As six o’clock approaches, the seconds seem to tick closer together like the theme tune to Jaws, a panicked heartbeat that whispers, ‘Something wicked this way comes.’ Around the world, I imagine there are millions of parents like us, watching the clock, asking those self-same questions over and over again as though driven to the edge of madness: will my baby scream tonight? Will we survive until bedtime? Or will the colic monster get us?
That’s actually a bit of an exaggeration. While on average, colic occurs between 6pm and midnight, Izzie tends to start crying between five and six and continues for at least five hours. And we don’t watch the clock – we just have a vague apprehension as the afternoon wears on that this could well be the quiet before the almighty evening storm. But the rest is true: colic takes you to the very edge of despair.
I must admit, up until a few weeks ago I had no idea what colic is. In fact, I still don’t, because nobody does. What causes it? Nobody knows. Why does my baby have it? Nobody knows. What can I do to prevent it? Is she in pain? Why won’t she stop screaming? Nobody knows.
Colic affects at least one in every five babies, so it’s not exactly a fringe subject, but we know more about Kim Kardashian’s backside than what’s making our babies scream their lungs out all evening.
In this modern age of super fast fibre optic broadband, 5G phones and viagra for women, it’s easy to forget that we don’t know everything. With a seemingly infinite number of academic departments and high-tech companies committed to spending vast amounts of money probing the smallest and furthest reaches of the universe (Large Hadron Collider, anyone?), you could be forgiven for thinking that the biggest discoveries left to be made are unimaginably far away in size, space or time.
But the truth is that while we know some complex things in great detail, we have no idea about a lot of basic stuff. We know the state of the universe in the split second following the Big Bang – ten to the minus forty-three seconds after the Big Bang, to be exact, or 43 zeroes after the decimal point – and that was around thirteen billion years ago, but we don’t even know why people yawn. We used to think it gave an oxygen boost to a tired brain, but since that’s been shown to be false, there’s no consensus among scientists on why we do it. Is it a social signal to synchronise bedtimes for people living in groups? A means of cooling the brain? A stimulus to muscle stretching? Nobody knows.
This knowledge disparity is equally true of medical science. We can use 3D bioprinters to replicate tissues, grow organs in Petri dishes, transplant pigs’ hearts into human beings. Thanks to the pharmaceutical industry, more than half of people diagnosed with cancer survive, while HIV is no longer a death sentence. And if medical TV shows and every Hollywood movie are to be believed, we can zap people with a jolt of electricity and bring them back to life after their hearts have stopped (news flash: we can’t).
Yet if you’ve ever spent much time in a hospital, you’ll realise modern medicine is based on guesswork. When Izzie was in ICU she had a temperature, so they started her on two types of antibiotic. Her symptoms went away, so we know one of them (probably) worked, but we don’t know what was actually wrong with her or why it worked. Same with the antidepressants known as Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors (SSRIs). It’s assumed they increase serotonin levels, but they’re not actually sure how they work, only that they do. The morning after pill? It prevents pregnancy – somehow. Modern medicine is less high-tech science and more ‘let’s throw a bunch of pills at you and see what happens. Ah, it’s cleared up? It might have been something we did. Or not.’ In other words, it’s somewhere between science, art and alchemy.
The diagnostic criteria for colic reflects the vague idea of what it is. Colic is defined as three hours of unexplained crying at least three days a week for at least three weeks in an otherwise healthy baby. ‘Unexplained’ in this context means ‘unstoppable’, in that she doesn’t want food, changing or burping, and the usual things that comfort a crying baby don’t work: she just cries. It normally resolves by the time baby is four months, but can last up to a year (heaven forfend!). And there’s not much you can do about it.
There are, of course, many theories about colic. The most likely is that it’s the result of wind trapped in the intestines as colic is often accompanied by a red face as though straining, hands balled into fists, knees drawn up as though suffering stomach cramps, and an abundance of farting. Since babies lack a functioning body clock, it remains a mystery exactly why it occurs in the evening, but gas in the pipes seems as good an explanation as any.
Soothing a colicky baby is an absolute nightmare. Yesterday, Izzie cried from five till ten in the evening, stopping only to swallow when she was fed. I offered her the dummy, put her in the sling, cuddled her, walked her in the pram, took her for a drive, rocked her, sang to her, read to her, put her over my shoulder, my lap, my thighs, swung her in the car seat, sat her in her vibrating bouncy chair, played music, played the guitar, massaged her belly, put her on the bed, the sofa, the beanbag, on her front, back, side, and all to no avail. Ultimately, it took a combination of swaddling her, rocking her in the Moses Basket with her dummy in her mouth, playing white noise loudly right beside her head and making shushing sounds to settle her. Even then, I’m not sure if she went to sleep because of what I did or because she had exhausted herself. Whatever the case, we survived another evening.
That is all you can think about during an episode of colic: survival. Beyond a feeling of utter helplessness, colic can have a very negative effect on the parent. I will discuss these in my next post, but for now it’s enough to say that having a baby with colic can cause frustration, exhaustion, anxiety and depression, and puts added pressure on the parental relationship.
If you have a baby with colic, it might be a small consolation to know that you’re not alone, you’re not doing anything wrong that’s causing it, and colic doesn’t seem to cause any long-term effects. Of greater solace is the fact that, whether in a few weeks or a few months, this is going to be over. It will end. And once we’ve conquered this, teething is going to be a doddle!