The Crazy Making of Colic
My daughter the military grade PSYOPS weapon.
If you came across this article desperately searching for information and answers because your baby won’t stop crying and you’re starting to have a sneaking suspicion that your baby has colic—I’m reaching out to you in the void to validate your frustrations and tell you that you’re not a failure, even though I completely understand why you think that. I’m not here to give you suggestions or platitudes. I just wanted to write the piece I wish I’d found when my baby had colic.
My daughter, Matilda, was 32 days old when she started crying. It was a Sunday and I managed to escape to the farmer’s market—one of my first solo trips outside my post-baby bubble. My husband texted me and said she had been inconsolable for about a half hour. This was something new, but I chalked it up to her just missing mama. That night she cried for hours and none of the usual tricks could calm her down. Up until this moment, she had been a pretty chill baby. What happened?
Suddenly she’d been replaced by a red-faced screaming banshee. Fists clenched. Stiff spine. No position, no amount of bouncing or walking or rocking or strolling seemed to help. We were terrified of her. My husband and I had to take shifts as we could only take the crying for so long. Exiting the nursery defeated and demoralized, we would look at one another in passing. Did we break her?
In my off shifts that night, I was furiously searching “my baby won’t stop crying” to determine if I’d done something wrong. As a new mother, I assumed it was something I was or wasn’t doing and even worse, I feared that she was in physical distress. We are new parents and just kept running down the crying baby checklist. Is she hungry? Is she tired? Is she hot? Is she cold? Does she have a dirty diaper? Does she need to be burped? I figured she had bad gas and this episode was a one-off. But a word kept popping up during my search: colic. The word has an ominous, mythical quality.
Colic is defined as “predictable periods of significant distress in an otherwise well-fed, healthy baby.” It certainly described what was happening but one day of inconsolable crying does not a colicky baby make. I was familiar with colic from siblings and friends who had to deal with it. I remember the stress it put on their marriages. The tension in the whole household. The long nights. The lack of sleep for months. Their near-unraveling.
The gold standard for determining if your baby has colic is the “Rule of Threes”: Does your baby cry more than three hours a day, more than three days a week, for more than three weeks? Your baby probably has colic.
More than three weeks? I shuddered to think of one more night of this let alone more than three weeks of it. No, it couldn’t be colic. I refused to believe it.
Someone gifted us the Talli baby, a way to keep track of poops and pees and feedings in those early days when you’re out of your mind and the world is a blur and then you go in to see your pediatrician and they’re asking how many times they’re doing all of these things. Lady, do I look like I can do math? I’m barely holding on. I digress. In this baby tracker is a milestones section where you can keep a journal. So on that first night, after hours of banshee wailing and finally getting her down, I started keeping track of her episodes.
WEEK ONE: Denial is more than just a river of baby tears.
When I would ask my friends with kids if Matilda had colic, they would often reply, “Oh that’s just witching hour—all kids have it.” This is not true. All kids do not cry inconsolably for several hours every night. “Witching hour” is a cute nickname for the hard evenings when everyone is tired and over-stimulated. Colic is a fucking nightmare.
After about a week of this with maybe one night off, I was convinced she had it. My husband was still in denial, but I had receipts. I showed him my journal I’d been keeping. We started dreading the night as it loomed in front of us. This was how my sister diagnosed it as colic. “That dread,” she shivered. “I remember it so well. That’s how you know it’s colic.”
I threw myself into researching what colic was and how to solve it, because in 2022 we must know what colic is and how to cure it, right? Wrong. There are a lot of theories about what causes colic from the scientific-seeming to the outright woo. Doctors don’t know what causes it. They think it could be an undeveloped digestive system. It could be allergies (and sometimes it is). They have no idea why it appears around week four. Or why it just seems to magically resolve on its own, in its own time. They don’t know why it starts at the same time every night and why each baby seems to have their own colic hours.
I read articles about how it’s due to overfeeding. Other articles insist it’s underfeeding. Or not burping enough. A doula told me it’s the baby realizing that she’s not in the womb anymore and that she’s not going back—baby’s first existential crisis. The doula insisted she was grieving that loss. One woman told me I wasn’t wearing her enough and that’s why they don’t have this problem in the developing world. Someone suggested that maybe she was crying because she was picking up on my grief over the tragic death of my obgyn—which puts an awful lot of pressure on me to not have any emotions five weeks postpartum. Although spookily, she did start crying the exact day and time that he died. So who fricking knows!
Not me. Not doctors. Not anyone.
WEEK TWO: My daughter the PSYOPS weapon.
Somewhere along the way, I came across an article in the New Yorker about tactics the military was using to train people to withstand interrogation. Not surprisingly, “of the most stress-inducing tapes is a recording of babies crying inconsolably.”
Between the sleep deprivation and the isolation in combination with the non-stop wailing, I realized that my daughter is a military grade psyop weapon. It made sense. Colic is a hazing into parenthood. It’s a bucket of ice cold water thrown on that dreamy newborn bubble.
It’s a hardcore initiation that teaches you exactly what parenting is versus what you think it is.
Gone were my pregnant fantasies of bathing the baby, giving her a nice gentle massage with lavender oil, reading her a book and rocking her to sleep, gently. Instead it was the colic Olympics. Holding her in physically demanding positions, arms outstretched at a 45-degree angle, while bouncing on a yoga ball until my legs and arms and back burned. SHUSHING her as loud as humanly possible. My face red. Her face red from screaming. I’d go as long as I could and then I’d tap out and my husband would come in for his shift.
“I thought we had a chill baby!” My husband would say when he’d collapse on the couch when we finally got her down five or six hours after we started the bedtime routine.
“She’s clearly not chill!” I would say.
At first we tried to soothe her together like classic first child parents. But the crying would up the tension in the room and we realized pretty quickly that it was best if we dealt with her individually. It’s like the screaming supercharged the atoms in the house and everyone, including the dog, was on edge.
My husband quickly adopted the mantra, “It’s not my job to stop her from crying, it’s my job to be here for her while she’s crying.” I was not that Zen about things. My denial took on a different form. I couldn’t believe that there was nothing I could do to make her feel better. I felt powerless and useless and like a failure. I’m the Mom. There has to be something I can do to soothe her. But not even the boob calmed her down. C-section scar burning, I would physically exhaust myself trying to calm her.
“There is no soothing this child,” my husband the therapist would say. “You just have to hold space for her.” He was right. I wanted to fix her. I started holding her and singing. Bouncing and shushing and singing.
The days blurred into weeks. If my aunt hadn’t dropped off pre-made meals, I’m not sure I would have even eaten. We were zombies. There is something traumatic about colic. Most parents who have been through it, have PTSD when you even mention the word. You can’t know until you know.
WEEK THREE - SIX: Desperation and surrender
I reached out to my subscriber community and Twitter for suggestions for dealing with a colicky baby and one woman wrote:
“I just read this to my husband and he shuddered.”
Below is a list of things that were suggested by well-meaning relatives, strangers and Google. The internet will suggest you stop breastfeeding because she can’t process lactose. The internet and Facebook friends will also tell you that formula is literal poison. Don’t listen to the internet. Unless you find out from your pediatrician that your child can’t process lactose or has some kind of allergy, don’t stop breastfeeding them.
Here’s a list in no particular order—and if it was something we tried, how it worked for us. Colic is like whack-a-mole. What works one day might not work the next:
Tight swaddling: Our kid was born with her fists up and hated being swaddled with her arms down. The only swaddle she liked was the Love to Dream swaddle and I highly recommend them if your baby hates being swaddled traditionally.
Warm bath: Matilda hated baths and she would lose her mind afterwards, they were much more successful during the day. Lots of people swear by baths for helping calm them though.
Put them on the dryer: We heard this one over and over. People would put their kid in their car seat on the running dryer. It’s pretty dangerous to let your kid sleep unattended in their car seat so I don’t recommend it and besides we have have a stackable washer anyways.
Drive her around: In this economy?
Go for a walk: We started taking evening walks, which she loved and although it didn’t stop her from crying it lessened the number of hours.
Amber bead necklace: Some people swear by this but it was a bit too woo for me.
Change environments: Tried this and she screamed in all of them.
Run the vacuum: Didn’t work for us but other people had a lot of success.
Skin to skin: She was too hot from screaming to really do skin to skin until she wore herself out and calmed down.
Mylicon drops or gripe water: Our pediatrician suggested Mylicon drops and I have no idea if they helped or not, but we tried them any way.
Probiotics: Also tried these and again—I have no idea if they helped or not. This is part of the crazy making of colic, other than immediate soothing techniques that calm them down, you can’t really be sure if any of the other stuff is working.
Chiropractor: I didn’t try this. I thought about it and maybe I should have, but they’re so expensive and I’m still on the fence as to how I feel about chiropractors in general let alone chiropractors for babies but some of my best friends get all their kids adjusted.
Swing her in the car seat: Our kid hated any and all swings.
White noise: We are a white noise house now. I’m not sure it helps her but it helps to drown out the screams.
The “colic hold”: This maybe worked once. Whack-a-mole. It never worked again.
Manzanilla tea: Never tried this. Maybe I should have!
Fennell tea: Drank Fennell tea every night. Have no idea if it helped. But she was still crying like a banshee so probably not.
Rocking chair: She only liked being rocked once she calmed down.
Rub their back: Hard to rub the back of a kicking screaming child.
Baby foot massage: I did this during the day to help with her digestion. No idea if it worked.
Bicycle kicks: When she had gas the bicycle kicks definitely helped but I’m not convinced her crying was due to gas.
Music: She didn’t respond to music but I love the randomness of what worked for other people.
“My son had terrible colic, and the only thing that helped was to put on ‘Lady of Shalott’ by Loreena McKennitt. I would hold him on my chest and sing along. He would cry through the first verse or two and then gradually stop and listen. And by the end he would be asleep.”
“My brother would quiet down to Andy William Moon River. My nephew would quiet down if we played mariachi music.”
Bounce on a yoga ball and SHUSH until you’re blue in the face: This was the only thing that worked for us.
Change your diet: More on this one below.
Like a good addict in recovery, when I’m desperate, I look for something I can quit. In this case, it was food. One of the suggestions (that is not scientifically proven) is to cut out allergens. Dairy, gluten, sugar, eggs, tree nuts, etc…So that’s what I did to the best of my ability. I cut out dairy, gluten, processed sugar and eggs. Am I insane? Yes. I basically only ate lean meats, clean carbs and fruits and vegetables.
Did it work? Unfortunately, I’ll never know. She did start to get better after I changed my diet and began sleeping through the night. I’m not sure if the diet helped or if it was just her growing out of that phase. At any rate, it helped me. Cutting out all that stuff, as hard as it was, made me feel better and I think it helped balance my hormones during that huge postpartum shift. But as for the colic—it just receded, like a fog, after about six weeks. From what I’ve heard from other colic survivors, it can go on for months, so I consider myself lucky. One day I noticed I wasn’t dreading the nights anymore and that’s when I knew we were on the other side.
I don’t have any great advice. All the people who told me that you just had to ride it out, were right. It’s not comforting in the moment—but it’s the cold, hard truth. It’s normal to feel immensely frustrated but if you have the urge to shake or throw the baby, it’s completely acceptable to put them down in their bassinet or a safe place and walk away. Have your partner tap in if you can. If no one else is available to help you, take some deep breaths. Reset. Colic is something you have to survive—and you will survive it. It does end. It might be six weeks, three months, or six months (shudder) but it will pass.
The only real advice I can give you: Always pee before you tap in.
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