You are here

The Crying Game

When Talia Boutis was about 3 weeks old, she started to cry and make a fuss around six o'clock each evening. "She'd clench her fists, pull up her legs, and shriek at the top of her lungs," says her mom, Kathleen Boutis, of Takoma Park, MD. "She'd cry so much I thought she was dying."

Not knowing what triggered the wailing, or how to stop it, Boutis took her daughter to the doctor, who assured her that the fits would pass in a few months. It was probably colic, the pediatrician said. The treatment: to wait out Talia's wails and to make her feel as comfortable as possible.

Boutis tried every remedy that friends and doctors suggested: swings, rockers, car rides, gas-relief drops, baths, massages. She even gave up chocolate, dairy products, and wheat when she found out these foods could upset a breastfed baby's belly. Her husband, Nick, must have walked Talia up and down their street at least a hundred times. But nothing brought lasting relief. "I don't know who cried more during that period, the baby or me," says Boutis. "I felt so helpless. I kept thinking, 'My God, I must be a terrible mother.'"

Such feelings of guilt and incompetence are all too common among parents who deal with colic. It can be a tough experience when you're trying to bond with your baby, says Robert H. Squires Jr., M.D., associate professor of pediatrics at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical School, in Dallas. In fact, research shows a higher incidence of postpartum depression among mothers of colicky infants. "Not knowing how to console a crying baby can make you feel rejected," says Dr. Squires. Parents may also feel less confident in their parenting skills, as they wonder if they're holding their baby the wrong way, singing to him off-key, burping him enough. "They're constantly second-guessing themselves," he says.

What makes colic even more frustrating: No one knows what causes it  -- or how to cure it. "Researchers have a tough time just trying to define it," says Steven P. Shelov, M.D., chairman of pediatrics at Maimonides Medical Center, in Brooklyn. Traditionally, a doctor will "diagnose" colic if a baby cries at least three hours a day, three times a week, starting at 3 weeks old. And if a cause can be identified, says Dr. Shelov, the problem isn't colic. (According to this definition, up to 20 percent of infants have colic.) Some experts even question whether babies with colic feel real pain, preferring to describe those who cry a lot as "high strung" or "extremely fussy."

Luckily, a growing number of experts are coming closer to understanding just what colic is, and isn't, and how to treat it.

ALICIA BROOKS WALTMAN has written about health and nutrition for Glamour, Woman's Day, and other magazines. This is her first feature article for Parenting.