September 12, 2007

New Yorker Confirms What You Know: Colic Is A Form Of Torture

The Sept. 17 issue of The New Yorker has a long, fascinating, informative, but ultimately frustrating article on the vexing mysteries of colic. If your kid has colic, though, please don't use your one precious hour of quiet reading about colic. Just go rest, take care of yourself, and realize that no one else knows WTF is going on with it, either. Here are some key excerpts:

Sheila Kitzinger, a British social anthropologist who studies pregnancy and childbirth, has written, "The sound of a crying just about the most disturbing, demanding, shattering noise we can hear." The United States military has reportedly used the sound of wailing infants as an instrument of psychological stress, piping recordings of their cries into cells of detainees at Guantanamo Bay.


[In 1954, Yale pediatrician Morris] Wessel noted that colicky babies tend to cry most in the evening, and that the crying typically waned between the age of two and three months...[Wessel was not] able to explain why the babies cried most in the evening. "Many of us are more irritable later in the day," he said. "That's why there is a cocktail hour."


[Head of the Brown University medical school colic clinic Dr. Pamela] High said, "Moms [sic] feel they need to do everything in response to a screaming child. One of the key things we teach moms [sic] with colicky babies is that this unhealthy symbiosis needs to be broken. The baby must learn self-soothing." As the mother [sic] learns to let the baby cry [for 5-10 minutes, after checking for signs of hunger, discomfort, wetness, etc. clinic founder Dr. Barry] Lester said, "the baby will realize, 'Gee, I can do this.'"


[Based on a follow-up study of former infant patients at the clinic], Lester speculates that many colicky infants are so sensitive to stimuli that physical contact with their parents is unlikely to soothe them, a theory that may be supported by data from societies where babies are held continuously.


As Lester put it, "The parent must attend to the needs of the baby and also help the baby learn self-limits and control." Because colic is the "first bump in the road for many parents, he said, "it will influence how you deal with the second, the third, and so on, creating a template for how you deal with future interactions with your child. Sure, we know the crying is going to stop, but the damage that's done to the mother [sic[ and the family can be long-lasting and hard to put right again."

text not online: Annals of Medicine/ Crybabies/ by Jerome Groopman/ The conundrum of colic. []


I actually kind of liked the piece because mostly when you read about colic you get tips about what to do. And as Groopman points out none of those things seem to work, you search for more things to do leading to endless cycles of frustation and despair. If I had a baby with colic I'm thinking I'd feel slightly better at least in an existential way about my situation. And for many parenting problems there really are no solutions or fixes (though people are driven crazy seeking them) only existential solutions—which is not exactly a part of the rhetoric of parenting literature. (Does this make any sense)?

[absolutely. I think the other real takeaway from the article is that at least a few doctors and researchers are recognizing the toll colic takes on parents, which the "deal with it, it'll end eventually" advice does nothing to address. -ed.]

I gotta tell ya, after dealing with my (now 3 year old) daughter's colic, it was Hell. I know why they tell you, repeatedly, not to shake a baby. I never did, but I punch a lot of pillows, cried along with her a lot, and gained a lot of gray hairs.

It isn't something you forget. While we rarely talk about it, I know there is this underlying fear that we will have to go through it again with our soon-to-be-born baby son.

You tell yourself it won't happen again, but the fear is still there, deep down.

And if it does happen -- at least we will, thanks to experience, know how to better deal with it, and, more importantly, know it will end.

Only to be replaced by the next parenting challenge :)

Our daughter was an absolute colic nightmare for five, long, months. If she wasn't eating, or sleeping, she was screaming. We were wrecked. Plus, if friends, coworkers, or family, haven't experienced life with a colicky baby first-hand, they have no idea what you're going through. When Chad took some extra time off of work, one of his family members advised "Well, don't tell anyone that you need extra time because your baby has colic. That's no big deal. Lots of babies have colic." Another gem was when a friend with a normally quiet infant tried to sympathize by saying: "Oh that's so difficult, isn't it? He had colic for over an hour one night, last week."

.. and then to listen to people talk about how their baby sleeps all the time and is an absolute joy... not that they meant to make us feel like smacking them, but...

Oh yeah, we were so there for several months with our son. If he wasn't eating, he was screaming, and the only way to calm him down, which worked 50% of the time if we were lucky, was to hold him and walk for hours. He would not calm down without motion, but hated swings and bouncers and rockers and gliders. I wanted to kill everyone who said, "Sleep when the baby sleeps!" If I wasn't moving, he wasn't sleeping.

Both our mothers, who apparently struck self-soothing baby gold with us and our siblings, thought we were exaggerating until each of them spent one night with him. My mom said she'd never understood the advice to never shake a baby until that night. Of course that didn't stop the endless suggestions to stop eating nuts or wheat or chocolate because my breast milk was making him sick, or whatever other random thing they could think up to torment the crazy sleep-deprived parents even more. I wish I had been able to believe that there was nothing I could do, but I would have chewed glass if someone told me it would make the screaming stop.

It's curious that the article didn't mention the Karp technique (The Happiest Baby), since the book/DVD remains fairly high on the Amazon list (#360 -

That's pretty good considering the only market is sleep deprived parents of children under one (and those in the extended family of a baby with colic).

I guess academics don't believe it works until the journals say so.

Colic is, however, clearly a major parenting challenge: there is emerging research that indicates a link between colic and postpartum depression in mothers (dads stayed tuned).

Especially telling is the link between colic in adopted children and depression in the adoptive mother.

Nothing more fundamental to the idea of a good parent than being able to comfort your child, and nothing as depressing as finding you lack that ability. Knowing that some kids just have to cry, and that there is nothing to do about about, can help keep perspective (but you'll still need earplugs to keep a bit of the peace, unless the The Happiest Baby technique works for you).

Given the prevalence of colic episodes (some studies suggest 15-20% of babies), it is also important that parents be educated about the vulnerability of young children to shaking and the need to have a coping plan. New York hospitals have been required to do that since 2004: hopefully they are encouraging parents to take advantage of that opportunity.

Having a backup caregiver helps, but they need the same education....


There is no question that colic is an exhausting, heart-wrenching, difficult thing to go through, and I don't claim to have the definitive word on it. However as a parent and attachment therapist, I do have some thoughts about colic, and am starting to put down my thoughts in preparation to writing about it in a book I am currently working on. I found this blog while searching for the New Yorker article on the internet. I would love to talk about some of my thoughts on colic, but would like to see if this is an appropriate forum to do this in, not wanting to make some long winded post that is a total conversation stopper...

Hi! I am writing a paper for my class on colic. My 18 month daughter had colic. It was pure hell! I found that chiropractic treatments worked. Alexandra went in after not sleeping for more than 6 hours in a 24 hour period. We had a 20 minute appointment and she slept 12 hours that night and every night after! Her vertebrae was out of place in 3 different spots, putting pressure on her tummy. I had the largest dark cloud lifted away that day.

Thanks for listening to my story

Tanya Kooiker

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