The Phases of Colic

“He’s probably just hungry.” 

“Have you tried swaddling him, all my kids loved that!” 

“Try a bit of chamomile tea in his bottle.” 

Oh, wow! Swaddle my baby??!! What a novel idea! Why didn’t I think of that over the last 4 weeks of relentless crying?” I’d say inside my head, while outwardly smiling and nodding, holding back tears of fatigue and utter misery.  Our son had colic and it was horrible.

Before I begin discussing the phases of coping with a colicky baby – let’s make sure we are all on the same page. I promise I won’t reference Webster’s dictionary, but some level of defining is necessary.

What is colic exactly?

There are no formal diagnostic criteria for colic.  But in an effort to provide a “diagnosis,” many physicians and researchers use “the rule of 3’s.”  If an infant is otherwise healthy, younger than 3 months of age, cries for greater than 3 hours per day for more than 3 days per week, it is presumed that the baby has colic.  The diagnosis may often be made retrospectively – meaning after the crying has already run its course, which is completely unhelpful.  So, there you have it…for all intents and purposes, colic is crying…lots and lots of crying!

We should’ve known we were in for a treat when the nurse said, “well, that’s a unique cry!”

Treatment

Nothing.  You do nothing.  Pediatrician does nothing.  The End. 

Haha. Tricked you! 

If you’re deep in the trenches of colic right now (and anything like me), you probably skimmed through the blog to the “treatment” section, lucky for you it’s right up top.  I get it…you’re completely desperate and hoping someone has a magical solution that you haven’t already tried.  This is a natural reaction. I’ve been there too.

But, that’s the very nature of colic.  If something were actually wrong – it wouldn’t be colic – recall, this is an “otherwise healthy infant.”  So, assuming you’ve had your baby checked out by a pediatrician and all is well (which is amazing and horrible news all at once), then you’re dealing with colic.

And so begins the first phase of colic.

Denial

You’d think that finding out nothing is wrong with your baby would be reassuring.  In all honesty, you are incredibly lucky to have a healthy baby.  Now that my baby has stopped crying and I can actually hear myself think, I can appreciate how true this is.  

As it turns out, however; in the depths of colic, this information is the opposite of reassuring.  It means that for the next 3-12 months, your baby is going to cry non-stop regardless of what you do.  The toll this takes can be difficult to imagine for parents who haven’t experienced it.  As a point of reference, recordings of babies crying have been used to train Navy SEALs to endure torture.  It is possible that this is just a myth circulating in colic support groups, but having personally made it through colic, it wouldn’t surprise me if it’s true.

Anyway, it is upon receiving the wonderful news that there is nothing wrong with your baby that the denial phase often begins.  

“Not my baby.  This can’t be colic.  Have you seen the grimace on my baby’s face?  Have you heard his cries?! He must be suffering! Someone has to do something!”

Now, I feel like here is where I should mention that my husband and I are in healthcare.  He is a physician and I’m a physician assistant.  We’re normally level-headed, strong believers in evidence-based medicine.  We use reputable resources such as UpToDate, Pubmed and websites of professional organizations like the American Academy of Pediatrics or the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology for recommendations.  

The white coat makes me look legit!

But when modern medicine failed to tell us what we wanted to hear, and the pervasive cries of our son penetrated our skulls deeply enough to jostle our brains up a bit – we turned to the second best place to get medical information – mommy blogs and Google.  

So, there we were in “fringe medicine” territory – a place neither of us ever imagined going. 

If you’re not familiar with “fringe medicine” – it is a term used to describe unproven treatment options.  If you delve far enough into this territory you’ll find inhabitants such as anti-vaxxers, essential oil healers and Reiki masters.  

And it is here where I learned to ignore my pediatrician’s advice (and disregard his 12 years of education plus fellowship in pediatric critical care) and join the hoards of desperate moms with crying babies who were cutting milk and soy out of their diets.  

So for nearly 9 weeks I continued my charade of denial and choked down my morning coffee with the vile creation that is dairy free/soy free creamer, a milky water of sorts.

As it turns out, my son did not and does not have a milk protein allergy and dairy free/soy free creamer is truly the most vile substance in the dairy aisle.

Onto phase 2.

Disappointment

This phase is a real bummer.  

Remember all the hopes and dreams you had while gestating that little colic monster for nine whole months?

Some of my fantasies included getting beautiful newborn photos. I imagined he’d have cute, little pursed lips, a smooshy face and wrinkly skin.   I booked ours well in advance. 

Other fantasies included strolling our fancy bassinet stroller downtown, perhaps stopping for some brunch, taking him out for a quick feed and a burp.  Awww.   

Mere days before delivery! Already imagining the strolls I’d be taking and brunches I’d be brunching!

The reality is that colic is the destroyer of all parental newborn fantasies.  Honestly, it is okay for you to mourn the loss of what you had dreamed of before she was born.  As hard as it can be to empathize when you are suffering, try to keep in mind that there are far worse realities for parents out there.  I know it is hard to be thankful for your healthy, screaming baby; but trust me when I say, someday you will be very thankful.  

The most memorable moment of the disappointment phase for me actually occurred during a brief reprieve from the screams.  Our little bundle had fallen asleep, I looked over at him in his peaceful slumber and turned to my husband through tears and said, “THIS is the one we get? Out of all the sperms that could have reached the egg – this is the one??”  

In the moment, I actually meant it.  I even recall envisioning the little sperms swimming toward the egg – and thinking, this little jerk pushed all of the good ones out of the way.  Typical colic sperm move.  Only thinking about himself before he even becomes a zygote. 

Did I mention I was sleep deprived?

The regret phase comes next.  And this one is a REAL doozy.

Regret

I will never forget the day I slumped over my kitchen island and cried so hard I couldn’t breathe.  My son was in his swing, screaming of course.  As I stood up in an attempt to compose myself, I looked out my back window and saw a lovely woman walking her dog on the path behind our house.  My poor dog hadn’t been on a proper walk in months.  Unless I wanted to subject the whole neighborhood to my son’s shrill cries, I thought it better we stay indoors.  

I watched her walk into the distance and wondered if she even appreciated the freedom she had. “Oh how nice! Walk your dog past my house at a time like this!!” I felt so bitter.

And suddenly I was hit with the biggest pang of regret.  It was as if every good thing that had ever happened in my life flashed before my eyes.

Now, there I was, crying almost as loudly as my own baby, bracing my exhausted body on the cold, hard slab of early 2000’s beige/brown granite.  Why did the previous homeowners pick this granite, anyway?  And why didn’t I notice how ugly it was when we bought this house just 5 months ago? Perhaps it was just colic once again casting its hideous hue on my once vibrant life!

I wondered if I had made the biggest mistake of my life.  I USED to be able to walk my dog.  I USED to sleep at night.  I USED to take baths and plop one of those ridiculously expensive bath bombs into the tub.  Now I’d never be able to justify the cost of a bath bomb for a 5 minute bath.  (Realistically during colic you can expect a 60 second shower).  

Life as I knew it was over but all I had experienced of my new life as a parent was colic, so of course I felt melancholy for my old life!  If you’re in this phase, recognize that feelings of regret are normal.  Who would electively choose this colicky life?  NO ONE.  

And while we’re at it – it’s okay to wonder if you actually love your baby.  This is not even exclusive to parents of colicky babies.  Some people fall in love with their baby immediately, and that is truly wonderful.  Some of us need some time to get to know our babies, and our love for them develops more gradually.  This is an enormous life change, further complicated when you have a baby who is torturous to be around.  Don’t feel badly if you’re not an “exploding heart eyes emoji” right now – it will come!  It really, really will.  

And last but not least, the final phase.

Acceptance

This phase is somewhat short-lived, probably because many of us will end up spending most of our time cycling in and out of the prior phases.  

Some days you might feel like you’ve accepted your fate, but then a mom from your mommy group will come along and tell you how a spell caster cured her baby’s colic with an ancient spell and you’ll get sucked back into the denial (false hope) phase again.  

If I had to do it all over again, I’d skip over all the other phases and move directly into the acceptance phase.  

It would save me a lot of money on gadgets that don’t work (*cough* $1200 bassinet *cough*).

The snoo never quite worked for us! I’m planning a full review on the blog soon!

I’d never have slugged down that disgusting coffee for weeks.  

And I’d have bypassed the complete uselessness that regret serves in our lives at any time.

The point to this story is that you will get through this…trust me!  And your story will be uniquely yours.  It’s okay to try every possible thing to help your baby, it’s okay if you never accept that it’s colic until it’s over.  It’s okay if you give up dairy because it makes you feel a shred of hope in an otherwise hopeless situation.  It’s okay to keep searching for answers.  It’s okay if some days you regret ever having a baby.  

Just know that someday your baby will stop crying.  You might not believe it at first but hours and then days will go by and they’ll have only cried when they’re tired or hungry or need a diaper change.  And you’ll test out the waters and go out in public.  You’ll finish a whole shopping trip at Costco, baby in tow and give your husband a high five on the way out.  You’ll walk your dog again.  Maybe you’ll even pass the lady who walked her dog by your house on that one horrible day and give her a smile.  You’ll get family pictures taken and the photographer will comment on how good your baby is and you’ll laugh to yourself. You’ll even sleep again.  Your baby will smile and laugh at you and giggle when you tickle him, give you open mouth kisses and splash around in the bath tub.  And regret will never cross your mind again – (until they’re teenagers, I hear).

We finally got the photos!

The very best thing about colic is that every day after colic is better than the last.  And you’ll never have to mourn the loss of the newborn stage because that was pure crap! 

We get out for walks!

 

Top 8 Essentials for the Colicky Newborn

When I was pregnant with Everett, I researched a ton of products and read lots of must-have lists but one thing I never considered was the possibility of having a colicky baby.

Having experienced colic for a solid 4 months, I feel confident in providing my own “top list.” These 8 products were critical in helping our son get through his first 4 months of life.

While every baby is unique, perhaps some or all of these items will help you and your baby, too.

None of these items “cured” his colic but I did notice a reduction in duration of crying if I used them consistently.

  1. Breast or Bottle

Everett was exclusively breastfed until 9 weeks of age when his weight dropped from the 44th percentile to the 3rd. At that point, he was breast- and bottle-fed. With the help of an outstanding lactation consultant and the use of domperidone – I was able to continue breastfeeding (I’ll share that experience in a separate post).

Our son would not take to a pacifier but he did find comfort in nursing and did so constantly.


If he was not breastfeeding, he would typically be crying.

If your baby is soothed by a pacifier, I would not hesitate to use one! We tried the MAM pacifier and the WubbaNub but he rejected both – so we stuck with comfort nursing.

2. Blackout cellular shades 

(use sheets if you have to, anything to make the room DARK)

Mid-day nap. Very dark room courtesy of the blackout shades.

I found that keeping Everett in a dark room most of the day helped to minimize his crying time.

One of the theories about colic is that the central nervous system is immature. When a baby is born, he/she is taken from its comfortable womb – a place that is very loud, warm and dark in exchange for a cold, bright and relatively quiet space. It is hypothesized that the new environment is too stimulating for the immature nervous system to process. The baby is not yet capable of self soothing – so he/she cries.

In an attempt to recreate the womb, we purchased blackout cellular shades and my husband installed them on all of our bedroom windows.

It doesn’t really matter what you choose to put over your windows. Just keep the environment as dark as possible!

Above the doors, we put black construction paper when he slept in our room. It was a very high-end touch.
This is a little sitting room in our bedroom – we also put construction paper on the arched part of the window above the shade (remember, as dark as possible).

3. Sound machine

This is the Red Rooster Sound Machine.

Once your room is dark enough – it’s time to make it loud enough.

I can recall one night vividly when my husband and I played white noise on two laptops, an iPad and two cell phones. He finally fell asleep.

There are many to choose from and ours is one of the less expensive options. It is by a brand called Red Rooster.

Any will do but make sure it has a battery backup in the event of power outage. Trust me, you’ll appreciate this.

4. Swaddle

The Love To Dream Swaddle is THE swaddle for us.

I believe every baby should be swaddled as the boundaries of the swaddle are womb-like, making the baby feel more secure. Additionally, it can calm the startle reflex which can often wake a baby.

You may need to test out a few swaddles to find what works best for your baby.

We settled on the Love To Dream line of swaddles and LOVED them. Our son enjoyed chewing on his hands and keeping them close to his face, something other, more traditional swaddles didn’t allow. We used these until he outgrew all of their sizes (up to size large).

He now sleeps in a Zippadee-Zip sleeper! This is essentially the same concept as the Love To Dream swaddles, but provides more mobility.

5. Wireless headphones

Your headphones aren’t just for working out anymore!

Your baby is going to cry – and cry a lot.

Wireless headphones connected via bluetooth to your favorite Spotify playlist, podcast or audiobook provides a reprieve from the crying, while still allowing you to be present with your baby.

The “Peaceful Piano” playlist on Spotify is still among our favorites.

6. Yoga ball

When Everett was in his most inconsolable mood, bouncing on the yoga ball was my go-to. I’d either strap him into a wrap or carrier or just hold him in my lap and bounce.

My husband received this tip from a colleague who had a colicky baby years ago and the yoga ball worked quite well.

I also attribute my very rapid post-partum weight loss to this exercise. One perk of colic!

7. iPad with Netflix/Hulu

While you’re nursing/holding/rocking/bouncing your baby, you’re likely to get very bored. I found an iPad to be the most portable/lightweight option for entertaining myself.


8. Himalayan Salt Rock Lamp

When/if your baby DOES actually fall asleep at night, you’ll want to keep the sleeping conditions ideal. When it is time for your baby to wake up for a dream feed or his regularly scheduled diaper change/feed, it is best to keep the lighting minimal. I found that a salt rock lamp was the perfect solution. Placed on my bedside table, it was within easy reach to turn on, didn’t wake up my sleeping husband and provided just enough light to change his diaper and nurse him.

I hope these essentials help you and your baby.

What products helped your colicky baby?