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Can Colic Be Cured?

Nicole Cardin anxiously shifts her 7-week-old daughter, Alexandra, from her shoulder to her lap and fishes a bottle out of her diaper bag. The baby seems poised to break into a full-blown scream at any moment. Nicole's mother, Patricia, sits next to her in the exam room, patting her daughter on the leg whenever she starts to tear up.

"In a twenty-four-hour cycle, how many hours does Alex cry?" Nicole and her mother agree: an astounding 8 to 12 hours of every day.

"Does she arch her back when she cries?" Yes.

"What does her crying sound like?" Alex starts off quietly, then escalates to an ear-piercing pitch, Nicole explains. She describes the few things that sometimes work to quiet the baby -- burping, the pacifier, the swing with the heartbeat sound on. Her pediatrician diagnosed Alex with gastroesophageal reflux (GER) and prescribed Zantac, she continues. The medicine helped Alex's discomfort during feedings and reduced the spitting up, but it didn't improve the crying.

"The baby nurses practically around the clock," explains Patricia, crying a little herself. "And when you put her down you have to tiptoe around. I take her for a few hours, but even then Nicole can't relax. She can't take a nap -- it's like she has post-traumatic stress disorder."

Desperate for help, the Warwick, Rhode Island, mom headed for this one-of-a-kind Colic Clinic in nearby Providence as soon as her lactation consultant suggested it. Founded by Barry Lester, Ph.D., in 1986, and operated jointly by the Warren Alpert Medical School of Brown University and Women and Infants Hospital, the clinic's dream team of pediatricians, psychologists, and social workers offers intensive, research-backed treatment. They focus not just on the colicky baby but on the parents as well, who are typically devastated by not being able to soothe their infants. The revolutionary approach has succeeded in calming tears -- the babies' and the parents' -- like nothing else in the pediatric field. And the clinic has the numbers to prove it: A study here found that when babies get targeted treatment, they begin sleeping more and crying less within two weeks, compared to infants who are simply left to outgrow their colic (the usual strategy).

"The idea that colic is normal and you just have to suck it up is simply not true," insists Lester, who doesn't accept the standard "rule of three" definition of colic: crying that occurs for more than three hours a day, three days a week, for three consecutive weeks. Any prolonged or intense crying that interferes with a baby's development or affects the parent-child relationship is considered worth treating here at the clinic.

The conversation turns to feeding. "Does Alex nurse from both sides?" asks Jean Twomey, Ph.D., a psychiatric social worker.

"At night she breastfeeds from one side most of the time, occasionally from both." Twomey stays on this seemingly insignificant detail, digging deeper: "So how long does she feed at one breast, and how long does the feeding take?"

Nicole explains that Alex nurses about 20 minutes on one side, and then she moves her to the other -- about 30 to 45 minutes for an entire feeding.