Never-Ending Cry: Coping with Colic

PURPLE Crying, witching hours, the 3 rule (3 hours of crying more than 3 days a week for longer than 3 weeks in an infant who is otherwise healthy and fed) – if you know what I’m talking about, you’re likely the parent of a colicky baby. 

My daughter had colic that started from around when she was three weeks told to when she was five and a half months old, and it was the hardest thing my husband and I have been through, and I have never felt so helpless as when I was trying to console my baby who just would not stop crying. 

My parents stayed with my husband and me the first week we brought our daughter home, and on the last day they were with us, my dad said “You guys will be just fine, she really is a pretty easy baby.”

Shortly after they went home, in the couple week lull before lockdown began and the world as we knew it turned upside down, my daughter began to cry inconsolably in the evenings. It was like clockwork; it would start around 5:00 pm and go until around 7:00, sometimes it would last until 9:00. We tried everything – offering bottles, bicycling her legs, giving her gas drops, checking her diaper, skin-to-skin…there were many evenings where sometimes those remedies would work, and sometimes where nothing worked. 

I remember asking at one of her well-newborn check-ups what level of fussiness was considered normal, and if we were doing something wrong that was leading her to cry every evening. It was at that appointment that we were introduced to the concept of witching hours, which happens to some newborns where they fuss and cry in the evenings, and eventually outgrow it. It wasn’t ideal, and it wasn’t fun, but we hung on to the hope that this was temporary, and at least it was only happening in the evenings. 

And then it got worse.

We went from witching hours in the evening to all-hours-of-the-day screaming. If she was awake and not eating, she was more likely than not crying inconsolably. We did figure out that she had silent reflux, where instead of ejecting her bottles she would swallow the spit-up, leading to acid scorching her throat on the way up and back down, but getting her on baby antacid didn’t stop all of the crying. 

“Did we cry like this?” my husband and I asked our parents, to be told no, neither of us or our siblings cried all the time the way she did. 

We had to be doing something wrong, then. We must be messing up somewhere for our baby to be so deeply unhappy and for her to cry and scream as much as she was.

I began searching things like “why do newborns cry so much?” and “Is my newborn’s crying normal?” while I was nap-trapped and got results back about colic and the period of PURPLE crying (PURPLE stands for Peak of crying, Unexpected, Resists soothing, Pain-like face, Long-lasting, and Evening. It’s pretty  much the newer version of what colic is, and is part of a campaign aimed at reducing shaken baby syndrome). Some websites listed suggestions that might help, like bouncing on an exercise ball or helping the baby work some gas out. We were desperate, so we tried them all.

Sometimes bouncing on the exercise ball worked.

Sometimes pacing up and down the hallway, bouncing her against my shoulder worked. 

Sometimes gas drops and bicycling her legs worked. 

Sometimes rocking her in a dark room with no sound and total removal of stimulation worked (we called this “factory resetting the baby”). 

Sometimes none of it worked.

Sometimes we just rocked and cried together as I begged and begged and begged for the crying to stop. 

Nearly every article about relieving colic ends with imploring the reader to ask for help and call in reinforcements when the crying gets to be too much and you need a break. That’s really great advice…when you’re not in lockdown due to a global pandemic involving a brand new virus. Our family members were essential workers, many of them working face-to-face with the public every day. COVID was still too new, and there was not enough information out there about how it affected infants, and the risk of exposing our newborn with a very fresh immune system was too great. I remember dissolving into tears every time I read to call for help, because it was impossible for us. The articles also all mentioned that, don’t worry, colic usually resolves on its own around 4 months! The thought of enduring months of never-ending crying seemed like hell.

We were now, for all intents and purposes, on call 24/7 and trapped in our home with an increasingly uncomfortable and inconsolable baby. And it was wrecking my already-fragile mental health and making my undiagnosed and untreated postpartum depression even worse.

I must be a terrible mom, because what kind of mother can’t even console her baby? 

Isn’t this supposed to be natural, effortless, intuitive? 

Why don’t I know what she needs?

I have never felt as helpless or as useless as when I could not stop my daughter from crying. I was overwhelmed, overstimulated, and felt like the worst mother on the planet. One evening, my husband went to take a shower, and that ended up being the longest 15 minutes of my life. The crying started shortly after my husband started his shower, so I took our daughter up to her room to try rocking in the dark. 

It was one of those times that whatever I tried didn’t work.

I kept trying to put her in her crib and walk away for a few moments to clear my head and calm down, but whenever I left the room, my anxiety kicked in and I became worried that something would happen to her even though she was in a safe place and couldn’t even roll over yet. I would rush back in, frantic, scoop her up, and become overstimulated again by her cries. We repeated this cycle until the end of my husband’s shower, when he found both of us sobbing in the rocker in the nursery. 

As the days stretched on and it seemed like the crying would never end, I began to feel resentful and jealous of my loved ones that seemed to have easier babies than mine. I know all babies are hard in their own way and there’s no such thing as an easy baby (or an easy toddler!), but it didn’t seem like they had babies that cried and screamed all the time and couldn’t be calmed down. I was jealous of babies that could just be put in a crib for nap time when my daughter had to be sleeping on me (and that continued to be the case until she was around 10 months old), or were content to hang out in a bouncer or swing. Our swing and bouncer sat empty and unused, because she only wanted to be held by me or my husband. 

On one of our first outings to visit family, she cried the whole time. My husband and I tried to feed her, change her, and rock her with our portable sound machine turned all the way up, but nothing worked. It was stressful and not fun at all, and I cried the whole way home. When we went on vacation when she was around 4 months old with my parents and siblings, she started crying at the pool and didn’t want to sit in her floaty or splash in the water. Her cries got louder and louder, and I sat on the side of the pool while my dad tried to calm her down and started silently crying. I was that mom, with a crying baby in public that just wouldn’t stop. It felt like everyone was watching us, looking for the crying baby who was disrupting a peaceful afternoon at the pool. 

Gradually, little by little, the crying started to end. Around when my daughter was four and a half months old, she stopped crying all day and returned to evening witching hours. Slowly but surely, the evening witching hours became less like clockwork, and by the time she was five and a half months old, the colic was gone completely. My husband and I are fairly convinced she just didn’t like being a baby; with every milestone she met, from rolling over to sitting up to crawling to standing to walking, she became happier. She is now an energetic, silly, independent toddler. She still has big feelings, and her tantrums are often a force to be reckoned with, but when she is happy she lights up the whole room. 

I have never lived through anything as difficult, frustrating, and honestly, traumatic as dealing with colic as a first-time parent during a pandemic lockdown. My therapist believes I have a little bit of PTSD from it, and there were times during tantrums where I would physically flinch and react, and I would feel like I was right back in that rocking chair in her nursery, begging her to stop crying. We’ve focused several sessions on EMDR treatment of her colic and, while I no longer physically react or have flashbacks to her tantrums, there are still many parts of her newborn phase that I don’t want to think about or remember. Sometimes it’s hard to relate to other parents who have never experienced colic, and when I was the only one of my friends who had a colicky baby, I felt as isolated mentally and emotionally as I was physically. four

I felt like an outsider because I didn’t enjoy the newborn stage. This wasn’t a time filled with squishy snuggles and gassy smiles for us, it was full of screams and tears and exhaustion and self-doubt. I adore being my daughter’s mom now, and I wouldn’t trade her for anything, but colic made me feel like an utter failure and that I had made a huge mistake, and I’m positive it affected the severity of my postpartum depression symptoms and the specific thoughts I was having. 

Colic during isolation and lockdown could have easily destroyed my marriage, but my husband and I rode it out together and our relationship is stronger for it. We have an incredible bond with our daughter. Colic could have broken us, but we came out stronger on the other side. Treatment for my postpartum depression and time made it better. 

If you’re living through colic hell right now, I want you to know: it does get better. It feels never-ending, and the thought of having to live with nonstop crying for months feels impossible, but you will make it through, and that first real smile from your baby or their deep belly laugh or their toddler shriek of excitement will help dull the colic experience. I also want you to know that it is not your fault. You are not doing anything wrong and there is nothing you did that caused your baby’s colic. You are a great parent, and you’re doing an amazing job in a really, really hard situation. Your feelings are real, and they are valid. You will make it through this.

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