The year was 1998. I had just given birth to my first child, Mitchell Alexander Jordan, born on the 2nd of June. I was a registered midwife in the UK and had been practising midwifery for 5 years. I thought it would be easy, I thought I knew all about newborns. I was mistaken!
Mitchell was a fussy baby. I don’t remember when the fuss started exactly, those first few weeks of parenthood passed in a blur. I know he was less than 6 weeks old, because the fussing and crying eased up after about 8 weeks.
We were told by doctors and friends back then that he had colic. He would scream and cry when he wasn’t carried, we could not put him down, he would not sleep on his own- we had a variety of sleeping surfaces for him. He had a Moses basket which is like a soft grass woven basket-like bassinet, a carry cot- which is like the bassinets that fit on top of your stroller carriage and he had a crib. For the first 6 weeks of his life, he co-slept with his parents, or no one would get any sleep at all. It was as though he needed to feel close to us. We had a futon mattress on top of a wooden bed frame, so it was a firm sleeping surface. He slept between us, whilst we perched on the edge of the mattress for fear of crushing him. We didn’t smoke or drink while he was sharing our bed, and the advice nowadays is to only have one adult bed-sharing with a baby.
During the day, he would fuss and cry, there didn’t seem to be any pattern, unlike some babies who would fuss and cry during the witching hour which was between the hours of 5pm till 9pm. This crying would go on and on, and we were almost at our wits end.
We tried everything to soothe him. He was well fed and growth checks would reveal that he was growing well- moving from the 50th percentile at birth to about 90th percentile by 4 weeks! We would sing to him, sway him in our arms, we would do squats in order to bounce him gently whilst carrying him- if I was doing this today, I would bounce him on a Swiss exercise ball. Well, I would bounce on the ball whilst carrying or wearing him. Friends who had babies before us, suggested Infacol- like the Ovol of today. The active ingredient being simethicone, which is not absorbed by baby’s gut but passed through, making the gas bubbles collate and therefore making it easier to pass- that was the claim. It was an over the counter medication specifically for colicky babies. We did give Mitchell some infacol, in fact he had a lot of it! We didn’t really know if it worked but we had to do something especially as all our other effort to soothe him did not seem to have any effect. Today, there is no real evidence that shows simethicone actually works!
What is colic? Back in 1998, we were told that it was a spasmodic pain that he was experiencing in his gut. It was possibly caused by gas. It did look like he was in pain, crying,arching his back at times, pulling his knees up to his chest. At times he was inconsolable, but at times he was not. Hence the term spasmodic.
Today, research and studies show that colic is not a medical condition as we don’t really know what causes it! It follows the rule of threes. According to The American family physician – a baby has colic if they cry for more than 3 hours a day, for more than 3 days a week and lasts for more than 3 weeks in a well fed and otherwise healthy baby. (https://www.aafp.org/afp/2004/0815/p735.html)
This fussiness and crying has no apparent cause and can be frustrating for parents, as most parents would want to know why their baby is crying in order to know how to soothe them.
It is thought that colic may be due to baby’s immature nervous system and that it’s all part of normal development. All babies go through this to a greater or lesser extent. (http://purplecrying.info/sub-pages/crying/what-is-colic.php). Most babies’ colic resolves by 12 weeks of age.
So what works to soothe your ‘colicky’ baby?
I like Ronald G Barr’s first principle of soothing which is, Some things work some of the time, but nothing works all of the time. We have to remember that infants are not like machines; they are not predictable, and they do not have an “on-off” switch for crying or for soothing.(http://purplecrying.info/sub-pages/soothing/common-features-and-principles-of-soothing.php)
So don’t beat yourself up if everything you try doesn’t seem to help. Or wonder why rocking your baby worked yesterday, but today it’s not helping at all.
Trying to recreate a womb like atmosphere for your baby will be soothing to them. Swaddling them firmly and safely, holding them close to you, baby wearing, swaying from side to side, shushing near their ear, sitting on a bouncy ball or doing squats whist holding your baby may help soothe them. These methods work because babies are reminded of a time of safety and contentment whilst still in their mothers’ womb where they were safe and had everything they needed.
Here are some other soothing methods :-
Wear your baby, in a wrap or sling, making sure that you are wearing your baby safely. Having baby close to you, and with their head against your chest and listening to your heart beat is soothing and comforting.
Take your baby for a car ride. The vibrations and motion will help soothe baby. Ensure your baby is in a rear facing car seat.
Rocking your baby in glider or rocking chair whilst holding them close to you is comforting. As is using a swing or baby bouncer that is age appropriate for your baby. Ensure you use the safety harness when placing your baby in a swing/bouncer.
Using white noise- either from a white noise machine, a vacuum cleaner, fan, extractor fan in the kitchen or hairdryer. These noises are soothing to baby as it mimics some of the noises that they constantly heard whilst in the uterus.
Sing to your baby, babies love being sung too, using a higher pitch also tends to comfort them.
Give baby a warm soothing bath. This will help calm them.
Breastfeed your baby if you are breastfeeding. The sucking will help release a hormone called cholecystokinin that is both soothing to baby and parent.
Use a pacifier, once again, the sucking will produce the same calming hormone.
Try putting baby skin to skin. Babies love being close to their parents, and skin to skin contact is comforting to them.
Making eye contact with you baby and talking to them calmly, even when they are fussing will tell your baby that you love them even when they are fussing and crying.
It may take a while for your baby to calm down. You may need to try all the methods mentioned above, to find one that works for your baby. Sometimes you may be unable to soothe your baby, but understanding that this is ok, will help you through these challenging times. Remember that if your baby is otherwise well and growing well, they sometimes fuss or cry inconsolably for no apparent reason. It’s part of their growth and development. It is important to remember that while many of these suggestions will work most of the time, nothing will work all of the time.
If the crying or fussing is getting too much for you, hand baby over to another adult to look after while you have a break. However, if there is no one at hand to help, place baby on a safe surface like their crib or bassinet, ensuring no harm will come to baby if you leave. Go into another room and have a short break and a few deep breaths before returning to baby. Sometimes babies who have been held and jiggled and cajoled in attempts to try to soothe them get a little overstimulated, and putting them down, may miraculously comfort them, and they stop crying.
We often use soothing techniques when babies are already fussing and crying. However, there is research that show that using these soothing measures prior to baby becoming fussy helps prevent the fussiness from happening, or at the very least makes the crying less severe.
This is the second principle of keeping babies calm; soothing can work preventively if the soothing activities are applied when the infant is not crying rather than just in response to crying.
Lastly, remember that colic issues will not last forever. At around 12 weeks, most babies would have have outgrown this phase of development and the inconsolable crying and fussiness comes to an end. Please consult your paediatrician if you are concerned or if your baby is fussing and crying because they are unwell or sick.
This blog is written by a nurse, midwife and postpartum doula.
This blog does not take the place of the advice given by your paediatrician. It only covers colic like problems in infants who are otherwise healthy and are growing well with no prior conditions or concerns.