Shortly after my son was born it started; the screaming that pierced my eardrums and clawed inside my skull. It went on and on for hours, for no apparent reason. The sound of a wailing baby is distressing at the best of times, doubly so for a new parent. And for good reason. That nails-down-a-blackboard cry is nature’s cunning way of ensuring the newborn is tended to immediately. Usually such cries mean ‘I am hungry/tired/dirty/cold/hot.’
But what about when there is no obvious trigger, and the baby still cries?
“My oldest came into the world screaming and didn’t stop for three weeks,” says Danielle Christopher, a mom of two from Langley, B.C. She became convinced that something must be seriously wrong with her daughter. “Two trips to the emergency room, both with the same outcome: she was fine.”
Like Danielle, I thought, this can’t be normal. I watched my son rage in my arms while I stood paralyzed from that unique combination of sheer terror and utter helplessness. I panicked. I called the doctor. No, my baby boy wasn’t vomiting. He didn’t have a fever or diarrhea or blood or mucus in his stool. In fact, if you disregarded the beetroot-coloured complexion and drawn-up legs – not to mention the seemingly endless squealing and writhing – he was in all other respects perfectly healthy.
“It’s just colic,” my son’s pediatrician concluded, as if this were good news; as if the entire nightmarish episode was simply a figment of my sleep-deprived, neurotic imagination. Just colic. Had I been in his office, I would have punched him.
Every day prior to the witching hour, I would read extensively, fretfully, on the subject. I studied every parenting manual I could get my hands on, and trolled Google for hits (at the time of writing, that was close to 6.5 million).
What causes colic?
Even though an estimated one in five babies suffers from this enigmatic ailment, we are no closer to understanding why so-called purple crying happens, let alone how to stop it.
Colic typically falls into a pattern of threes: periods of crying lasting for three or more hours for three or more days a week for a minimum of three weeks and generally resolving at the three-month mark.
For a long time colic was blamed on an imbalance in intestinal bacteria or a sensitivity to certain proteins found in cow’s milk (present in infant formulas and breast milk if a nursing mother’s diet contains dairy). Others insist it’s simply discomfort caused by trapped wind.
The most recent research, by the University of California in San Francisco (UCSF), suggests colic may be a precursor to migraines – with the mothers of colicky babies being more than twice as likely to be migraine sufferers than those who weren’t. It is thought that colic is a result of hypersensitivity to stimuli such as light and noise – common triggers for adults susceptible to migraines.
Excessive crying is a leading factor in shaken baby syndrome, which can cause infant brain damage and even death. “If we can understand what is making the babies cry, we may be able to protect them from this very dangerous outcome,” says Dr. Amy Gelfand, a child neurologist at UCSF.
Don’t beat yourself up
While the medical community is still no closer to a consensus, at least colic is recognized as a genuine condition with genuine symptoms.
One thing is for certain, the parents of colicky babies need all the support they can get. The crucial thing is to get relief wherever you can find it and above all else, resist feeling guilty. Dr. Paul Roumeliotis, Medical Officer of Health and CEO of the Eastern Ontario Health Unit, suggests leaving the baby with a competent babysitter, going to dinner or a movie, or just enjoying a few hours of quiet relaxation. “You’ll come back revitalized, better able to cope, and feeling like you’ve missed your baby,” he writes on his website, drpaul.com.
My son’s obvious suffering only exacerbated my own feelings of despair and helplessness, to the point where I would often wind up in tears beside him. Useless, I chastised myself. What kind of mother are you if you can’t comfort him? After all, comforting a baby is a mother’s work. A mother’s instinct. In those days I might as well have tattooed the word FAIL across my forehead. My husband and I took turns holding and jiggling, wearing ear plugs and pacing the upstairs carpet threadbare.
Danielle admits, “On the worst days, when I was alone with my daughter all day, I would put her in her crib, walk into the bathroom, run the taps and cry my eyes out. Some days I would scream in a pillow. Then one day, she ate a lot and stopped crying.”
We weren’t quite so lucky. The search for the magic elixir went on and on. We tried baby swings and various slings. A friend lent me a long strip of fabric which I wound around my torso until I looked like Obi-Wan Kenobi. In this contraption my son would ultimately scream himself to sleep. My back ached. Still, it was the closest we got to calm in those early days.
I remember staring at him once for close to an hour. His face looked cherubic, unusually serene; I had to take a picture, if only to make it last. This, I thought, an ever-present lump in my throat, is how babies are supposed to look.
We tried white noise. The vacuum cleaner. Lullabies. Television. The ubiquitous car ride. Even the washer and dryer. Nothing helped. I read some more. By three months the curse of colic would be over, the sources unanimously agreed. By three months we would at last be free of this black cloud, free to start enjoying our baby as we were meant to.
We tried gripe water, cooled fennel tea, and every brand of colic drops on the market. Long walks in the stroller in the pouring rain, in which I hid my bloodshot eyes under dark sunglasses. We rocked and rocked and rocked. Three months. I clung to that date like a life raft.
Three months came and went. I was not enjoying my baby. In fact, the more he screamed, the more I came to despise him. I sank into a depression. I was beyond tired. Instead of whiling away the hours cuddling with my son and nuzzling his beautiful babyhood, I wished the weeks away. I wished for a time when he wouldn’t cry so much. I wished for a time when he would act like other babies – or at least how I imagined other babies acted. As the weeks wore on, I distanced myself. He slept in a crib, his mouth plugged with a soother, since I evidently wasn’t able to soothe him.
“Excessive crying can wear on everybody’s nerves, and can lead to feelings of parental inadequacy and constant worrying about the child’s health,” writes Dr. Roumeliotis. “This kind of anxiety isn’t good for either the parents or the baby. Colic is neither the parents’ nor the baby’s fault.”
As the weeks went by there was a marked improvement, but we weren’t out of the woods. Not nearly. My son still cried much more than other babies.
I can’t remember exactly how or when the dark cloud lifted. It certainly wasn’t overnight and it certainly wasn’t because of anything I had done. Starting on solids may have helped, though I’ll never really know for sure.
When my son was around four months old, he began to cry a little less, and each day got a little easier. One night, over a (relatively) quiet supper, my husband looked over at me and said, “It’s over.”
They say time heals all wounds. Perhaps. But the shadow colic casts on the early weeks of a baby’s life is long, and few parents walk away from the experience unscathed.
My son is three years old now. Every moment I spend with him is a sobering reminder that although I can’t change the past, I can make the most of the present.
Julie M. Green is a Toronto-based writer and mother of one. She has written for ParentsCanada about raising an only child and dealing with thumb sucking, and was also a runner-up in our 2011 Mother’s Day short story writing contest.
Originally published in ParentsCanada, May/June 2012