The first time a baby doesn't stop crying, he really needs to be evaluated by a physician to make sure there is nothing else going on," states Dr. Bennett Kaye, MD, a pediatrician at Children's Memorial Hospital in Chicago.
Yet what if the physician finds no specific cause for your infant's wailing? In cases when no underlying cause can be found, the generic term "colic" is often given as an explanation for constant crying exhibited by some babies. Why? Well, even specialists aren't entirely sure what colic really is. The term "colic" comes from the Greek kolikos, meaning "suffering in the colon." An infant is generally considered colicky if he or she is younger than three months and cries for at least three hours daily for more than three weeks. However Dr. William Sears, MD, author of The Fussy Baby Book prefers to use the term "the hurting baby" instead of colicky. He believes that this term is not only more accurate, but helps motivate parents to seek solutions to their infant's cries.
Dr. Barbara Prudhomme White, PhD, of the University of New Hampshire researched the cortisol levels (stress hormones) of colicky and non-colicky infants. She and Dr. Ronald Barr, MD, a McGill University pediatrician, studied 40 two-month-old infants. They found that colicky babies are no more stressed physiologically than their non-colicky peers, dispelling the notion that colicky infants are in some kind of physical pain. "They're not showing internal responses that you usually see in humans in pain," says Dr. White. So if they're not in pain, what accounts for the excessive crying?"This study suggests that, at least for the first few months of life, crying might not always indicate distress or pain," explains Dr. White. "It may merely be a signal to communicate needs to caregivers."
Dr. Barr points out that what makes colicky babies different is that they're just more difficult to soothe. "My argument is that all the features we associate with colic are completely normal behaviors for some infants," says Dr. Barr. Normal for some babies. Trouble for some parents.
The Five S's
Just as there are a variety of reasons for why babies cry, there is no shortage of suggested solutions. Dr. Harvey Karp, MD, author of The Happiest Baby on the Block, has been helping parents with his expert advice. He recommends the five S's as techniques that help infants to maximize their own calming reflexes.
- Swaddling: Tight swaddling provides a sense of security, similar to what is felt in the womb.
- Side/stomach position: Dr. Karp recommends the back position for sleep but suggests that babies be placed on their sides or stomachs when awake and supervised.
- Shushing sounds: Sounds that mimic the whooshing sounds of the womb have a calming effect on baby.
- Swinging: Rocking, car rides, and other gentle swinging movements all can help.
- Sucking: Provide your baby with a pacifier, a finger, or your breast. "Sucking has its effects deep within the nervous system," notes Dr. Karp, "and triggers the calming reflex and releases natural chemicals within the brain."
Dr. Karp, a pediatrician for 25 years, refers to a baby's first three months as "the fourth trimester." He suggests that parents need to ease babies into this world by mimicking the conditions and sensations of the womb whenever possible.
"It's no coincidence that in cultures like Bali, where colic is virtually non-existent, parents give babies much more of a fourth trimester experience than we do," he says.