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Soothing Parents of Infants Who Cry

By Barbara Howard, MD

All babies cry, of course, but some babies cry a lot.

In the old days, these babies were labeled “colicky.” These days, they're often labeled GER (gastroesophageal reflux, basically “spitting up”) babies, or they may be diagnosed with the more specific condition, GERD (gastroesophageal reflux disease), many times without good reason.

As in times past, the vast majority of these crying infants are not ill, but perhaps suffering from overstimulation or an immature digestive system. A rare few will have real pathology: true GERD, allergies, or even a volvulus of the bowel.

Keep in mind that although your level of concern may be low as you rule out things like otitis, parents’ level of concern is off the charts. Faced with a screaming baby under 2 months of age, new parents are thinking, “Will our child survive?” In what has been referred to as the fourth trimester, the baby is part of the mother psychologically; her inability to comfort her infant is emotionally devastating.

The baby is inconsolable, there is no quick fix, and your relationship with a new family is on the line. A crying infant, then, represents both a golden opportunity and a time-consuming burden.

What's more, the stakes couldn't be higher because a third of child abuse occurs in the first 6 months of life. Why on earth would parents vigorously shake a defenseless newborn or hurl a baby against a wall? Because the parents are exhausted, and the baby won't stop crying despite traditional interventions: breastfeeding or bottle feeding, a new diaper, rocking, and cradling.

Often, pediatricians grasp at a solution that's quick to implement, advising a switch of formulas or worse, suggesting that a breastfeeding mother switch to formula. Unless the baby has real diarrhea, real vomiting (not “spitting up), a rash, or hives, I'd recommend against this option, which in fact is not a benign intervention.

One study found that when infant formulas are switched, years later parents are more likely to falsely believe their child has gastrointestinal disease. By the time these children are in preschool, they are statistically more likely to be overprotected by their parents.

What's more, right from the start, you will have established a precedent leading to the slippery slope of non-evidence-based medicine. These parents will come to expect that when there is a problem, you're going to write a prescription. And because of a placebo effect for any intervention of about 40% plus the time-limited nature of crying, they're quite likely to believe the medical solution worked, and come to depend on your signature on the next script as well.

A better alternative is to undertake a systematic overview of the problem, just as you would with a medically urgent symptom. No matter how smart you are, or how many years you've been treating healthy crying babies, do a careful physical examination. You may find real pathology and surprise yourself, but more importantly, you're being watched. Desperate parents are studying you to decide whether you are taking seriously their baby's obvious distress and their profound concern.

Next, of course, take an equally thorough history.

Look for patterns. How old is this baby? (Colic is technically defined as crying for at least 3 hours a day, at least 3 days a week, starting before 3 months of age post-term.) The onset of developmentally normal crying is usually at 2 weeks and the peak of 2 3/4 hours per day of crying is at 6–8 weeks post term. Importantly, does this inconsolable crying occur during one part of the day, in contrast to hours spent as a happy, engaged, easily soothed baby?

This last point is critical to elicit because it establishes evidence that formula or breast milk is not the problem. Presumably, the baby consumes the same food throughout the day and digests it fine most of the time.

Occasionally, underfeeding (especially in a baby younger than 2 weeks of age and breast fed) or overfeeding (marked by lots of spitting-up) can be the source of the excessive crying.

Obtain a specific history of the worst crying day ever. If that day included a trip to the store, a baby shower with 15 people, and a long play session with new toys, the ensuing discussion of overstimulation and how to avoid it for now is an easy one. Families need to be taught about swaddling (which you or a nurse should demonstrate, using the family's own blankets to ensure they are adequate to snugly confine the infants' arms). If you're lucky enough to try it on a crying baby, you can amaze parents by the “miracle moment” of silence that generally follows.

Reducing visual stimulation can help as well. Pediatrician Raymond Sturner (my husband) asks parents to see how long they can stare at a light, then explains that babies at this age cannot avert their gaze from such an uncomfortable stimulus.

You also can reassure parents that swaddling and reducing stimulation are “natural” solutions because the infant was tightly confined in darkness in the womb.

There are many other possible interventions you can suggest, but be careful to instruct parents to give each strategy at least 15 minutes to succeed, averting frantic efforts where the frenzy could make things worse.

These include, after Swaddling, four other S's proposed in Dr. Harvey Karp's book, “The Happiest Baby on the Block”: Swinging (gently!), Stomach (cradling the baby face down along your arm), Sucking (with pacifiers or the baby's or parent's finger or hand), and “Shhhh” sounds (by voice, or with white noise: static on the radio, the hum of a fan or air conditioner, or engine noise, which is probably the reason car rides often help).

Chamomile tea has some evidence for helping, but should not include honey or replace feedings.

On a more general level, I think setting a sleeping and feeding schedule to establish day-night patterns can be quite effective in babies whose long crying jags occur not in the evening, but at other times of the day.

Once you have offered several specific interventions for crying, turn to the vitally important task of assessing family support, the portion of the crying baby visit that is most likely to make a longterm difference in the life of a child.

At Brown University, where much colic research has been conducted, Dr. Pamela High and colleagues have found value in a family prescription for REST: Reassurance, Empathy, Support, and Time Away.

A lack of social support and parents vulnerable to depression greatly increase the chance of such a baby being harmed, not only in the immediate short-term (from physical abuse) but across childhood if he or she receives a label as a troubled, sickly, demanding child or the parent is unable to provide supportive parenting.

Work with parents to conceptualize ways to find relief for their own frustration, employing help from family and friends, creating safe zones within the home (baby safe in the crib, parent out of earshot for a brief period of time), and even offering as a last-ditch alternative a trip to your office or an emergency department when parents worry they cannot control their understandable aggravation in an exhausted moment and fear they may harm the infant.

By teaching parents a systematic problem-solving strategy that will help them learn to know their baby's personality and signals and to trust you, you will be helping to create a family blueprint for future dilemmas, one free of medicalized solutions for a behavioral problem that may look, to them, like a disease.

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