When a newborn enters the world, that first shrill cry is a welcomed sound by parents. But after weeks or even months of excessive crying, parents can wear thin of that ear-piercing, heart-wrenching noise.
While all infants cry more during the first three months of life than at any other time, sometimes the crying reaches excessive levels. What exactly is considered excessive? Consider the rule of threes: if your healthy baby cries for three or more hours consecutively three or more days of the week, he or she may very well have colic.
While there isn’t a standard definition for colic, it is a medical condition. Your child’s pediatrician will first rule out other potential causes of your baby’s crying. I remember seeing a baby whose parents brought him to the doctor due to excessive crying, and as it turns out, the Emergency Department doctor noticed that the little guy had a hair wrapped tightly around his toe that was hurting him. Once the hair was removed, the crying stopped. Problem solved!
If other causes are ruled out, your pediatrician may offer the diagnosis of colic. The exact cause of colic remains a mystery, though it is most commonly attributed to gastrointestinal issues, such as feeding problems such as underfeeding, overfeeding or inadequate burping, or causes such as lactose intolerance. Other contributing factors could be the baby’s hypersensitivity to stimuli, or even transmission of stress or tension from the mother to the infant.
Though the exact cause of colic is unknown, there are some methods parents can try to help alleviate the crying. Proper swaddling can work wonders; in fact, our anesthesiologists here at Arkansas Children’s Hospital swear by swaddling for calming and soothing infants post-surgery.
Ambient sound can also help put your baby at ease. When my first son would cry with colic, playing ZZ Top (on a cassette player, mind you) would instantly quiet his crying. While ZZ Top may not meet your baby’s criteria for soothing sounds, music, or even the hum of a vacuum cleaner, can help to provide comfort.
Vibration is another tool parents can try. Securing baby in his or her car seat and going for a car ride could be just the ticket to calm the crying. Vibrating bouncy seats are also a great way to integrate vibration into your baby’s soothing regime.
Sometimes these solutions can help, but sometimes it just takes time for your baby to adjust to life outside of the womb. Remember the rule of threes? Add one more three to the list: typically, colic subsides within three months, so take heart that the crying won’t last forever.
In the meantime, it’s important to note that parental stress can often play a significant role in the temperament of babies. If you find yourself becoming frustrated or feel you’re at your wits end, it is perfectly acceptable to ensure that your baby is in a safe and secure location and to step away from the crying for a few minutes to regroup. And don’t be afraid to ask for support from family and friends; let someone know if you need a break to get your bearings straight.
And as always, if you feel that you may be suffering from postpartum depression, please seek help from your physician as soon as you can. It is so important to take care of yourself so that you can adequately take care of your baby.
If your little one fits the colic criteria, a visit to your pediatrician is in order. If your doctor determines that your baby does have colic, take heart; this too shall pass.
Sam Smith, MD, is surgeon in chief at Arkansas Children’s Hospital and a professor of Surgery at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences. He writes a column each week covering a variety of kids’ medical concerns. If you have a topic you’d like him to consider addressing, email