Colic: New Science, Old Nonsense

When the latest New Yorker arrived, I showed baby the cartoons and noticed an article on colic. I could hardly wait until baby’s nap to check it out, hoping to see some exciting new information about how parents can ease babies’ transitions and help themselves cope better with challenges.

The article is not available in its entirety online, yet, but here’s an abstract of The Colic Conundrum. I’ll save you the cover price: the main researcher with whom the author spoke advocates letting the baby cry, alone.

I’m not going to dispute the research itself. I’m no scientist and it actually seems more or less sound. However the conclusions drawn and the actions advocated just do not logically follow.

Researchers found that even in traditional societies, where crying is seen 50% less than with Western babies, colic is still found.

Barry Lester, the researcher, has found that many colicky children (about 75% in a limited study) end up having behavioral problems. He speculates that these children are overly sensitive.

He then goes on to argue that part of the problem is that while colic may not cause irreparable harm to the child, it can harm the family relationship, leading to problems down the road.

He goes on to say, “…the child doesn’t learn behavioral regulation and develops problems with impulse control…It starts out with crying, and then, when the child is older, he doesn’t control his emotions very well.”

So, his advice in all of this? Let the baby “learn” to “self-soothe” by leaving him to cry for five to ten minutes.

Like a colicky baby will stop after five to ten minutes? Haven’t we been here before? Didn’t Ferber even admit he had gone too far in his recommendations?

Now, one good thing the article examines is that crying can stress out the family, particularly the primary care giving parent, noting that many “shaken babies” were crying. This is pretty obvious stuff. Even Dr. Sears advises that it is better when overwhelmed to put the baby down for a few minutes in a safe place, rather than to act rashly (a fact not mentioned in this article that seems to almost sneer at him and the idea of attachment parenting in general).

However, allowing a baby to cry regularly, without comfort, as a matter of policy, is absurd.

Let’s start with the whole concept of colic.

Colic is pediatricianese for “I don’t know what’s wrong and I can’t help you.” Colic isn’t a diagnosis. It is a description of a symptom. Colic is defined by a rule of three. More than three hours, more than three days a week, for more than three weeks. Then it is called colic, but no cause is known and no advice is given. Imagine if a doctor diagnosed adult ailments that way! He’d be laughed off as a quack.

A doctor is supposed to help track down the cause of the problem and offer possible ways to solve the problem or alleviate the suffering if possible. Not offer meaningless words and send you on your way.

Now lets move onto the !Kung observation

The !Kung study is cited to show 50% less crying. Even if colic still exists in these societies, that still means that most babies would cry less if raised like !Kung babies: carried close to the body and nursed on demand.

So, right there, that should show that, while Lester is right in putting down expensive gadgets, it actually does make sense to try that sling and some attachment parenting before moving on.

My darling baby was colicky. Although I had planned to practice attachment parenting, anyway, I discovered I did not have a choice. Due to her heart condition, I had to keep her calm.

I am not saying it is easy to soothe a baby who is sensitive to the stimulation of her new world–but with this life and death motivation, I managed to do it.

Add that to the fact that SOME cases MAY have medical roots, such as reflux, and you can probably bring relief to a few more families.

We got most of the way there with swaddling and nursing and shushing and lots of babywearing…and then I got someone to believe me about the reflux. Once she was on Zantac, nursing became a huge comfort to her again and we did great.

I am still angry, though, when I think of that doctor who would repeat nothing but, “She has colic, there’s nothing you can do.” Her confidence in her “diagnosis” meant that it was another month before I was able to relive more of my baby’s discomfort and my stress.

So now we’re left with a handful of genuine “colic” cases…what to do?

I would guess one could still reduce the stress on colic babies, and therefore on their parents, with some attachment parenting measures. However, some babies will still be criers, despite the most attentive parents and most diligent doctors.

Lester’s idea is that leaving the baby to cry teaches him the skill of self-soothing. I suppose when his sixteen year old wants to learn to drive he’ll just hand over the keys and say have at it? Since when does a total beginner, let alone a four week old baby, learn to do something without any help?

“Lester concedes that most people who suffered from colic as infants and from temper tantrums as toddlers do not exhibit behavioral problems as adults, regardless of how their parents responded to their cries.”

He also says, “Because colic is ‘the first bump in the road for many parents, it will influence how you deal with the second, the third, and so on…”

True…so which “template” would you rather use? You have a problem, kid, so you’re on your own? Or, here, let’s solve this together?

Attachment isn’t doing things for your child, it is showing your baby how to calm himself–all the while reassuring him that this is what learning will be. Baby and parents working together through things.

So, you, like hate this guy, right?

Well, not exactly.

While I am concerned that he is sending the wrong message to an audience that is way too broad, I do think he has good intentions.

The article notes that some doctors used to suggest that “nervous” mothers caused colic in their babies. (When the aforementioned doctor suggested this to me and I almost clocked her.)

Recent studies have shown this is not the case. However, colic can worsen depression and anxiety in the mother.

Lester is trying to find ways to minimize colic’s impact on the family.

So, what’s the answer?

I think that better suggestions may be found, within the article itself. You just have to look in the right place:

Lester, observing a rare crying baby in a traditional non-Western village. This was unusual, he explains, and so, he describes: “Everyone in the village would stop what they were doing to see what was wrong.”

I think a huge part of the issue is that we have moved so far from our support systems and isolated ourselves to the extent that the only help a parent usually has is the help that parent can afford. And if you can’t afford any help, you are often out of luck.

Most babies, even those who do not cry very much, will have the peak of their crying around the same time. Most will also see a reduction of crying around the same time.

So, given that even easy babies have some difficulty in their new environment, it makes sense to do the free and inexpensive things that make babies feel safe and help avoid overstimulating them–babywearing, swaddling, nursing if mom is able, etc.

Given that even with these efforts, some babies will still cry…a lot, the best thing is to develop support systems and to help one another out.

Believe me, I know it is tough. My husband was deployed while my baby was born and for most of her first three months of life. My family lived halfway across the country. My friends were afraid of getting my baby sick with colds and flus, given her condition.

Still, looking back on the experience, I needed to work those support systems more and ask for help where it was needed.

The article is also framed with a mama who was blessed with twins who were colicky and we learn that the twins eventually outgrew their difficulty adjusting to their world and mom is now giving advice over the Internet to another mom coping with colic:

“I urged her to get someone to spell her.”

Amen, sister.

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  1. I tried everything under the sun with my baby. In hindsight, I think he had reflux too. He still doesn’t sleep well.

    I wish I had pushed the issue with my doctor. Colic is such a cop out.

    Loved your comments on Suburban Oblivion’s Bill Maher post!

  2. Holly says:

    Great post! Doctors are far too apathetic, in my opinion, when it comes to parents’ complaints of excessive crying. The effects on the baby may or may not be long term, but I know from personal experience that the effects on the parents can be (with bonding, postpartum depression, etc.). Check out Ron Barr’s research on infant crying…very interesting (


  3. - - - says:

    I was relieved to read the New Yorker article myself and liked its recommendation to allow the child to self-soothe. I have a four year old son who had months of colic as a baby. I held him every second and even slept with him. Now those fussy behaviors are still intact. Any small inconvenience or disappointment makes him cry like he’s being tortured. If he wakes up in the night, it’s like someone is poking him with needles.

    I wish that I had read something like this article when I was raising him as a baby. Maybe he wouldn’t be such a colicky four year old.

    Colic is certainly not the parents’ fault… just getting through it is herculean. Some expert advice offering support and even better… some slack… is long overdue.

  4. KS says:


    I’m reading the comments on my post on colic and I think a sling might be a good option. Seems like you know a lot about this. Could you recommend one … taking into consideration that I am clumsy with figuring out slings, etc. (see my comment, #11)


  5. Mama Luxe says:

    Absolutely–I’ll leave a comment on your post there and feel free to e-mail me for more details!

  6. a says:

    I always spent my half an hour to read this weblog’s articles every day along with a cup of coffee.

  7. My site plan says:

    Use some mild oil massage on baby tummy and make sure he lie on his tummy with a soft pillow under his tummy the check baby will sleep all night with no problem.