By Claire Lerner
Does my baby have colic? Understand what is considered a normal crying pattern and how to identify colic in your baby.
Crying, difficult as it is to hear, is a normal way babies communicate hunger, discomfort, distress, or a need for your attention. Most newborns reach a crying peak at about 6 weeks. Then their crying starts to decrease. By 3 months, they usually only cry for about an hour a day. This is what is considered a “normal” crying pattern.
Then there’s colic. Although all babies cry, some babies cry much more than others. This is a condition known as “colic.” It is defined as crying that:
- begins and ends for no obvious reason
- lasts at least 3 hours a day
- happens at least 3 days a week
- continues for 3 weeks to 3 months
Although the cause of colic is unknown, the condition is temporary and won’t impact your child’s development. If you are concerned about how much or how intensely your baby cries, talk with his health care provider.
Consider Your Family
Thinking about the following questions can help you adapt and apply the information and strategies below to the individual needs of your child and family:
- When you think about your baby’s crying, are there particular experiences or situations that you find upset her more than others? Why do you think that is? How does this help you understand her better?
- What calms your baby? What have you tried that has worked? What does this tell you about your baby?
- It is important to tune in to your own reaction to your baby’s crying. How it affects you impacts your ability to soothe her. Some parents are more distressed by their baby’s crying than others. How do you feel when your baby cries? Do you find yourself getting very upset yourself when your baby cries? If so, how do or can you calm yourself?
Baby Blues and Postpartum Depression
Having a baby who is difficult to comfort can increase parents’ stress and can contribute to the “baby blues” and/or “postpartum depression.” As many as 50%–80% of new mothers experience the baby blues in the first 10 days after childbirth. Symptoms may include tearfulness, fatigue, difficulty sleeping, and feelings of loss. The baby blues usually get better after about 10 days.
Approximately 8%–15% of new moms experience postpartum depression in the first year of motherhood, which is different from the blues. With depression, symptoms last more than 2 weeks and include feeling down and hopeless, increased crying, feeling little pleasure or interest in activities one used to enjoy, and loss of energy. If you are experiencing these feelings, it is very important—for you and your baby—that you seek help from a trusted health professional.
How to Comfort a Fussy Baby
Observe and Learn
Identifying, as best you can, the reason for your baby’s crying will help you figure out how to respond to him in the most sensitive and effective way. The following questions can help guide you:
- Are there certain times of day when your baby is fussier?
- Are there specific situations that lead to crying such as visits to busy, noisy places (think grocery store) where your baby is overwhelmed by all of the stimulation?
- Are there differences in her cries for hunger, fatigue, boredom, anger, feeling overwhelmed? For example, many babies will look away and arch their backs, in addition to fussing and crying, when they are overstimulated and need a break from play and interaction.
- Is your child sick? Teething? Tired? Hungry? Sad? Mad?
- Has there been a recent change in his world that may be making him feel less safe and secure overall? Perhaps he recently made the switch from bassinet to crib, or nana has just left after a long visit.
- Is your child’s fussiness mostly around feeding? For example, does your baby tend to take a few sips from the breast or bottle, then arch her back, cry or fuss, and turn away? (This may indicate a cow’s milk protein sensitivity. Talk with your medical provider about what you are seeing to determine next steps.)
- Frequent irritability (that is worse after meals and when lying down), back arching, stiffening of the legs, and head turning may be symptoms of reflux. If you are seeing these symptoms, it is best to consult with your child’s health care provider to determine the appropriate response.
Respond Based on Your Best Understanding of the Behavior
There is not one right way to soothe a baby. Some babies love to be rocked when upset; others find that too stimulating and prefer to be walked slowly while in a baby carrier, snuggled close to a parent’s chest. Other babies are calmed by being put down in a safe place where they can take a break from the intensity of the world.
It’s a process of trial and error. No one is perfect, and you don’t have to be. When a strategy doesn’t work, don’t blame yourself. Try something else until you discover what works for your individual baby in that specific moment in time. (A strategy that didn’t work yesterday may work today.)
The fact is that sometimes, after trying every strategy you can think of, you will still not be able to comfort your baby. We all have had this experience. Being with a crying baby who is difficult to soothe can be exhausting, stressful, and frustrating. Keep in mind that just by being there—holding and comforting your child—you are teaching her that she is not alone and that you will stick by her through thick and thin.
Look for ways to support your baby and yourself:
- Swaddle your baby. Some babies cry less when they are wrapped snugly in a blanket—called “swaddling”—and gently rocked.
- Use a baby carrier. Being held close as you go through your day can be very soothing.
- Try different ways to hold your baby. Some babies love to be snuggled tightly against their parent’s chest. Some like to be able to look over their parent’s shoulder. Others prefer to be held faced away from you. Many respond well to the “football hold,” when a parent cradles her baby in her arms like a football. There is no right or wrong way as long as your baby is safe.
- Use soothing sounds. Talk or sing softly to your baby. Background noise can be soothing. Try running a fan or humidifier in your baby’s room.
- Try different kinds of movement. Some babies find gentle, slow movements like swaying soothing. Others actually are calmed by more vigorous movements such as swinging or faster rocking.
- Offer a pacifier or other safe object to suck. Some babies have a very powerful need to suck and find this action very soothing.
- Reduce stimulation—lights, sights, sounds, and textures—for your baby. Sometimes less stimulation leads to less crying, especially for babies with colic.
- Give your baby a break. When nothing works to soothe your baby, give your baby a chance to try to soothe herself by putting her down in a safe place for 5–10 minutes. In fact, sometimes our efforts to comfort our babies actually overstimulate them and increase their distress, rather than soothe them. Putting them down can actually be calming. Babies sometimes need a break from touching, talking, and interacting. If your baby doesn’t calm down, no harm is done. You have gotten a few well-deserved minutes to rest and might have a little more energy to care for your baby.
- Remember the crying will end. Usually the worst of crying and colic is over by the time your child is 4 months old. If your baby does have colic, it does not mean that he will be a difficult toddler. Colic will end.
- Beware the quick fix. Cereal in the bottle? Colic drops? Rubbing something on baby’s gums? There in no evidence to show that these strategies work. There is no “magic wand” to stop crying. However, if you do decide to try a quick–fix remedy, check with your child’s health care provider first to be sure it is safe.
- Soothe yourself. You deserve it. Caring for a crying baby can be very stressful. But when you take the time to calm yourself, it helps your baby calm down too. If you find yourself feeling really frustrated, put your baby in a safe place—like the crib—and take a short break to give yourself the time you need, and deserve, to take a deep breath and calm down.
- Share your feelings. Talk to your partner, friends, and family. Look for parent or parent–child groups. In some communities there are also child development centers that provide support and guidance to parents struggling with their infants’ excessive crying. It can be very helpful to talk to other parents coping with similar challenges both to feel less alone and to share ideas and strategies. Ask your health care provider about these resources.
- Get as much sleep as you can! Sleep deprivation makes everything more difficult. So try to get the sleep you need. Nap when your baby naps. When another caregiver can watch your baby, go back to sleep. The grocery shopping, housecleaning, and e-mails can wait.
Knowing When to Seek Help
How are you feeling right now? Coping with crying can be very challenging. What do you need to feel supported? How can you get this kind of support? Are there friends or family who can help out? Is there a community resource for new parents where you can go for support?
Although crying is they primary way babies communicate, and they are not doing it to make you feel badly, it can be very difficult to take over long periods of time. When babies cry a lot, it can feel like nothing positive is happening between the two of you. Watch your baby carefully. How do you see your baby responding to you in positive ways? For example, does he follow you with his eyes, or prefer to be held by you? Does he turn toward you when he hears your voice, or calm when he sees you coming? Soon, if not already, you will even be getting some smiles!
When to Seek Help
There are times when it is important to seek out the guidance of a trusted health care provider or child development professional to be sure your child’s development is on track. You and your baby need support during what can be a difficult time. Moments in which you and/or your child might need some extra help include:
- If you do not feel bonded to your child because of her crying.
- If you worry that you may hurt or harm your child (or yourself).
- If your baby is taking in less milk or formula (his feeding patterns have changed) or has lost weight.
- If your child seems to have a strong negative response to sensory stimulation like touch, noises, lights, smells and tastes, textures, or movement in space. (He may be frequently irritable or fussy when exposed to new or strong sensory information.)
If your child’s crying began after she experienced a life change (such as a new caregiver) or following a frightening or traumatic experience.
Even if you or your child is not experiencing the kinds of challenges described above, it can be very helpful to talk to a child development professional who can provide guidance and support during this stressful period.
This resource was made possible by generous funding from the Carl and Roberta Deutsch Foundation.