The Best Thing for a Baby's Colic: Treating the Parent's Nerves

Today we have a guest post from colleague Tony Dokoupil.

We had known each other just a few weeks when the fights began. They were ugly affairs, full of kicks and screams that raged all day and night. Hours turned into days, then weeks, then months – and still the drama continued. "Things will get better," people said. But that was hard to believe right there in the center ring. We needed help. And that's when the real confusion set in.

Nearly one in five babies – like my own – display the prolonged shrieks that characterize colic. But nobody knows what causes it – one leading medical dictionary defines it as "benign pain," a devious concept – and researchers shrug off as a natural stage of development shared by baby chimps, gulls and even beetle larvae. None of which offers much succor for newly-minted, sleep-deprived parents. "I distinctly remember standing on a balcony with Quinn squawking in my arms and wondering what I would do if it wasn't against the law to hurl her off it," author Michael Lewis writes in Home Game, his recent collection of essays on fatherhood.

But more than 500 years since The Boke of Chyldren first referred to "colicke" as a "rumbling in the gut," medicine appears no closer to understanding the ailment. Anxious mothers, birth order, nerves, allergies, gas bubbles and gastrointestinal problems have all been blamed – then vindicated. Doctors haven't been much more successful with cures, including seltzer water, enemas, oil massages, Mylicon drops, cowry shell bracelets, Baby Einstein videos, Gripe Water, acupuncture and even a crib-rocking machine that mimics the feeling of highway driving (wind sounds included). In my house, we ran through soothing music CDs, a "super swaddle" blanket, two kinds of formula, three different bottle brands, rice milk, acid reflux medication and an insane amount of burping. We also followed links to the cutting edge of colic treatment: Chamomile tea, chiropractic work (for the baby!) and immersion in a "womb-shaped" plastic bucket dubbed the Tummy Tub.

Clearly, American medicine can do better.

But first it needs to rethink its approach. Doctors, friends, relatives and even strangers bombard parents with tips and advice – earlier this week, a call for colic help on Motherlode returned almost 75 comments – but none of it does any proven good. Meanwhile, the guilty, exhausted, angry, confused, depressed parents are mostly ignored, even though they would probably benefit from some intervention. Which is why it may be time to forget the kids – and start treating the parents instead.

True, good pediatricians already look for signs of distress among new moms and dads. But the remedies – watery bromides ("it won't last for ever"), bad jokes ("you'll know its colic when you're ready to get a separate apartment"), and asinine suggestions like "go for a walk when it all gets too much" – are paltry compared with the surfeit of options that exist for treating Junior.

More than just a different way to look at an old problem, a parent-centered approach may help stem the higher rates of drinking and depression that studies have found in parents of colicky infants. My wife and I probably would have imbibed a bit ourselves, if all our money and energy were not spent on snake oil cures. We felt like basket cases by the end – and we were handling it comparatively well. Researchers believe as much as 10 percent of SIDS deaths are actually infanticides in disguise.

A parent-focused approach might also make sense in the context of healthcare reform. A third of healthcare spending is wasted, but it's usually hard for policy makers to figure out which treatments can be cut. In the case of colic, the calculation is easy: all of it can go. An apparently benign condition – at least where the baby is concerned – it generates millions of visits to the doctor's office each year, where much of the advice doled out is based on little more than medical lore. That includes the automatic recommendation to manage your baby's colic with serious burping techniques – all of which is quackery, according to Dr. David L. Hill, Fellow of the American Academy of Pediatrics, because the major medical journals have published "no studies at all" on the subject.

Of course, parents themselves are partly to blame for the dominance of baby-centric medicine. It's hard to ignore one's crying child, especially when parenting gurus like Dr. Bill Sears urge moms and dads to "never accept" a diagnosis of colic. But parents need to become their own caretakers – learning to accept that they can't do everything, and neither can medicine. Colic may never have a cure – other than baby growing up – but that's no reason for mommy and daddy to resign themselves to suffering in the meantime.

Since not everyone is bestowed with a Gerber baby, send in your solutions to managing the stress of being a parent of an infant with colic.


Note: Some have asked for sources on Tony's cite on SIDS/infantcide. Per TD: "The 10 percent figure dates to a pair of late 1990s studies in the journal Pediatrics, and a book called The Death of Innocents:

The Death of Innocents suggests that many babies diagnosed with SIDS did not necessarily die on their own, but were actually killed by their parent or caregiver. The book is based partly on two studies, one by Thomas Truman, M.D., of Tallahassee Memorial Hospital, and another by David Southall, M.D., of City General Hospital in Stoke-on-Trent, England. Together they conclude that up to 10 percent of SIDS deaths are actually infanticides, rather than the 2 to 5 percent previously believed to be the case."