Feature Archive

Quieting Colic

Colic Cures

By Richard Trubo
WebMD Feature

Reviewed By Cynthia Haines

For many parents, living with a colicky baby can just about bring them to tears. Yes, all babies cry, but when a new mom is anticipating peaceful cooing and babbling from her baby, and instead is jolted by hours of shrieking and screaming, it can turn her excitement over her newborn into feelings that she's going mad. Add to that the well-intentioned but insensitive comments from friends and doctors that "it's only colic!" and it can push many parents right over the edge.

But Harvey Karp, MD, a pediatrician at the UCLA School of Medicine, is convinced that he can deliver parents from the curse of colic. Although some of his recommendations -- from swaddling to using a "white-noise machine" -- aren't new, his own research shows that if five specific techniques are packaged and used together, you can put an end to a baby's sob story faster than you can say "hush!"

The classic definition of a colicky baby is one who meets the "rule of threes": He or she cries three hours a day, three days a week, for three weeks in a row. About 20% of babies fit this profile of inconsolable crying and wailing, usually sometime between ages 2 weeks and 3-4months.

There are plenty of theories on the cause of colic, but no definitive agreement on what's behind those screaming baby blues. Over the years, pediatricians have blamed them on everything from an immature nervous system or feeding/digestive difficulties, to temperament or poor sleeping habits.

"The most common feeding problem associated with colic is gastroesophageal reflux, which occurs when some of the stomach's contents leak up into the esophagus," says Barry Lester, PhD, director of the Colic Clinic at Women & Infants' Hospital in Providence, R.I. These acidic juices, he says, can be irritating and painful, leaving your baby in tears.

But Karp, author of The Happiest Baby on the Block, has one of the most provocative theories on colic's cause: He believes that "babies are born three months too soon," and after nine months of pregnancy, their bodies just aren't quite ready to leave the womb and face the real world. They could benefit, he says, from a "fourth trimester" before making that journey through the birth canal. This would allow them to mature for a few more weeks and equip them to cope better with even small amounts of overstimulation that can trigger bawling.

Karp's constellation of colic-quieting strategies sets off the baby's "calming reflex" or shut-off switch, he says, which can stop the crying in its tracks by recreating the comforting sounds and sensations of life in the uterus.

Karp says it's a crying shame that more parents aren't using what he labels the "5 S's" to extinguish their baby's shrieking. "Depending on how colicky or difficult a baby is, you may need to use all five," he says, noting that layering one on top of another can soothe even the loudest little tear-jerker.

  • Swaddling. Wrap your baby tightly in a receiving blanket to duplicate the feelings of warmth and protection, and the "tight fit," in the womb. Swaddling also stops your baby's uncontrolled arm and leg flailing that can contribute to hysterical wailing. Karp says your baby will be calmer if she's swaddled 12-20 hours a day in the beginning. "Twelve hours may seem like a lot from our point of view, but to the newborn, it's already a 50% cutback on the 24-hour-a-day 'snuggling' in the uterus," he explains.
  • Side/stomach soothing. Lay your baby on her side or stomach, which Karp believes shuts down the baby's "Moro reflex," or a sensation of falling, and thus helps keep her calm. (He adds, however, that a baby should never be put to sleep on her stomach, since this may increase the risk of SIDS, or sudden infant death syndrome).
  • Shhhing sounds. There is a whooshing noise within the womb, caused by blood flowing through the mother's arteries. You can recreate this sound with a "white-noise" machine, a tape or CD with these "white-noise" sounds, a dishwasher, a car ride, or a hair dryer.
  • Swinging. Rhythmic movements in an infant swing, hammock, moving automobile, or baby carrier can keep your baby content.
  • Sucking. Occupy your baby with a pacifier, infant bottle -- or a mother's nipple (which Karp describes as "the all-time, No. 1 sucking toy in the world").