MY DAUGHTER LUCY entered this world screaming at the top of her lungs beneath the metallic white lights of an operating room in Manhattan, where a small crowd of medical students had gathered to watch doctors extract her from my belly in an emergency C-section that saved her life.
About half an hour earlier, her heart rate had dropped precipitously for the second time during labor, the insistent beep-beep-beep of the machines slowing to a sickening crawl. Beep. Beep. Beep. As the nurses raced me into the operating room, I asked if my baby was still alive. No one answered. The sound of her little voice breaking through the hushed silence as I lay on that operating table flooded me with relief.
Miraculously, the doctors deemed Lucy in perfect health, and they never figured out what had caused her heart to falter. On our second night in the hospital, Lucy started screaming again — but this time, she didn’t stop for over an hour. My husband and I took turns rocking and holding her, but we could not calm her.
I had never heard a baby cry like this before. It was angry, savage, bursting with outsized indignation, and so loud I worried it must be reverberating through the hospital walls. If her first cry filled me with joy, this time, the sound of her crying was almost physically painful for me to absorb.
Finally, a nurse took pity on us and snuck into our room with a pacifier. “I’m not supposed to give you this,” she said. (Pacifiers are frowned upon in some hospitals in case they interfere with breastfeeding.) We stuck it into Lucy’s mouth and she calmed down for a while.
“Why do you think she’s crying so much?” I asked the nurse. “What’s wrong with her?”
“Some babies just cry a lot,” she said.
That turned out to be the ultimate understatement of our long, lonely first few months of parenthood.
THE CRYING STARTED the moment Lucy woke up in the morning and continued intermittently all day, aside from occasional brief quiet interludes during which I would try to shower or fold laundry or simply wait, in a state of high alert, for it to begin all over. She screamed after I nursed her, changed her diaper, gave her a bath, or put her down in the bassinet. She cried when I tried to bundle her into the infant carrier and when I took her for walks in the stroller. She wailed in coffee shops and restaurants and doctor’s offices. I learned how to make quick exits from public places and social gatherings. After a while, I avoided them altogether because I started having panic attacks when I tried to leave the house.
During that endless time, my own despair was often mirrored in Lucy’s eyes, as though she wanted to say, Why are you letting me suffer like this? Why don’t you know how to help me? At night, the crying worsened. She slept for one or two hours at a time, then woke up crying again. Nursing failed to soothe her. When she was about 3 weeks old, I begged our pediatrician for help, and he informed me that my daughter most likely had colic. It meant that she would cry a lot, but she would probably stop by the time she was a few months old, he assured me.
When I was pregnant, I had read about colic in The Happiest Baby on the Block, the best-selling book by Dr. Harvey Karp, an assistant professor of pediatrics at the Keck School of Medicine at the University of Southern California, who has built a global empire out of dispensing advice to millions of anxiety-ridden parents, even inventing a popular new crib called the Snoo that uses sophisticated soothing technology to lull babies back to sleep. I had skimmed through the section in the book that depicted his techniques on how to calm colicky infants because I was sure that — despite statistics showing an estimated 1 in 4 infants will be diagnosed with colic — my child certainly would not have that problem.
Many pediatricians abide by the “rule of three” when diagnosing colic: a baby who cries for more than three hours per day, more than three days per week, and for longer than three weeks.
“I usually like to talk about the rule of six,” Karp tells me when I call him to talk about why colic remains so mysterious even today. “You know your child has colic if you feel like you need six hands, six nannies, and six margaritas by the end of the day.”
Colic has confounded physicians for decades because no one has definitively pinpointed what causes it or how to treat it effectively. Unlike most childhood ailments, there’s no medical consensus on any aspect of the condition, though theories abound.
Some studies point to a deficit of good bacteria in the gut, which could explain why babies born via C-sections are more likely to be colicky compared with ones who had vaginal births. Another theory argues that colicky babies’ developing brains make them especially sensitive to overstimulation by the outside world, which is why techniques popularized by Karp — such as shushing, swaddling, and rocking them — help to activate their calming reflex by mimicking the conditions of the womb.
One of the few things we do know is that colic eventually clears up, usually when the baby is between 3 and 4 months old, though in rarer cases it can last longer. But because there’s an end date to the misery, many pediatricians simply shrug and tell parents to muddle through. Most medical experts don’t even use the word colic anymore and instead call it “persistent crying” or “inconsolable crying,” which are also “terms with really no definition,” Karp says.
I dove down deep Internet rabbit holes in the middle of the night as my mind raced and my baby wailed, scrolling with the desperate hope that Google might put me out of my misery. I religiously followed Karp’s “five S’s” method: swaddle the baby, place her on her side or stomach (only when awake), shush her with white noise, jiggle her body in a swinging motion (or an infant swing), and let her suck on a pacifier.
“Crying, for babies, is like a smoke alarm,” Karp says. You don’t shut the door and ignore it when it starts going off — you figure out how to turn it off. He insists that his strategies will always work if done properly — if they don’t work, he says, often the baby is suffering from an undiagnosed medical problem.
In my case, the five S’s worked quite often, but not always. And when I stopped doing them, Lucy would simply start crying again.
When she was having a particularly grueling day, I developed an elaborate routine that involved swaddling her very snugly in a soft blanket, then swinging her back and forth like a pendulum while doing squat lunges. One day, a good friend who is a pediatric cardiologist paid me a visit on her way home from the hospital around dinnertime. This friend, who has cared for a lot of very sick babies, took one look at me doing my lunges and said: “Wow. That’s a really tough baby. You know you’re doing a great job, right?”
I blinked back tears and nodded. Just hearing someone acknowledge that I was doing a hard thing made me feel seen for the first time since her birth.
“Even the most loved baby can make a parent pretty miserable when they’re not sleeping, when they’re up all night,” says Jean Twomey, a clinical social worker at The Infant Behavior, Cry and Sleep Clinic, an outpatient service at Women & Infants Hospital of Rhode Island in Providence. “When you have very competent people who are used to getting from point A to point B by doing certain things, and you’re doing all those things and you are not getting where you’re supposed to be, it’s a very humbling experience, isn’t it?”
At the clinic, which is nicknamed the colic clinic, Twomey sees parents who are losing their minds because they’ve tried just about every strategy to no avail. First, she conducts a detailed interview to collect as much information as possible from the parents. She refers the family to a pediatrician if any potential medical issues crop up. Various conditions can contribute to colic, such as a possible allergy to the protein found in cow’s milk, which can be treated by eliminating certain foods from a breastfeeding mother’s diet or switching the baby to a hypoallergenic formula.
Dr. Barry Lester, director of the Center for the Study of Children at Risk at Brown University’s Warren Alpert Medical School, founded the clinic and has spent much of his career researching and measuring the acoustic characteristics of babies’ cries. Colicky babies tend to have a higher-pitched “pain cry,” he explains, and often display other telltale signs of distress like pulling their legs up to their stomachs.
Unlike Karp, Lester maintains that no one-size-fits-all approach to treating colic exists because every child (and family) is unique. He believes that the pervasive dismissive attitude from pediatricians about colic is tantamount to toxic gaslighting for parents. When parents start to doubt themselves and their ability to take care of their baby, that uncertainty creates a longer lasting problem.
“We all know colic is going to eventually go away, right? Yeah, right. That’s true,” Lester says. “But what doesn’t go away is the damage done to the relationship.”
In addition to looking out for mental health issues, the clinic simply aims to validate what parents are going through and find small ways to make things easier. Twomey tries to help exhausted families get a little more sleep by establishing a rhythm and routine. She encourages them to get out of the house or enlist help from a relative or friend for a few hours.
Parenting a colicky baby was “an extra special circle of hell,” recalls Sarah Nethercote Hart, a 44-year-old mother of four who lives in Milton. That colicky baby is now 13 years old, and Hart is a development director at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, where she also serves as a parent connection volunteer for new mothers.
“First of all, I lead with, ‘I’m so sorry, and I’ve been there, and they turn out fine,’” she says. “They’re not dying. There’s nothing wrong with them. . . . They just need a little bit more time developing outside the womb, and they’re going to do it on their own time.”
Hart tells new mothers that babies are people just like us, and they’re all different — so you shouldn’t, for example, compare notes with your best friend’s baby who slept through the night at 3 weeks old.
Rachel Kradin, a social worker on the maternity floor at Emerson Hospital in Concord, who runs new parent support groups, helps guide parents of colicky babies through a trial and error process to see which strategies work for their babies. She tries to prepare them for the fact that, although this time is scary and feels never-ending, it won’t last forever.
“But you know,” Kradin says, “that’s not easy to do when you’re living it.”
There’s a disconnect between the idealized perception of early parenthood and the reality, says Twomey, who believes that the problem with the way we treat colicky babies is fundamentally rooted in our collective lack of support for families with young children in the United States.
“So you’ve got women and babies. Think for a minute about the status that is accorded to those two groups,” she says. “Babies, quite literally, don’t have the kind of voice that we’re used to listening to.”
WHEN I LOOK BACK on that time, my memories are shrouded in fog. I have one clear recollection of my lowest point. I was standing on a subway platform with Lucy in the stroller one day when a thought flitted, unbidden, into my brain: It would be easy to step in front of that train.
Until then, I’d never had a single suicidal thought in my life. I didn’t tell anyone about it because I was so deeply depressed that I couldn’t even recognize what had happened. It took several more weeks until I sought help. I didn’t realize just how mentally ill I truly was until Lucy was 6 months old, after the colic had passed, when I was finally able to stop operating in emergency mode and ease my grip on worrying over whether she had eaten enough that day or whether she would sleep at all that night. By then, though, my self-esteem had been destroyed. I was certain that I had failed at motherhood. The panic attacks became a daily occurrence. When I developed a fear of being alone with the baby, I realized I needed to talk to a therapist.
Ultimately, I was diagnosed with a combination of postpartum depression, anxiety, and obsessive-compulsive disorder. With the help of a therapist and medication, I was lucky enough to recover and, years later, go on to have two more healthy children, neither of whom had colic.
In the end, Lucy was diagnosed with a milk protein allergy and reflux, both of which contributed to her colic. Yet even when we treated those conditions with medication and a hypoallergenic formula, the crying didn’t subside that much — or at least not right away.
On the exact day that Lucy turned 4 months old, something shifted. I was walking through a furniture store pushing her in the stroller over a pile of antique carpets when suddenly, out of nowhere, I looked down and realized she was smiling at me. Until then, Lucy usually had a permanent scowl on her chubby little face.
It seems strange even to me as I type it now, but just like that, the colic lifted. In some ways, it felt like I was meeting my little girl for the very first time. I smiled back.
Seven years later, she’s a smart, creative second-grader who walks down the street with her nose stuck in a book when she gets off the school bus. She’s a kind and curious student who teachers say they wish they could clone in class. She draws hilarious cartoons that make me laugh out loud. She has an explosive and infectious laugh. And, yes, her temper can be equally explosive when she gets upset.
Karp believes that, like Lucy, colicky babies are more likely to become deeply feeling, emotionally sensitive children. I’m not sure what to believe about that. But I do know that, if I learned anything over the years, it’s this: Children are born fully formed. They are who they are. You can’t make them adapt to some preconceived notion of how they should behave, whether they’re 1 month old or 10 years old.
“Every kid is a product of what they bring to the table and what the parent brings to the table,” Lester says. “Some kids are alert and shiny and calm. Other kids are irritable and cranky. . . . This is what they’re born with in terms of, whatever you want to call it, personality or temperament. But that’s just the way the kid is.”
If I could go back and give my former self some advice, I would say this: It’s going to be all right. You know what to do, even if it feels scary and uncertain right now. Your baby is exactly who she’s meant to be. And you’re doing a great job.
Meghan Barr is a former Globe Magazine editor. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.