What is Colic? A Glimpse Into Our Life with a Newborn

After an hour of hands-on soothing, our daughter--exhausted from screaming--fell asleep limply in Daddy's arms.

A white noise machine, pacifier, loud rattling sound, and snuggling was the only thing that would stop the screaming this particular day.

Our first daughter wanted the swing, our second wanted a vibrating seat--this is one we borrowed for a few hours while we went to the store to replace the one that she had "worn-out". Both girls would only sleep if their head was snuggled next to this soft towel.

Our son only wanted body-to-body contact. On bad days, he required light pressure on his pacifier as well. Pictured here, his big sister held him in position while I made a quick trip to the bathroom. We also found that if he was in a deep sleep, we could carefully maneuver him from our lap to the couch and lay him in the warm spot where we had been sitting (pictured in the striped blanket). This would buy us about 5 minutes to do something else. After this, we tried putting a heating pad in his bassinet--thinking that the warmth would "trick" him, and help him sleep longer independently. However, it only bought us 20 minutes. We tried a noise machine on the heartbeat sound setting in addition to the heating pad. This too only allowed about 20 minutes. My dad devised his own trick--pictured with the pillow and warm blanket on the floor. We obviously could not leave him unattended in such a position, but it did give our arms a break. When other adults were not around to help, I carried him in the sling on my body, but I chose this as a last option. The sling made my back ache. At night, we took turns sleeping with him on the couch--for weeks, we each got 4 hours of uninterrupted sleep in the bed, while the other rested with him. At week 6 when he could go longer between feedings at night, Karl was the sacrificial trooper and would keep him from midnight to 6AM because if he slept with me, he would insist on nursing. At 3 months, when he began taking formula, we resumed splitting the night 4hrs/4hrs. During that time, Karl was out of town for 2 different one-week time periods, and I spent the time with my parents who helped out tremendously. My dad and my mom each spent one night on the couch with the baby to let me get some rest.

Of course, in the grand
scheme of things, it is only 4 months--feels like forever when you're in such sleep deprivation, but it's not long before it's a distant memory. Our girls are 4 and a half and 2 years now--what a joy they are! And we are thankful that they are healthy, smart, beautiful children! Our son is full of baby smiles and happy days. Nights on the other hand are a different story, and we begin the journey of helping yet another post-colic baby sleep through the night on his own...

First off, let me say that this is not written to complain or elicit sympathetic comments. It's just that after caring for 3 infants with colic, people have asked what it is like for us. So this is an attempt to answer the questions that we've received over the years, and to give a glimpse into our lives when our children are very young infants.
The most common question we get is: "What is colic? Is it a stomach-problem?"Lots of brands of infant formula and bottles advertise that they help "reduce colic" (in conjunction with the thinking that colic is stomach-related or gas-related). We did not find this to be true. With all 3 children, we have tried different bottles and formula, and none have helped their crying, fussiness, or the amount of time we need to soothe.
Doctors don't really know what causes colic. They define it as: "an unknown crying condition that affects 20% of infants. It begins around 2 weeks of age and last until 3-4 months." Some think that it is not in fact stomach pangs, but is an inability to relax--this theory matches our children's behavior more than feeding/stomach issues. One theory is that infants with colic have a higher level of serotonin in their brains, and it's counterpart-melatonin- increases in production around 4 months of age. If this is the case, the baby's brain is more alert, has trouble relaxing, sleeping and staying asleep. (This fits in with the recent study of SIDS, where infants who died of SIDS found to have deficient amounts of serotonin in their brains, causing them to STAY asleep even when breathing was compromised. How we have thanked God in the midst of the screaming and sleep deprivation that our children are alive, healthy and awake!) All 3 of our babies have been described as "alert" by their doctors, friends, and strangers in public--it's a comment we get every time they interact with others, "Wow, she's so alert." One other mom of a colicky infant said, "It's fun in the day, but not at night, huh?" :)
Other common questions we hear are: "How much does she cry? When did it start? Is it just in the evening?" In our experience, our first and third babies began their fussiness before they left the hospital. It was only with our second daughter, who slept peacefully and sweetly at first, that we got the unpleasant surprise when she reached the 2 week mark and began to scream. It happened while we were shopping at SuperTarget--she had been resting peacefully in her carrier and then began screaming uncontrollably. She had a full belly, a dry diaper, no temperature, and yet nothing I tried stopped the screaming. And I use the word scream instead of cry. She had cried for her first two weeks, this holler was MUCH different--so different that her 2 and-a-half-year old big sister noticed, and when people asked her if her baby sister cried a lot, she corrected them, "No, she screams." My favorite definition of colic states: "Colic is violent rhythmical screaming attacks which do not stop when the infant is picked up, and for which no cause, such as underfeeding could be found." The books we've read about colic said that the fussiness would typically occur in the evening hours. This appears to be typical of most infants--in the evening, they are the most tired, and the mother's milk supply is at its lowest, so even normal temperament babies have evening fussiness. With our first daughter, her crying spells would start at about 10PM and last until 6AM with feedings being the only thing relieving the screams in between. That year we lived in a condo, and you can imagine how popular we were with our neighbors. Frequently, we would hear our neighbor stomp out of his bedroom in the early AM, and slam the door in frustration. "We're sorry. She can't help it, and we're exhausted too," was all we could think to say to him. After logging her sleep (or lack thereof) and screaming schedule, we realized that she was off the charts "extreme" (was how the book labeled it). Her onset (day 1 in the hospital), duration, and intensity was above the norm. Part of that was probably our inexperience in soothing a fussy baby, our lack of resources at the beginning (we didn't even own a baby swing at first--we thought that was a luxury item--boy did we find out it was a necessity for us!) But part of it was just our daughter--we remember the hospital nursery workers coming to us about her fussiness--not typical behavior for a day-old baby that should be having trouble staying awake, not the other way around. All babies experience periods of fussiness for unexplained reasons--here is how doctors define the difference between regular fussiness and "extreme fussiness/colic": (I have flipped through the pages of the sleep books so many times I have this one memorized) "A colicky baby is one who otherwise is well-fed and healthy, but has periods of crying/fussiness that require constant soothing, lasting for at 3 hours a day or more, 3 days a week or more, and lasting more than 3 weeks." Our kids far surpassed the "at least" requirements. :) Our second daughter was the mildest of the 3 and she still surpassed this definition for her first 4 months. We call her milder because she would not require the soothing at night. She would sleep for us about 6 or 7 hours in a row at night, which makes a huge difference in our capacity, energy, and mood.
And probably the most frustrating question/comment we get is: "Are you sure your baby has colic? I never see h
im/her cry?" As seen in the definition stated above, you don't just measure the amount of crying, but also the amount of time spent soothing. With our first, we didn't know a lot about soothing, so she cried literally round the clock for her first 6 weeks until friends gave us a baby swing, and another told us to buy a white noise machine. We discovered when we took her to parties (she was born at Thanksgiving, and we had several ministry events surrounding the holidays that year), that she would sleep through the whole party (this added to the frustration of people thinking that we exaggerated her crying, but we traded that willingly for a break). Her doctor (also a family friend and a godsend during that season) said that white noise--such as the hum of a crowd can be very soothing. The white noise machine helped her sleep more, but the artificial noise didn't produce the same results as the actual crowd. We attended every party that we were invited to that Christmas! :)
After learning soothing techniques, she still settled into her all-night cry routine that I mentioned earlier. Even though the crying decreased, she was still hands-on, non-stop, all day. The swing enabled us to do things like take a shower, prepare meals, watch a TV show, etc. With the swing, we still had to have a combo of white noise in the background, music playing, pacifie
r in her mouth, and her head turned sideways resting against a soft towel while in the swing. If any of these things were disrupted slightly, she would wake up in a jolt with a loud scream. We found ourselves running feverishly across the apartment to reach the swing before the music stopped because getting her to stop screaming and returning her sleep were not as simple as fixing the one disrupted element--it was an all-over-again, hands-on soothing process that would take 30-40 minutes and sometimes wouldn't be successful, therefore she would scream until the next feeding. Keeping a regular feeding schedule was almost impossible because of this. Feedings were so soothing for her, that she would fall asleep almost immediately (typical for a newborn, not for a 3-month-old). Because of this and my severe sleep-deprivation, my milk supply quickly dwindled. After a month of rigorous efforts to bring it back up, I gave up and began supplementing with formula.
With our 2nd child, we were better at soothing. As soon as she began screaming at 2 weeks of age, we knew what to do--she preferred different techniques (she wore out the vibrator on our bouncy seat and our massage pillow), but at least we knew different things to try and how to stay on top of it. The more we soothed, the more she slept. The more she slept, the less she screamed. But she was still hands-on, all day.
By the time our son came along, #3, we feel confident in calling ourselves "soothing experts." :) He had only a few screaming spells. But he required even more intensive soothing than the girls. He would not take to a swing or a vibrating seat. He wanted only our warm bodies. We took turns round the clock with him sleeping on us. If we didn't, he would scream. People ask us, "Do you let your kids cry it out?"
Since our son is the 3rd child, of course there were times when he was left to cry--this was unintentional, but just the reality of caring for 2 other children as well. When he was left to cry, he did not fall asleep on his own. The "crying" (we're still calling it screaming at this point), escalated. As with all 3, the escalation would usually lead to what we describe as a "choking fit"--a red-faced, full-body-sweat, gagging-on-their-own-spit, scream that wouldn't stop. The more they screamed, the less they slept, the less they slept the more they screamed. We learned from experience (and were encouraged by doctors) that our biggest job as parents of a colicky baby was to HELP THEM SLEEP AS MUCH AS POSSIBLE. Their little bodies and brains needed sleep. At this point they were not "manipulating us" and we were not "spoiling them." E
ven with all the soothing that we did, they still slept 4-6 hours a day LESS than infants who did not have colic (this statistic is normal and expected). Then at 4 months of age, when the colic subsides, we start the journey of teaching them to sleep independently from us and the soothing aids. And what a JOURNEY that is. I'll save that for another post.
Besides the sleep-deprivation and the stress caused by hearing our baby scream (when a baby cries it causes a physical stress response in our bodies--God's way of forcing sinful, fallen human-beings to tend to their babies and not ignore them, some say), besides these physical struggles, we often found that the most frustrating moments came mentally and emotionally as people offered well-intended advice or ill-intended snide remarks. We've heard everything (and tried most of it too) from adding cereal to a bottle at night, gas drops for infants, to massage and herbal remedies (we did NOT feed our children catnip--0ne suggestion that we politely ignored). We have found that the only thing that helps is hands-on-soothing and TIME. Some comments like, "Have you tried a pacifier?" and "Yea, our kids cried too," force us to walk in the Spirit and exercise self-control in our response to people like never before. Walking in the Spirit while sleep-deprived is a hard enough task on its' own. With each child, I've been in a store when a screaming fit began and have heard other customers say under their breath "someone's hungry". "No, I fed her 15 minutes ago," I'd like to reply, but usually don't as I stroll my screaming child out of the store. :)

Big Sister said it well, when asked if her baby sister cried a lot, she replied, "No, she screams."

Full, dry, healthy baby unable to relax

After a long drive to the beach, the sounds of the ocean were so soothing that she remained in a deep sleep that lasted for 2 hours! Unfortunately, the white noise machine on the ocean-setting did not produce the same results.

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