Its 5:30 in the evening and Mario has just had his bath. As Dad opens the font door, an ear-piercing scream is heard from within. Six-week-old Mario is exercising his lungs again in a ‘horror hour’ that Dad has come to know well in the past four weeks.
In the first two weeks home Mario was such an angel but on the day he turned 12 days old he developed what the clinic sister calls ‘colic’. His mother had no idea that crying could be so loud and unceasing. She is feeling quite desperate and all the time the questions running through her head are: Why is he crying like this, How can I stop the crying and How many more nights of crying lie ahead?
Why do babies get colic?
Recent research has shown that colic is not due to immature digestive systems as has been previously thought but rather due to immaturity of the baby’s brain.
New baby’s brains are very sensitive to all the sensory input in their environments. By late afternoon their brains reach a threshold level where they literally cannot deal with any more stimulation. So the smallest input, such as winds in their tummies or even that last feed of the day is sufficient to push them into overstimulation or sensory overload. And this results in crying.
Each baby can tolerate different amount of stimulation. Some babies can cope with more stimulation than others without fussing. Other babies are more ‘high need’ and become over stimulated very quickly. These are the babies who are more susceptible to colic and whose colic lasts longer and is more severe.
How to limit the crying?
Most young babies cry to a greater or lesser extent in the early evening but it is how we handle the baby that determines whether the crying will last for 15 minutes or stretch into three-hour colic.
Mario’s parents become somewhat anxious; anticipating a crying spell similar to the one they had the night before. They may start to wind him vigorously, trying to get up that elusive ‘wind’. The bouncing and patting only serve to further stimulate him. His parents then turn on the light and take him to the TV room so that they can be sociable while trying to calm him; which further exacerbates the problem. They try singing, talking, lying down, offering another feed, changing his nappy, holding him in various positions, until finally three hours later an exhausted Mario plunges into a fretful sleep.
It was not that his parents tried the wrong strategies. In fact each of these strategies holds merit if the timing is appropriate. But at this time when Mario is over stimulated; a barrage of well meant attempts to calm him are likely to contribute to over-stimulation and exacerbate the colic spell.
To limit the crying and prevent it from turning into a colic episode, parents can try the following strategies:
- In the first three months, don’t over stimulate your baby
- Have a daytime sleep routine. Under three months of age your baby should only be awake for an hour to an hour and half between sleeps.
- Watch for signs of overstimulation during the day and especially in the evening, such as irritability, squirming, arching, frantic movements, frowning, yawning, hiccups and blueness around the mouth. When you notice these signs, remove your baby from the stimulating environment and use calming strategies.
- Use sensory calming strategies such as;
- Rocking your baby or putting him in a sling
- Just putting him down to sleep
- Sticking to 1 calming strategy for 5 min
When will colic abate?
Colic usually starts at two weeks and peaks at six weeks. By 12 weeks the baby is better able to deal with sensory stimulation and colic abates around this time.
Mario surprises his parents a day after he turned six weeks with his first smile and somehow just that little happy signal makes the next 6 weeks of colic easier for his parents to bear. As hard as this period is for his parents, they can know that it will pass and that by the end of the first three months, they will be enchanted by their baby’s cuteness.
By Megan Faure
- Megan Faure & Ann Richardson, Baby Sense, Metz 2010
- DeGangi Pediatric Disorders of Regulation in Affect and Behaviour Academic press 2000