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How to Soothe a Colicky Baby

By Suyin Jordan, Doula, Newborn Care

The year was 1998. The place Bristol, England.  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 practicing midwifery for 5 years.  I thought it would be easy, I thought I knew all about newborns. I was mistaken! Once we were discharged from midwifery care, I was truly at a loss!

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 that he had colic. He would scream and cry when he wasn’t carried, we could not put him down, and he would not sleep on his own.  So,  for the first 6 weeks of his life, we co-slept, or no one would get any sleep at all.

Daytimes weren’t much easier than nighttimes.  His fussiness and crying didn’t seem to have any pattern.  We had heard of babies that would cry during their “witching hour” but were otherwise happy, but that wasn’t our kiddo.  The crying was incessant, and we were quickly reaching our wits end.

We tried everything to soothe him. We sang every song, bounced on every ball, wore him, wore him while bouncing on the ball, tried Ovol…you name it, we tried it.  He was gaining weight well but he simply would not stop crying.

What is Colic?

In the past, it was thought that colic was a spasmodic gut pain – 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.

However, current research has shown that colic is not a medical condition (or an “illness”), as we don’t really know what causes it!

We do know that colic follows the “rule of threes”.  According to The American family physician a baby has colic if they:

  1. cry for more than 3 hours a day
  2. for more than 3 days a week
  3. and the crying lasts for more than 3 weeks in a well fed and otherwise healthy baby.

This fussiness and crying has no apparent cause and can be frustrating for parents – it’s human nature to search for the cause of crying so that we can soothe our babies!

There is some thought these days that colic may be due to baby’s immature nervous system and that it’s all part of normal development. All babies are a bit fussy to some extent. Thankfully, most babies’ colic resolves by 12 weeks of age.

So What Do I Do Now?

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 (though sometimes we wish they did have a volume control button!).  Don’t beat yourself up if everything you try doesn’t seem to help. We’ve all been there, wondering why rocking your baby worked yesterday, but today it’s not helping at all.

Some Helpful Tips

  • Trying to recreate a womb like atmosphere for your baby will be soothing to them.
    • Swaddling your baby firmly and safely
    • Holding your baby close to you
    • Swaying from side to side
    • Shushing near their ear
    • Sitting or bouncing on a bouncy ball while holding your baby or babywearing
    • Doing squats while holding your baby or babywearing

These methods work because babies are reminded of a time of safety and contentment when they were still in their mothers’ womb, where they were safe and had everything they needed.

  • 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 – as with breastfeeding, 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. We love the sleep belt for this.
  • 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. This one is admittedly easier said than done – talking calmly when you are agitated from all of the crying can be tough.  Don’t beat yourself up if you can’t manage this one.  We’re all doing the best we can!

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 for that particular day or phase.  .

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 your 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 or a good cry for yourself before returning to baby. Sometimes babies who have been held and jiggled and cajoled in attempts to try to soothe them get a little over stimulated, 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 shows that using these soothing measures before your baby gets 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. If you have a 3 week old fussy baby, we know that 12 weeks feels like an eternity.  But please do know that the time will pass by, and that eventually your baby will stop crying. And of course, always consult your paediatrician if you are concerned or if your baby is fussing and crying because they are truly unwell or sick.

You can do this, mama.  We’re here to help.  Please reach out to us at West End Mamas if you need any assistance at all.

Disclaimer

This blog is written by  Suyin Jordan who was a registered nurse and midwife in the UK and  now a  postpartum doula and trainer.

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.

 

 

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