Photo: Vanessa Milne
During the first few months of my son’s life, I’d get more and more frantic as the day wore on, snapping at my husband and manically thinking through the options for the evening ahead. I was desperate to avoid what I knew was coming: hours and hours of my newborn wailing.
Starting at about 5:30 p.m., my baby would start to cry and I’d start my rounds, doing laps around the house while holding him. I’d jiggle him, shush in his ear and bounce him up and down. If I did something he liked, he’d turn it down from a wail to a whine for a minute before cranking up the volume again—a sign it was time to try something else. Miss that window and he’d amp it up to a full meltdown.
Like about 20 to 25 percent of babies, my son had colic. The technical definition is “crying for three hours a day, for more than three days a week, for more than three weeks.” It usually starts when they’re two weeks old and ends when they’re three months old, and it’s just as much fun as it sounds.
A baby’s cries are designed to really bother us—blame evolution—and new moms are particularly attuned to their children’s noises. “Your baby isn’t really separate from you until he is six months old,” my mother told me before I gave birth. I soon knew what she was talking about: I fell asleep listening to the sound of his breathing and woke moments before he did, my hormones cuing me into some impossibly small sound he made before rising. Hearing my new baby scream for hours every day in that state was excruciating. Even thinking of it now makes me twitch.
It was made all the worse by the fact that I was exhausted. He woke up every hour or two to nurse and I, an insomniac by nature, was terrible at getting back to sleep and napping when he napped. We co-slept as a survival mechanism. One night, half-asleep, I tried to nurse his toes, holding him upside down, my foggy brain wondering why he was squirming so much. Another day, I stopped the car at a stop sign for a full five minutes, waiting for a non-existent light to turn green so I could go.
Weeks into newborn sleep deprivation, I was far too tired to pace my house for hours or emotionally handle my inconsolable baby. It felt like I was paying penance for some sin, like not being a good-enough mother. He was all alone somehow and suffering, and I couldn’t help him. I wondered, Was this how hard motherhood was going to be? Was I always going to be this unhappy?
He was obviously exhausted but unable to settle. At a low point, a few weeks in, I posted “This kid just won’t sleep!” on Facebook. Well-meaning friends wrote back: “Have you tried a swaddle? The swaddle was a game changer for us!”
Had I tried a swaddle? In my sensitive state, the question filled me with rage. Of course I had tried a swaddle! I spent nearly all of my downtime reading about sleep. I read six books on the subject, cover to cover, highlighter in hand—time that would have been better spent napping. I tried co-sleeping, cluster feeding and even heating the room to 25 degrees. I read about the window of tiredness—just after the first yawn!—and switched to walking him around in my pitch-black bedroom. I got a swing, which was a godsend during the day, but didn’t calm him at night. We tried white noise, which helped. I started baby-wearing him during the day, which didn’t. After reading about how babies sense your stress, I focused on projecting calm and breathing slowly. It’s an idea that now infuriates me—if you can’t find something else the mom is doing wrong, blame her aura!
Every time I tried to commiserate with other moms, I just got more and more advice. I felt like I was running a marathon, but the spectators were shouting advice at me instead of cheering me on, yelling “Have you tried new sneakers?” or “I found that squeezable water bottles were a game changer!” I didn’t need baby hacks; I needed support. I needed people to say “You made it to six weeks, so you’re halfway there!” Or, even better, “Call me if you ever need me to come over so you can take a nap!”
Because really, nothing fixed it, except what we were doing: endless walks and rocking. Eventually, when I began to accept that nothing else would work, I focused less on fixing the baby and more on making myself happier. Just before the witching hour, I’d pour myself a big glass of wine and open a bag of jujubes. I’d do a lap around the house and, when I reached the wineglass in the kitchen, reward myself with a sip. Another lap, another jujube. If I really felt like treating myself, I’d download Downton Abbey on my phone and watch it over the head of my crying baby with my headphones in. (I believe this is what’s known as “me time.”)
He cried through many visits, most memorably when a good friend kindly brought dinner to us for our first attempt at socializing. My husband and I took turns taking care of the baby in the back room as he cried while our guests politely pretended that wasn’t happening. Once, he screamed through an entire doctor’s appointment. “It doesn’t look like there’s anything wrong!” the doctor yelled over him as I burned with embarrassment. “You’re doing a good job!”
And then, all of a sudden, it got better. Around 11 weeks, just like the books said, the crying stopped. The baby still cried when something was wrong and he was still a terrible sleeper, but the hours-long, inconsolable crying jags just ended. All three of us were unbelievably relieved.
A few months later, I realized that my baby’s colic had taught me my first lesson of motherhood: Every baby is different. We seem to believe that babies are identical and that any problems with them must be due to parenting, but I think children are more preprogrammed than we’d like to admit.
We’re not the cause of all of our kids’ problems, and we can’t fix them all either. Sometimes they’ll cry and all we’ll be able to do is rub their backs and tell them we love them and that it’s going to be okay. That, and break out the wine and jujubes.
This article was originally published online in February 2017.