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Colicky Babies & The Forgotten Rule of 3

baby crying on mom's lap

“Colicky” is the label we give to babies who cry for no identifiable reason. Before doing anything else, see your healthcare provider to get a formal diagnosis of colic. Formally, a diagnosis of colic is characterized by the rule of three: 

  1. Unexplained crying for more than 3 hours a day 
  2. For more than 3 days a week 
  3. For more than 3 weeks

Colic-type crying, whether it fits the official diagnosis or not, is exhausting and depressing for all parents: it is linked to postpartum depression and anxiety. But, the last (oft forgotten) rule of three is just as important: Colic will typically start to ease (not disappear overnight) around 3 months. 

The good news is that:

  • We know this happens to all kind of families (although we don’t know why)
  • We have LOTS of ways to manage stress
  • It tends to begin its retreat after three months. 

As frustrating as it is to not know why your infant is crying, be comforted by the fact that neither do experts who spend a lifetime of study examining this condition. In not knowing, you can also be comforted by the fact that your parenting and preparation have NOT been identified as the seed of this condition -- and you can bet that this was one of the first places researchers looked. 

Emily Oster, author of Cribsheet, a data-driven guide to better, more relaxed parenting, from birth to preschool, shares that “you basically cannot defeat a crying baby with hard work.” A Google search will lead you to many suggestions, most of which are harmless, but also not proven to be universally effective. Larry Scherzer, M.D., assistant professor of pediatrics at the University of Connecticut Health Center in Farmington says, "Usually by the time you try everything, the baby is old enough that a lot of the crying has ceased."

Two treatments have been shown to have limited success, but are not backed by robust data. Some studies show a probiotic supplement delivered in drops may reduce crying (only in breastfed infants) - and this may be worth a try since there are no recognized downsides. These drops are not to be confused with simethicone drops (Gerber sells many of these), which have the same effect as a placebo replacement -- herbal supplements and gripe water measure up similarly. 

The second treatment often recommended is changing formula (although this can be expensive AND the evidence on formula is largely financed by the formula companies themselves). Some recommend changing the Mom’s diet, but there is limited evidence to suggest this makes a difference. For those who do see changes, they usually see them within the first few days of implementing them. Take care here. We KNOW stress negatively affects our long term health, and our ability to be present, positive parents. We ALSO know stress accompanies diet restrictions. 

Oster tells us, that “Management of your own stress levels is at least as important as managing the baby’s crying.” Knowing this and knowing you have around 3 months of sitting with your infant through their uncomfortable transition, what can you do to manage stress?

Plan to ask for help. Call a mom of an older child. It’s so rare that we can truly help someone with a task that you are actually doing your neighbor, family, or friend a favor by letting them know they are needed and helpful. You know how good that feels! 

If you have a partner, work with them to create a schedule where you can each rely on 15 minutes of peace (and maybe silence) each day. This will help each of you get through the moments that seem unending. 

Accepting that you have a colicky baby will help you surrender the energy you are using to mentally divine what is happening for your infant. The whole point is that no one knows exactly why it happens, but they do know that it eventually dissipates. The Period of Purple Crying is a helpful resource in understanding how colic truly is just a period when babies cry more than they will at any other time. They have information to help you understand why your child is not in pain, typical “crying schedules”, and practical tips to deal with frustration. 

Instead of fighting your reality, try using that (limited) energy to take a deep breath in, and lonnnnng breath out. See if you can do that 5 times in a row -- at least the science behind deep breaths is there to tell us that they instantly calm us down. As your child grows, you will be constantly guiding them in their ability to do hard and uncomfortable things, and sometimes the hardest thing is to take care of yourself. Show your infant how it’s done, even in tiny doses! 

Reference: Cribsheet: A Data-Driven Guide to Better, More Relaxed Parenting, From Birth to Preschool by Emily Oster

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