I want to pick out one parenting issue that, in extreme cases, can have serious consequences: colic. The current ‘rule’ for colic crying is: three hours a day for three days a week. Between 20 and 25 percent of babies will experience this, which means if you have a baby, you are very likely to experience it yourself.

The reason I want to talk to parents about colic is because serious consequences do not arise from the condition itself, but from what happens when a few parents are so ground down by it that they lose control. In extreme cases parents end up shaking their baby, causing permanent damage or even death. Even if you are sure that would not happen to you, you still need to know the truth about colic in order to lighten your emotional burden during this trying time.

Trust your instincts

Understanding the myths and the truths about the condition will help you behave in a calm way when your baby cries, even if you are feeling distressed. The stress caused by the bombardment of conflicting claims and advice – or as I call it, ‘bombardment stress’ (BS) – is becoming an increasingly emotional health issue.

First, what research shows is that under normal circumstances, ordinary crying – including colic – has no short-term or long-term ill-effects. Much has been claimed about the link between crying and cortisol production, and then the link between cortisol production and later negative behaviour in children.

However, what the studies really say is that with normal crying, including colic, you do not need to worry about that outcome. This is not the same as saying your crying baby does not need you for comfort. Trust your instincts. We know that babies respond to soothing and babies need to be with an adult when they are crying for any length of time – especially in the first months of life.

No-one knows what causes colic, or what babies are feeling as they pull up their legs in what appears to be extreme pain. The dominant thought today is that the nervous system of new-born babies is incomplete, and once they start crying, their ability to shut it off is limited. That is amongst the reasons the first three to four months of life are often referred to as the ‘fourth trimester’.

Techniques we use to settle babies who do not have colic (such as feeding, nappy-changing, rocking, white noise and comforting) often have little impact on settling babies during bouts of colic; however, as a second point, research shows they have some effect. Each baby is unique, and you might get lucky and find something that helps. So, it is worth experimenting, while also knowing that your baby might remain inconsolable, no matter what you try.

The most important part of being with a colicky baby is to manage your expectations. Because of the growing awareness of damage caused by parents who have crossed the line, increasingly the emphasis is shifting from strategies to stop bouts of crying to strategies that help parents cope with inconsolable crying.

Bogus promises

High on professionals’ list of concerns are promises held out to parents about ways to ‘cure’ colic, promises which are largely bogus. The fear is that when these strategies fail to work, the additional frustration could push more parents over the edge. One example is the claim that carrying a baby in a sling, as some traditional tribes do, will eliminate crying.

Actual research with tape recorders has demonstrated that babies in all cultures cry in much the same way – regardless of babywearing. One study in Botswana where babies remain in constant physical contact with mothers showed the same colic pattern as in the west. This study showed that colic happens everywhere on earth and follows the same pattern in terms of time of onset and duration.

A later 1994 study showed babies in Manali (who were also constantly carried) not only cried more than London babies (who were not), but also cried six times more than the mothers had claimed! That is not to say that you should not use a sling with a colicky baby,
if that is an easier way for you to provide comfort or if it simply feels right to you. But what it does mean is that you should not expect that practice to reduce crying.

There are also a number of popular books that claim one magical sequence of manoeuvres or the other will flick off the colic switch and stop the bout of crying. If it doesn’t work, it is because you aren’t doing it right. Blame is placed on the parent.

In actual fact there is no research to support any of the claims made in these books, and again the risk is that a sense of failure will only add to the frustration of parents. My personal feeling is that there may be some babies who might benefit a little from what is, after all, a sequence of calming activities. There is no reason not to try them if you manage your expectations.

If you feel overwhelmed by your colicky baby, remember these things: it is not your fault; you have every right to call in the troops to help you; it will come to an end; normal crying will not damage your baby; inconsolable crying is normal; your job is to be with them in a calm way. If you have the urge to be rough with your baby, walk away. Your baby will survive a bout of crying but may not survive being shaken.

Smart Mothering by Dr Natalie Flynn, RRP$39.99, published by Allen & Unwin, is out now.

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