Surviving Colic

Now that E is 8 months old, Dave and I have nearly forgotten (i.e, blocked) the trauma of those first few weeks. I assume this has an evolutionary benefit; otherwise, no one would ever have children again. E is now an absolute joy, so perhaps I can actually write this post without retraumatizing myself (fingers crossed). And perhaps this post can provide some comfort for that poor, desperate, sleep-deprived parent googling “surviving colic” at 3am. Yup, that was me and Dave. And we survived. WE SURVIVED.

I know that I use hyperbole a lot in my writing, but please know, the first few months of E’s  life were truly painful.  Colic is traumatizing. You spend nearly 10 months nurturing a sweet baby life inside of you, endure many hours in labor and welcome your lovely newborn into the world, vowing to meet all of her needs. And then, without warning, your baby  begins to scream. And scream and scream.

All newborns cry; it’s how they communicate and it’s what they do best. Most newborns also stop crying once you meet their needs. But colicky infants cry without warning or without reason. You run through this list – is she hungry? tired? wet? lonely? When your sweet, angry baby continues to cry and cry and cry, you immediately feel like an utter failure. Any new parent can attest that the cry of their infant causes a physical reaction. Your body literally responds with an adrenaline surge to the sound of your crying newborn, and your primary (and primal) goal is to do whatever you can to stop the crying.

Now, imagine if that crying never stopped. No matter how much nursing, rocking, shhhing you did, the crying continued, loud and long, like a jackhammer. That’s colic.

This would be hard enough for anyone, but new mothers are especially vulnerable. You are overwhelmed with the responsibility of caring for this new life. You are exhausted and sleep deprived. You are bleeding and your organs are floating all over the place. Your hormones are fluctuating so you are a blubbering mess. And you are still trying to figure out how to breastfeed with sore, bleeding nipples.

Dads are just as bewildered and feel perhaps even more helpless. At least I had breasts, which were (and still often are) the only thing that calmed her. Dave spent many, many hours rocking and shhing E in the wee hours of the morning, only to get up at 7am and head off to work.

All that to be said, colic is survivable but it will likely be one of the hardest experiences of your life (if you’ve had a relatively easy life, like myself). Here are some tips and advice from the other end of the colic tunnel.

1) Wear ear plugs. Or noise-cancelling headphones. All parents of newborns should own these. They save your hearing and your sanity. Feel free to wear them all day and all night.

2) Don’t worry about bathing your child. In the beginning, E was fine with baths. But when her colic peaked, she would FREAK OUT every time we tried to bathe her. So we didn’t. Newborns aren’t really dirty. They don’t necessarily need to be bathed all that frequently. And if bathing, or any other  non-essential activity (like getting them out of pajamas into “real” clothes) sends them into a rage, don’t feel pressured to do it.

3) It’s probably not your breastmilk. I could (and should) write an entire post on this.  Allergies are rare. Very rare. Sometimes, babies will have a cow’s milk protein intolerance which will irritate their intestines. E had blood in her diaper at 8 days old and I immediately went off dairy. The blood lessened (over about a 4 month span) but the crying continued. Some parents swear that giving up dairy (or gluten, or whatever) instantly solved their baby’s crying jags. I gave it all up, some weeks existing only on rice, pears and turkey, but E was still very mad. Some are even encouraged by their doctors to give up breastfeeding for good. But it’s good to remember that 1) there are many babies who have blood in their diapers WITHOUT colic, like my nephew, 2) very little of what you eat gets into your breastmilk, 3) if your baby is sensitive to what you are eating, you will likely notice other symptoms (excessive spitup, congestion, skin rashes, mucus in the stool, etc), and 4) breastmilk is the most easily digested, least expensive food for your baby (non-dairy and soy-based formulas tend to be VERY expensive). I am not a doctor or a lactation consultant, so if you think your child is sensitive to something in your diet, it’s best to discuss this with professionals (also, please check out KellyMom, especially this article).

Just remember that if your child is gaining well and seems in otherwise good health, yet continues to cry, it’s likely not your breastmilk. I can’t imagine what I would have done if I didn’t have the option of comfort nursing E. In the past hour, I nursed her three times after various head-bonks.

4) Don’t buy into gimmicks but do what you need to do. This is a tough balance. As a parent of a colicky infant, you will do whatever it takes, spend whatever it costs to get your child to feel better, even if that means buying snake oil from the shady traveling salesman. There are various “colic remedies” out there that claim to work – gripe water, gas drops, Colic Calm, probiotics, chiropractic adjustment, etc. We tried the probiotics. No change. Chiropractic adjustment. No change. Things like gripe water are supposed to help with gas but it’s good to remember that ALL babies have gas. Colicky infants tend to freak out about it more than calm babies. And gas is usually caused by ingesting air during crying, rather that causing the crying in the first place.

More often than not, these things will “work” for the short term because they are novel, or they seem to cure colic when in fact colic has ceased naturally on it’s own (usually around 3 or 4 months). I understand the desire to have a solution, so do what you need to do and see what works. But understand that, most of the time, colic is a developmental stage that your child is going to need to grow out of. (This is all from Weisbluth’s Healthy Sleep Habits, Healthy Child. Get it. Read it.)

5) Find a way to unwind each day. Make it a priority. Every day in those early weeks, I took a bath. I found this very relaxing (as long as I had ear plugs and couldn’t hear the baby crying downstairs). I would bring a novel, sometimes a glass of wine, and do my best to relax. You may enjoy going out for  a walk (sans babe) or gorging yourself on jelly beans (another way I liked to relax). Whatever it is, you need to do it. Enlist your partner, your family, your friends to walk the hallway with your crying baby. If you aren’t caring for yourself, there is no way you can care for a high-needs baby.

6) Laugh when you can. In those early months, there will be a lot of tears – from your baby, from you and your partner, from your sleep-deprived upstairs neighbor. Find humor in every situation you can. There is plenty of opportunity – getting peed on, the loud noises that erupt from your child’s bowels, half-assed attempts at swaddling, the hilarious song-and-dance your husband does that magically makes the baby stop crying, the 45 episodes of The Office you just watch (in a row) on Netflix. This laughter just may eventually rub off on your child. (Right now, E is staring at a pink ribbon and laughing. I’m not really sure why.)

7) Co-parent, co-parent, co-parent. Your partner is your Number 1 Ally. Early on, Dave and I promised not to blame any of E’s crying on the other. E’s crying at 2am was the not because of my loose swaddling or Dave not shushing loud enough. You are team, so tag team. If you held the crying infant for a half hour and nothing worked, time to hand her off. If your partner works outside of the home, you deserve to leave the house sometime, too. Resist the urge to “correct” the non-stay-at-home parent on their soothing skills or nap rituals. They may add some new techniques to the repertoire. Recognize that parenting is not a job but a life responsibility. Share that responsibility whenever your partner is home. And split the nights. I can’t recommend this enough. Yes, your spouse may need to work, but spending the entire day at home with a screaming infant is no picnic. You deserve sleep, too. When E was 1 month, I started pumping a bottle and Dave did one of the night feedings. This was life changing. Dave would take the first half of the night (9-2) and I would take second shift (2-7). To this day, Dave still gets up with her at night, changes her diaper and feeds her a bottle. Then I’m up with her at 6:30am.

8) Practice the 5 S’s. Harvey Karp, who wrote Happiest Baby on the Block (OMGBUYTHISBOOKNOW) came up with these five steps to calm a crying infant: Swaddling, Side Position, Shhing, Swinging, Sucking. You can google it, watch YouTube videos about, etc. This worked on E about 80% of the time when she was really worked up.  It really works, at least until she started crying again an hour later.

9) Buy a Miracle Blanket. Yes, they should pay me for advertising, but seriously. Buy it. Buy two, actually. E lived in this thing for about 3 months. She slept in it, napped in it, and when she was REALLY crying, we would swaddle her into a calm state. It’s much easier to use and more effective than other swaddling blankets (in my opinion). And it’s like a little baby straight-jacket. E could almost never wriggle out of it.

10) Breastfeed whenever, wherever. High needs infants often LOVE breastfeeding. Not all but most. Take advantage of this built-in calming device. If you have the time and the ability, breastfeed on demand. Throw out feeding schedules. Ignore the well meaning relative who exclaims, “Nursing again? Didn’t she JUST eat?” First, newborns ARE hungry, pretty much all the time. Also, breastfeeding is not just for nutrition but also comfort. If your  baby is crying, see if nursing will calm her down. Often, it will. Obviously, don’t wear yourself out. Once nursing is well established, use a pacifier, pump a bottle or two, experience the delightful freedom of not having a child attached to your breast. After many sleepless nights of E attached to me while co-sleeping, we moved her into a crib and I stopped nursing her every hour. Now, we both sleep better. But during the day,  I still nurse her quite often. And I’m okay with it.

11) If it doesn’t work now, try again later. Babies grow exponentially fast and are CONSTANTLY changing. One day, E loved baths. Then she hated then. Then she loved them again. For the first few weeks, we wore her in a baby carrier. Then she hated the carrier. A few weeks later, she took her evening nap in the Ergo. Try everything at least three times over the span of a few days or weeks.

12) Take Dr Sears with a grain of salt. While I was pregnant, I read Dr Sears’ Baby Book, vowing to co-sleep with my child until she was 16, wear her everywhere  and never, ever let her cry it out. Then E was born and I threw everything out the window. Some of Dr Sears advice regarding high needs babies is great. But some of it will make you feel like crap. Sears argues that you should carry your baby most of the time, cosleep with your baby  and never allow your baby to cry. But, sometimes you need a break. And sometimes babies hate baby carriers. And sometimes you sleep better in separate rooms. And sometimes baby (when she’s old enough) will need to cry in order to get to sleep. So, feel free to pick and choose based on your child. This goes for ALL parenting books, not just Dr Sears.

13) You will get used to the crying. I know this doesn’t sound comforting in the beginning, but eventually, your body will stop responding to your infant’s cries like a bomb just exploded. You’ll stop sweating profusely while changing her diaper as she screams. You’ll stop crying with her at that 3am wakeup. You’ll learn how to respond best to your baby’s needs and your postpartum hormones won’t dictate how you feel every second of the day. I promise.

14) Repeat this to yourself every hour: “I deserve a medal.” It’s true. You really do. Parenting is hard as hell. Parenting a newborn is especially bewildering. And parenting a screaming ball of rage is, for many, one of the most difficult things on earth. You are doing  a great job at a seemingly impossible task. You should be wearing a cape and a mask because you are a superhero. Really. At the end of all this, you will be better parent, more unflappable, more attentive, more patient and more thankful than you ever thought possible. YOU DESERVE ONE HUNDRED MEDALS.

15) Don’t worry about not cherishing the newborn stage. When you have a child, people mean well, they really do. They may say things like “Hold on to these moments now, because they grow so fast” or “You may be tired, but what a beautiful time this is.” The truth is, newborns are hard and colicky newborns are even harder. And it wasn’t a beautiful time for us. It was a very dark time filled with a fair amount of misery, many nights of clutching Dave and whispering “I never knew it would be this hard,” and very little gazing-at-our-peaceful-newborn-while-she-slept-three-hours-in-a-row.

It’s okay to wish away the newborn stage. It’s okay to look at your crying, red-in-the-face infant and say “I can’t wait until you are 5 months old.” It’s okay to take out a calendar and mark down the days until you reach 12 weeks, 16 weeks, whatever the magic milestone is when colic supposedly ends.  I had a lot of guilt about this in the beginning. But I got over it quickly. Now I am holding on to every moment because E is growing up so fast and is just so dang sweet. But I am SO GLAD she is no longer a newborn.

16) Feel free to vent. There’s no need to sugar-coat those early weeks of parenting (see above). People will ask how are you are. Tell them the truth — that your infant cries ALL THE TIME, that you are walking zombie, that parenting is harder than you thought it would be, that at times you are overwhelmed at the thought of stepping out your front door, let alone making it to that awesome concert everyone is going to. Dave and I went to a wedding when E was 2 months old and we spent most of rehearsal dinner and reception telling others how out of control E was. It was nice to get it off our chest. And people understood why we had to break so many commitments  or why we smelled like we hadn’t showered in two weeks. Also, people knew how much help we needed and offered it.

17) Keep a journal. I kept a pretty detailed journal for the first 4 months of E’s life. I would record how the morning, afternoon and evening went, whether she had blood in her diaper, what I ate that day (when I was still convinced that she was allergic to something beyond dairy) and other information I thought would be useful down the line. It made me feel like I had some control (data! information!) and also helped me document that, indeed, things were getting better. Sometimes, just for fun, I would look back and read an entry from the week (or month) before. This gave me some good perspective, especially on really bad days. Over time, I slowly stopped recording how many minutes she cried each day and started recording happy things: The baby rolled over! The baby laughed! Our baby is in the 80th percentile!

18) Don’t believe the 6 week rule. According to study mentioned by both Karp and Weisbluth, colic peaks around 6 weeks, then gradually gets better until about 3 months, when it “magically vanishes.” Not so for our babe. I would say the 10 or 11th weeks were some of the hardest for us, and things didn’t get significantly better until 4.5 months. Of course, every baby is different but I had invested a lot of hope and energy in the 6 week rule.

19) Know that it will end. This was the hardest one for me to believe. Some parents would tell me that their super sweet and super happy toddler was once a colicky baby and I never believed them. Perhaps their baby was fussy, but never as fussy as mine. Yes, all babies grow up. Colicky babies become distractable, interested in the world around them, more sociable. It comes naturally with time. But in the black hole that is colic, you assume that it will never end. But it does. It really does.

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