The early days and months of having a newborn are challenging enough without having an unusually fussy or colicky baby. Fatigue, hormones, the stress of being a new parent or, perhaps, of also having other children to care for can make dealing with a crying baby quite difficult and frustrating.
My first son, though not colicky in the classic sense, loved to be held and cried almost all the time when he wasn’t. This was fine during the day when he could be carried in a snuggly, but difficult if I wanted to get anything done or get any sleep. Thankfully, a dear friend of mine recommended a book called The Happiest Baby on the Block, by Dr. Harvey Karp, that proved to be indispensable to me those first few months.
Karp’s techniques of soothing a fussy baby strive to create a womb-like environment for the baby. His theory is that human babies are born developmentally premature compared to other mammals. Baby horses, cows, even puppies, are up and walking almost immediately after birth, for example, whereas human babies take upwards of a year to walk. Because we have such large brains, Karp says, humans must be born “too early” in order to pass through the birth canal. His theory is that, because of this, human babies desire a womb-like “4th trimester” environment for the first few months of life.
Karp devised a technique called the 5 S’s to create this environment. The 5 S’s are swaddling, side-lying position, sucking, swaying, and shushing. He advocates putting the baby in a snug swaddle with arms tucked in, placing the baby on your lap on his or her side, and rocking your upper legs and knees back and forth in a windshield-wiper type motion. While you do this it is also helpful if your baby will suck on a pacifier. Leaning close in, make loud “shushing” noises to your baby to simulate the whooshing sounds of blood and fluids that your baby heard in the womb.
I must admit the first several times I attempted this, I felt quite ridiculous. They were often in the middle of the night when I was at my most desperate moments. There I would be, perched on a stool, swishing my legs back and forth and shushing loudly over my crying infant son, practically spitting on him in my shushing vigor to get him to stop crying. A comical moment in retrospect, though I remember deeply those feelings of exhaustion and despair at the time.
With my second son, who was colicky in the classic sense– predictable hours (usually early evening) of intense non-stop crying – oddly enough the 5 S technique did not work. For him, endless hours of being held bouncing on an exercise ball are what helped get us through. Every child is different, and different techniques work for different babies. In the end, though, I agree with Dr. Karp that babies do ultimately feel soothed by motion, by being held close or being swaddled, by loud “white” noise (a hair dryer, washing machine, or vacuum, for example) and by sucking. And ultimately, for me, the most important thing was to have SOMETHING to try at my darkest moments of parental frustration!
Dealing with fussy or colicky babies is difficult, even for the most seasoned parents (or pediatric healthcare providers!). If you are faced with a fussy baby, try the techniques above, or come into the office to talk to one of us about other ways to soothe your baby so that exhaustion and frustration don’t overwhelm your first precious months with your new baby.
– Libby Coughlin, NP