Four years on, I find it impossible to describe what colic is like. I could say it’s like being water-boarded, or listening to nails on a chalkboard. I could say it’s like any number of things people use to describe something unbearable. Except it isn’t really like that. It isn’t really like anything except what it is. It’s a thing that’s impossible to recall with anything like the discomfort one experiences when it’s happening.
What is colic?
They call it colic, and it has time spans and frequencies associated with its medical definition, but all you really need to know is that it’s your baby crying for hours at a time, many days in a row. What exists in the moment is the crying, which leads to the imperative to stop the crying and solve the problem that created the crying—except there may not be a problem, there may only be the crying.
Which is a problem.
Read more: How to help a baby with colic>
We had a seemingly happy baby, a perfect little boy, and then the crying came on. I can remember the moment I realized something was up: It was 2 or 3 a.m., and I was in the nursery, doing this trick I’d come up with to calm him, where I paced back and forth and rocked him in a slowed-down version of a football running back carrying the pigskin, one end of the room to the other, back and forth, back and forth. Before, it had seemed to soothe him. Now, nothing soothed him. We checked the diapers. We cuddled and cooed. We tried the breast and got out the thermometer. Then, after some hours, inevitably more than we expected or found tolerable, he’d fall asleep.
Is this OK? Is this normal?
The keening in his crying: The poor kid! He was in such obvious distress. Do something! Somebody, do something! The urgency I felt…I wanted to sprint, speed, hop in the car to zoom to the pharmacy to find just the right medicine to cure the problem. Elixir, tonic, poultice, philter: What it was called I didn’t care. I just wanted to help my boy.
Christ, it had to be something serious. Didn’t it? What else would trigger this sort of crying? The noise he made included a falsetto trilling that did something to me. It seemed to reach into my skull through my mouth, to grasp my brain stem, to shake the inner core of my being. It was the strangest sensation: His crying was actually rattling my brain. I looked down at him and he was apoplectic. I’ve never seen any human being look that angry. Is this OK? I thought. Is this normal?
It's just colic: Theories, studies, hypotheses
So began the web searches, where I first encountered the word “colic” and its associated statistics: how it happens to about one in five babies—most often in the evenings and in babies aged three weeks to three months. It happens more in countries that are developed than those that are developing. No one really knows why.
Read more: Is it colic?>
In the rare moments that we could afford some reflection, my wife and I talked. We discussed the theory that colic is caused by lactose intolerance; the hypothesis that it’s acid reflux; the possibility it might be a dairy allergy in my wife; the probability it had something to do with my postpartum depression (although I didn’t feel like I had postpartum depression). We made an appointment with a paediatrician, and the days between the appointment’s creation and our visit had some relief to them. Well, I thought, at least we’re doing something about it. Maybe the doctor will be able to figure something out.
That hope continued while the doctor looked over our son. This was something of an audition, wasn’t it? And the kid failed. He stayed calm. Clearly, there was something wrong with our poor little boy, except he provided the doctor with no indication of his startling levels of discomfort. He didn’t have a fever or any other sign of illness. The doctor said it was probably just colic.
“Just colic.” Ha! The doctor’s casual dismissal so contrasted with our urgency. Oh, colic. Great. “So how do you cure it?” I asked, hoping the doctor’s answer might differ from what the Internet had already told us. Oh, the frustration I felt when the doctor said a cure might not exist. We’d just have to get through it, he said.
How colic affects parents
Parents going through this now have my sympathies: Nobody talks about their plight. Which seems appropriate, given the baby’s evident distress. But as time passes, as consecutive evenings of crying turn to weeks, even months—in those cases, the plight of the parents also deserves recognition. Colic’s making them suffer too. What’s important to recognize is that it’s frustrating. The baby deploys this tool of weaponized sound. Listening to the crying for minutes, for hours, for evenings: The effects are so out of scale with the cause! He’s a little six-kilo critter and the noise he’s making is driving me insane!
Read more: How does infant crying affect our brain?>
Colic is murder on a relationship. A particular irony, that. We needed each other right at that moment, my wife and I. In retrospect, I wish I’d had more patience. I would come home from work and my wife was wrung out from listening to it, for hours, and she needed hugs and back rubs and words of encouragement. Support! Instead, we fought. We fought because something horrible was happening to our son and we lacked the power to stop it. We fought because we were frustrated and exhausted. We fought because we were frightened.
Sometimes, I just walked away. I’d set him down in the crib and go downstairs. That went against my every instinct as a parent. It was a terrible thing to do. Except if I didn’t leave the boy in his crib? I would have done something worse.
What’s so cruel about colic is that it’s part of the first impression, and from that first impression we’re tempted to infer that the rest of it is this hard—that this is how difficult it is to be a parent. But in this rare case, the first impression is wrong.
What’s important to recognize is that it goes away. The unexplainable, unceasing crying — it stops. It’s hell, and then it’s over. One night in January, when our son was four months old, he fell asleep and my wife and I got to talking and realized he hadn’t cried. Not tonight, nor the night before. A week went by, then two. It was a month before we really believed things had changed. Just like that, it was over. That would have been great to hear when we were in the middle of it—the fact that colic is temporary.
Looking back now, those three months seem inconsequential—a blip, a hiccup. Our once miserable baby has turned into an all-star who digs soccer, who is bizarrely skilled at Mario Kart, who, in other words, exhibits no symptoms from that still puzzling time.
In retrospect, we were lucky; the crying could have indicated something really serious, something permanent. We never did figure out what caused it. Colic drove a wedge between us, as a couple, but we made it through. And once we did, those three months became one more thing that bound us together.
People tend to like stories that feature a climax at the end. In Hollywood movies, crime shows on TV, pulp thrillers—the point where things seem really impossible is right at the end and then, out of nowhere, the problem gets solved. If your child has colic, the point at which things seem impossible, the climax—that comes at the beginning. The climax is colic; it’s temporary and, once you’re through, what’s important to realize is that it gets better from here.
Christopher Shulgan writes a parenting column for The Grid, a Toronto weekly. His latest book is Superdad: A Memoir of Rebellion, Drugs and Fatherhood.
Read more: Medical cures for colic?>
Keep up with your baby's development, get the latest parenting content and receive special offers from our partners