How to Soothe your Colicky Baby?

Posted by Clarissa Primavesi on

Here we are. At the blog post I didn’t want to write! About 15% of babies go through colic, and Charlie was one of them. If you are suffering through a baby with colic, you are not alone and this bog post is for you! 

Crying Baby

Colic is defined as: When a healthy baby cries or fusses for prolonged periods of time (more than 3 hours per day). Colic is generally at its worst between 4-6 weeks of age. For most babies, colic can last up to three months, but in some cases up to 9 months of age. Now, for those who are haven’t lived with a colicky baby, might think “well, that doesn’t sound too bad, my baby cried too so it’s just a bit longer?”. But, the sound of a crying baby is known to have strange effects on adults: “The sound of a baby cry captures your attention in a way that few other sounds in the environment generally do," said Katie Young of the University of Oxford, who led a study looking at how the brain processes a baby's cries.

She scanned the brains of 28 people while they listened to the sound of babies and adults crying and sounds of animal distress including cats meowing and dogs whining.

Using a very fast scanning technique, called magnetoencephalography, Young found an early burst of activity in the brain in response to the sound of a baby cry, followed by an intense reaction after about 100 milliseconds. The reaction to other sounds was not as intense. "This was primarily in two regions of the brain," said Young. "One is the middle temporal gyrus, an area previously implicated in emotional processing and speech; the other area is the orbitofrontal cortex, an area well-known for its role in reward and emotion processing."

It’s exhausting, draining and as well as that you are constantly questioning yourself as a parent. “Why is my baby crying? Why can’t I soothe them? I should be able to comfort them!” I truly believed as Charlie’s mum, the woman who grew him inside her body and birthed him, I should totally understand him and be the one person who could take his discomfort away. But I couldn’t. For hours, every day he would scream and there was nothing I could do. I was also still recovering physically from birth and emotionally from the baby blues, my husband had just retuned to work after a lovely six weeks paternity leave (which coincided with the start of the colic) so he had his own struggles. I would have a relaxed and fun day with Charlie, and my husband would get home from work just as the colic routine would start. I was also at the end of my energy levels having spent all day caring for a newborn and I would need to shower etc. It was hard for him too to come from a fairly relaxed paternity leave to literally only spending time with Charlie when he was red and screaming and angry.

Ultimately, the only real “cure” for colic is time. There are some excellent methods for helping to soothe a colicky baby (which I will list below) but they are temporary solutions that eventually you won’t utilise anymore as they have grown beyond this need. Like many many things in parenting, a good mantra to repeat is:  “This too, shall pass”! For us, it was round about the 4 month mark we saw a real improvement in Charlie. It started slowly getting better in January (when he was 3 months old) but by February it really felt we were doing more than just keeping our noses above the water. He was going to bed before us and settling happily, so we had an adult evening back where we could eat dinner together and have a conversation (nervously, with the monitor on in the background! But he very rarely woke up at this time). It was quite mind-blowing at first! We had forgotten what this felt like and we loved it! Of course at this age he still woke up in the night for a feed, but when I knew he was sleeping well and feeling well, I started to enjoy our little 3am snuggles again. Now, many many months later, the colicky nightmare is a distant memory (although not for my husband who loves to remind me of the stress we were both under at this time).

As promised, here are the recommendations I found worked best for Colic. I will say every baby is different, but this is what worked for us. Also, if you have any concerns regarding other symptoms for the constant crying, please do see your baby’s paediatrician or your GP for further advice. It could be something like silent reflux which can be helped with medication.

The 5 S’s (as coined by Doctor Harvey Karp):

1. Swaddle - The aim of all the 5 s’s is to imitate the womb.

Swaddled Baby

Much research has been done to show that human babies are born “too early”. Due to their size, they physically have to be born at around 40 weeks gestation, but developmentally, they should still be in the womb. If you have ever heard the phrase “the 4th trimester” this is what it refers to. The 4th trimester is all about trying to recreate the safe womb feeling on the outside! Swaddling achieves this by keeping the baby super snug and packaged tightly. It also helps prevent the moro reflex which can startle them awake once they are finally asleep and settled.

2. Side/Stomach - We know the only safe position for a sleeping baby is on their backs, but it’s the worst position for calming a fussy baby. Whilst they are swaddled and being calmed for sleep, hold your baby on her side in your arms or over your shoulder so they are on their stomach.  I would transfer Charlie (once asleep) into his moses basket still on his side and use my hand to continue a little pressure on his shoulder. Only once he was deeply asleep would I gently roll him onto his back and leave the room with the monitor on.

3. Shush - The womb is LOUD! People think new babies need silence to settle but actually the opposite is true. They are used to a super loud environment, where they could hear your blood flowing, your heart beating, every intake of breath, your voice. Your blood flow itself is louder than a vacuum cleaner for your unborn baby! We used an app that had loads of different “white noises” but Charlie’s favourite was actually the sound of someone shushing. My friend in the UK who had her son the same week as me, found the sound of rain falling worked best for her so it’s something I recommend taking some time and seeing what works for your baby. There are plenty of apps you can download for your phone, or music you can stream for this.

4. Swing - Just like the womb is not quiet, it is also very rarely a still place for them to be (apart from when you are sleeping, but I seem to remember that was when Charlie would come awake and start kicking/partying so I wasn’t getting much sleep anyway!). Babies love being in motion. Many parents report that taking their newborns for a drive in the car is the only way to soothe them and it makes sense. Plenty of white noise, confined carseat and swaying and bouncing from the road surface. If you are too tired to always be driving your baby (and we sure were) then have a go at giving them a gentle swing (whilst swaddled, on their side and listening to the white noise!). It became so necessary for us to be gently moving Charlie, we brought out my birthing ball and sat on that for the evening (if I wasn’t nursing him!). He would be peaceful IF we were holding him securely whilst bouncing on that ball. It’s back in our basement now for when I do the odd pilates work out and it still gives me flashbacks to the 4th trimester!

5. Finally we have Suck - This was the icing on the cake for Charlie.

Sleeping baby with dummy

I resisted using a dummy/pacifier for so long. It just isn’t really seen as a solution in the UK (in my circles anyway) and I didn’t have good feelings about it. I also knew it could potentially confuse him when it came to breastfeeding. But I had very little to worry about. Charlie is a sucker!! He was about 4 weeks old when I bought him his first dummy/pacifier and he LOVED it. The effect it had on being able to soothe him and for him to comfortably get off to sleep was huge.

These 5 S’s combined saw us through an extremely tough time in parenting. As I have mentioned, it didn’t “cure” his colic, but it helped us stay sane during those times. As his colic improved, I noticed we had to resort to this less and less. But also, Charlie is a lover of routine and habit, so there were a few things we kept in place. Mainly the Shush, Side and Suck. He came out of the swaddle at about 5 months once he could roll. But for every nap I would put the white noise app on, give him his dummy and hold him on his side in my arms and wait till he was asleep then transfer him to his cot. At bedtime, once he was in pyjamas and his sleeping sack, I would nurse him to sleep. We have adapted and amended his routine as he grows, slowly not needing these sleep aids anymore, and every time he grows out of the need of one, I feel both sad for the baby I’m missing and excited for the boy he is becoming.

I would love to hear from you, do you (or did you) have a colicky baby? Did you know about these 5 Ss? And did they work for you?

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