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Expert Tips on How to Soothe a Colicky Baby


Step inside the nation's only "colic clinic" and learn expert tips for soothing your colicky baby.

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 while she sits in the pediatrician's exam room. The baby seems poised to break into a full-blown scream at any moment. Nicole's mother, Patricia, is next to her, patting her daughter on the leg whenever she starts to tear up.

"In a 24-hour cycle, how many hours does Allie cry?" the doctor asks during the initial visit, in which a detailed history is obtained. Nicole and her mother agree: an astounding eight to 12 hours every day. "Does she arch her back when she cries?" Yes. "What does her crying sound like?" It starts off quietly and then escalates to an ear-piercing pitch. Nicole describes the few things that sometimes work to quiet the baby for brief periods of time--burping, a pacifier, the infant swing with the heartbeat sound turned on.

The final diagnosis: Allie is a tired baby whose days and nights are confused, and she has colic and gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD). The prescription: Zantac to treat the GERD. Additional recommendations are made to further help with the infant's inconsolable crying and sleep problems. "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. Nicole can't take a nap--it's like she has posttraumatic stress disorder."

Who Says You Have to 'Suck it up'?

Desperate for help, the Warwick, Rhode Island, mom has turned to the Infant Behavior, Cry and Sleep Clinic, commonly known as the Colic Clinic, in Providence, Rhode Island. This one-of-a-kind clinic, founded by Barry Lester, Ph.D., in 1986 and part of Brown University's Alpert Medical School and Women and Infants Hospital, has a dream team of pediatricians, psychologists and social workers, and offers intensive, research-backed treatment for colic and related disorders.

The experts here focus not just on the colicky baby, but on the parents as well, who are typically devastated (and exhausted) by their inability to soothe their infants. The revolutionary approach has succeeded in calming tears--babies' and parents'--like nothing else in the pediatric field. A study here found that babies who received the clinic's family-based treatment approach began crying less, sleeping more and had fewer nonroutine contacts with their community pediatricians compared with infants who were 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," says Lester. He doesn't focus on 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 in a well-fed, healthy baby. Instead Lester considers any prolonged or intense crying that interferes with a baby's development or affects the parent-child relationship as worth treating.

Before each visit to the clinic, all parents are instructed to keep a three-day "cry diary," which means describing in writing their baby's behavior every 15 minutes for 24 hours: sleeping, eating, awake, alert, fussing or crying. At the clinic, the behaviors are color-coded (e.g., yellow for crying, pink for sleep), so patterns can begin to emerge and be identified. Patterns may include a lot of crying or fussing in the early evening that could indicate baby needs an earlier bedtime, Lester says. For Nicole, the cry diary she kept helped her realize that Allie was actually crying much more than she had originally thought.

After three visits to the clinic over six weeks, Allie at 3 months old was crying no more than an hour and a half spread throughout the day, which is completely normal. Nicole got quick results when she began limiting Allie's nap sessions to a maximum of two hours and found ways to soothe her without resorting to the breast or bottle. "I got Allie a crib toy that plays soft music and has little moving fish--it works like a charm," she says. "I loved my baby from the outset," Nicole adds, "but I was at my wit's end and didn't know what to do. Now I have so much fun being with Allie-she's become a spunky, happy baby." And mom is getting more sleep too: four- to six-hour stretches a night now that Allie is sleeping better.

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