Anytime a baby cries, it’s stressful. When your baby cries for hours at a time and you can’t seem to comfort them, it can begin to seriously wear on your well-being. How a colicky baby affects your mental health can depend on your support network, ability to get counseling, and more. But at the end of the day, parents of colicky babies in any situation can practice self-care and coping strategies to help get them through.
One of the hardest parts of having a colicky baby is trying to figure out the cause of the colic, if there’s a clear-cut cause at all. During an interview with Romper, Dyan Hes, MD, pediatrician and medical director of Gramercy Pediatrics in New York City, says the reason for colic is a mystery for most moms and babies. “Colic, by definition, is crying from the late afternoon into early evening for more than three hours. Usually, we see it between six weeks and six months. We really don’t know why babies develop colic. If I did, I’d get a Nobel Prize in medicine. From my observation, most things don’t change a colicky baby."
Hes says that when babies first come into her office with colic symptoms, she’ll work with the mom on some possible solutions and comfort measures. Most often, she’ll suggest breastfeeding moms cut out dairy and soy to see if their baby has an intolerance, or switch to hypoallergenic formula. Frequent burping and keeping the baby upright after eating can lessen gassiness that might be causing their discomfort, and putting them in a vibrating seat (or in a car seat on top of the dryer, she adds) can soothe them when nothing else works.
When colic has no solution, other than waiting for your baby to grow out of it, it’s important to ask your pediatrician for their recommendations and resources to cope. Often, pediatricians and OB-GYNs are the ones screening for postpartum depression and other mental health concerns in new moms, so they’re the best place to start.
“As pediatricians, we administer the Edinburgh Postnatal Depression Scale. We give it at one month, and again each month if need be,” Hes says. “It’s 10 questions which inquire about anxiety, suicidality, and depression. What you usually find is, for people without resources, colic can be especially stressful. You have to know your resources. Sometimes she needs mental health care, and sometimes she needs a friend to come over for four hours so she can get four hours of continuous sleep.”
Jill Garrett, PsyD, clinical psychologist at Baptist Health in Jacksonville, Florida, tells Romper in an interview that a colicky baby can actually make it more likely for a mom to have postpartum depression or postpartum anxiety. “Postpartum depression, anxiety, and perinatal mood disorders are not restricted to which number of child you’re having. With any child that is born, a mom can have psychological, physical, or social vulnerabilities that expose them to these problems. Having a colicky baby is a social vulnerability. That increases the risk for one of these developing,” she says.
Garrett teaches her new mom patients about the NURSE system of self-care: meet nutritional and emotional needs, understand what triggers them, get rest, find support, and exercise. This is especially important for moms of colicky babies who may forget about their own needs while trying to comfort their little one.
“If the baby is safe, they can take a moment to give themselves proper nutrition and hydration, make sure they have a chance to go outside and get some fresh air, get some exercise, go to their own appointments, and have social time,” she explains.
Other experts agree that support is key. Being able to delegate tasks to others, like cleaning or running errands, can ease a mom’s burden while she tries to soothe her baby. Having a partner, family member, or friend sit with the baby while she takes a break can do wonders. Women without a partner or nearby loved ones shouldn’t be afraid to look to other networks in their lives for support. “I think you could reach out to neighbors, to coworkers, or maybe an older person in your community who would want to volunteer,” says NYC-based family therapist Kathryn Smerling, Ph.D., LCSW, in an interview with Romper. “Or, try your church or temple. There are always people willing to volunteer. That’s the one truth — that people love being with babies.”
As most moms know, sometimes there are moments where you can’t have someone come over or get away. At those times, ensuring your baby is safe and just stepping out of the room can offer a vital breather. And it doesn’t make you a bad mom.
“If you have a colicky baby and no support, in a moment where the baby has been crying for 20 minutes, find a safe place for the baby, like their crib or Pack 'n Play, and let them cry for a little bit of time so you can step away and have a break. Go to a separate space knowing the baby is safe and give yourself a chance to recharge,” Garrett says.
Using cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) techniques can help parents dealing with colic, too. CBT focuses on reframing negative thoughts so it’s easier to cope with hard circumstances, per The Mayo Clinic. This is something Garrett practices with her maternal mental health patients, and is especially helpful when colic doesn’t have a simple solution.
“If we are thinking, ‘This baby is never going to stop crying,’ though it might feel like it in the moment, we know we’re going to find some ways to give them relief. You can reframe that to, ‘This moment will pass,’ or, ‘I’m going to have a friend come over and sit with the baby so I can take a moment.’ If we can reframe it with healthier thoughts, that can help with the emotional experience. It’s valuable for both mom and baby,” she explains.
While your baby’s colic may not have an easy solution, the experts agree that you should acknowledge you’re doing your best, and take care of yourself, too. In fact, caring for yourself is caring for your baby. “Most of all, lose the guilt,” says Smerling. “Take some time for yourself. Real self-care is not selfish, and can only benefit your baby. You’ll have more to give.”