Even pediatricians have varying opinions about colic and fussiness.

Harvey Karp, author of the DVD and book, The Happiest Baby on the Block, says when your pediatrician says the baby has colic, “it’s not really a diagnosis, it’s a behavioral observation.”

According to Parents Magazine, pediatricians use the “rule of threes” to determine colic: 1) crying bouts that start when the baby is about three weeks old, 2) they last for more than three hours a day, 3) on more than three days a week, 4) for more than three weeks in a row.

Without the  intervention of infant massage, it typically peaks at six to eight weeks, and subsides by three to four months.

Many pediatricians attribute colic to an imbalance of bacteria in the gut. If your baby’s crying doesn’t respond to calming tactics or our Colic Relief Routine, it may be due to an underlying medical condition such as reflux, allergies, a hernia, or a urinary tract infection, and it is time to consult your baby’s pediatrician.


Calming Tactics for Your Baby

In working with fussy or colicky babies and their parents for several years, I found that several responses are remarkably successful in relieving colic and/or fussiness. The first is calming tactics that include things that mimic life inside the womb; swaddling, saying “sssshhhhhhh” loudly in your baby’s ear (not “shush” as in shut up, but the sound “ssssshhhhh”). Dr. Karp recommends swinging your baby, letting your baby suck on a pacifier, and, sitting in a chair, laying the baby on her stomach across your legs with her head resting firmly on your thigh, and gently bouncing your baby while patting her back with both palms. I have observed this last calming tactic in India, where it is prevalent. The magic of calming tactics is noisy vibration, repetitive swinging or bouncing, and rhythmic massage. Noisy vibrations, such as running the vacuum cleaner, are comforting because they approximate what they heard in the womb. Dr. Karp says that in the uterus, noises are louder than a vacuum cleaner.

I believe that calming tactics work when the baby doesn’t have colic, but has gotten “disorganized” with all the confusing stimulation around him. His cries usually begin in the late part of the day, when the stress of all this stimulation has become too much to handle. The baby needs to communicate this, and the only means he has is crying. I have found that if disorganization is the problem, calming tactics work wonderfully. To these I add a bath in warm water, followed by a massage. I found that scheduling your baby’s bath and massage about 2-3 hours before he usually starts stiffening and crying, can often eliminate the “five o’clock fussies” altogether. Other things that can help calm your baby include carrying her in a front pack, which mimics the baby in the womb, and attending an Infant Massage class, where you can get support from a group of parents learning and sharing information.

Take a Break

New mothers often feel guilty or self-indulgent for wanting a break from their newborns. But pediatricians usually say that putting the baby in a safe place such as a crib or playpen, and walking away — just for a few minutes — to take a shower, brush your teeth, make some tea or call a friend is exactly what you should do when crying threatens to push you past your limit. There is a strong association between excessive crying and infant injury. A survey of more than 3,000 infants in the Netherlands revealed that more than 5 percent of their parents had slapped, smothered, or shaken their baby at least once because he was crying.

Calming Tactics for You

Next, practice calming tactics for yourself. If you have an “I Pod,” you can play relaxing music and voiced relaxation to yourself as you go about your day. You can simply observe your own tensing responses and work diligently to calm them (my baby’s crying is just crying; I respond to my baby’s crying by breathing deep and relaxing my neck and shoulders). Keep reminding yourself that crying is a part of life for everyone, especially your baby. She may be just letting off steam. When you feel overwhelmed, allow yourself to cry in harmony with your baby as you rock or walk her around. Often the baby is so surprised to have you crying with her that she will stop crying. This happened to me with my first baby. He was colicky, and I hadn’t yet developed the Colic Relief Routine. For days, he cried incessantly, and I had reached my limit. After putting him in his crib and sitting in the bathroom, breathing deeply and trying to relax, I broke down crying. I thought to myself, “If we’re both crying, why not just share our frustration?”  I picked him up and began walking back and forth across the living room floor, patting him rhythmically and crying with him. After several  minutes, he stopped crying and looked closely at me; he actually patted my face with his tiny newborn hand. 

The Fourth Trimester

If the baby has colic, his crying may start at any time and continue for hours. The baby cries as if in pain, screaming until he’s purple, he grimaces, he stiffens and brings his knees up to his belly, he arches his back, refuses eye contact. I believe, after years of practice and observation, that our Colic Relief Routine works almost 100% of the time. As Dr. Karp says, those first three months are the “fourth trimester.” One theory is that colic stems from an imbalance of the brain chemicals melatonin and serotonin. Colicky babies might have more serotonin, which makes intestinal muscles contract. Dr. Marc Weissbluth, author of Your Fussy Baby, says that one reason colicky babies can cry more at night is that serotonin levels peak in the evening. This imbalance naturally resolves when babies start making melatonin, which relaxes intestinal muscles. Babies get a lot of melatonin in utero, but levels drop after birth until the baby starts producing it on her own at 3 to 4 months. 

Physiological Reasons

A newborn’s gastrointestinal system is not fully functioning, as is his respiratory system. It has been proven that massage increases the development of the “myelin sheath.” Like a wire covered by a plastic or rubber sheath to protect us from electrocution, the brain’s myelin sheath covers the nerves and calms the brain. During the first three months, the myelin sheath is still growing around our baby’s nerves, so they are particularly sensitive to overstimulation. In addition, the gastrointestinal and respiratory functions are yet completely developed.

Colic Relief Routine

The rhythmic strokes and gentle movements in our Colic Relief Routine help hasten the development of all the things that are associated with the disappearance of colic. Done every day, my baby’s colic was gone within two weeks. This isn’t just something that happened with my baby; their pediatrician, after reading my book, asked me if he could refer patients to me if their babies had colic. Of course, I was overjoyed, and spent the next two years traveling around the county, teaching parents individually our Colic Relief Routine. Always, the colic was resolved within two weeks. An illustrated version of the Colic Relief Routine can be found in my book, Infant Massage: a Handbook for Loving Parents, published by Random House.

© 2014, Vimala McClure

CEIMs: you may use this article as a handout in your classes.