shot, but remember that you’re a good mama even if your nursery sounds like a haunted house.