'Dear new parents, I'm a paediatrician - and this is why a crying baby is not your fault'

Colic literally means inconsolable crying.
Colic literally means inconsolable crying.  Photo: Getty Images/iStockphoto

Crying babies are the worst. For the first few months after their arrival, life can be hell on earth.

Feed, change, settle, repeat. It's like Groundhog Day every three hours. You don't want a thank you necessarily, but it would be nice if the baby would can it every now and again.

It's not entirely their fault. Human babies are born too early for their brains. This 'baby brain' is the root of all things terrible in their first few months. Compared to other mammals, human heads are big.

For a baby to fit through a woman's pelvis without getting stuck, her body delivers them relatively early.

This is why a newborn giraffe can walk a few minutes after birth, but human baby achievement peaks at pooing on their birth mother.

One of the most nefarious gifts 'baby brain' gives us is colic (or 'purple crying'). Contrary to popular opinion colic is not a disease. It's actually the medical term for a normal physiological process that most babies go through.

Colic literally means inconsolable crying, and it is the result of a peculiar (and incompletely understood) property of 'baby brain.' Normal sensations that you and I may not even register – such as the rumblings of digestion, a cool breeze, the fabric on our skin – can be a source of immense irritation to a young baby.

Their scrunchy faces and ear-splitting wails convince many a parent that they are in pain. But head scans during episodes of such crying show that babies are primarily cracking the proverbial, rather than hurt.

Photo: Getty Images/iStockphoto

Photo: Getty Images/iStockphoto


This feeds into a 'positive feedback' loop – a fancy way of saying the crankiness a baby feels, creates even more crankiness, which creates even more crankiness. The result is a brain screaming at itself to stay angry. The rocks and coos and crumblings of parents around it (attempts at 'negative feedback') make no difference at all. You might as well start wailing too.

Eventually (anywhere between several minutes and several hours) something resets, and baby stops. Colic usually starts at two to six weeks of age, gets worse until three to four months and is often gone by five to six months – so it can be a long haul. Parents are quickly exhausted and perpetually concerned.

First things first. When do you know not to worry? Two good rules of thumb: baby has been awake and content for parts of the day, and baby has had at least three wet nappies within the last 24 hours. If you notice anything in addition to crying, like colour changes or a new fever, best to get it checked out.

Otherwise crying alone, especially if you notice a pattern to it ('she does this every afternoon from three to seven'), is likely to represent something normal. Hunger, tiredness, a wet nappy – or colic.

So, what can you do about colic? Well, you can't stop the crying is the crux of it. There are plenty of remedies claiming to help, and although most of them have been shown to be safe, none have been shown to be effective (other than at opening your wallet). Some even sedate babies into compliance – eek.

I'd suggest a change of perspective. Baby will be fine with its colic, but you may not be. Parents of babies with bad colic are at higher risk of postnatal depression (mum and dad). And there is the horrifying association between colicky babies and shaken baby syndrome.

Spare a thought for the perpetrators next time you hear about this. Many are competent parents and delightful humans who have been sleep deprived, shell shocked and alone for months on end with a particularly tough baby. No winners there.

So, it's no overstatement to say that your health is paramount to the health of your baby. You must make your mental health a top priority for the sake of the whole family. When your baby is screaming, have a plan to pass her from one adult to another every 15 minutes or so. With your time off, get out of earshot.

Go have a shower, or go for a walk, or watch Netflix with headphones. If you are alone, put baby in their bassinet and leave the room for a while.

Colic won't stop them from breathing or choke them to death, and they are probably oblivious to your presence at that stage anyway. It can be really tough to do, especially the first time, but remind yourself that the best thing for your baby's health is an energised, healthy parent.

All in all, the first several months with a new baby are pretty terrible. It gets easier as they sleep better and mature beyond the reciprocity of a spoon.

In the meantime, when you question your fitness as a parent, reflect on the fact that you can't choose your family, not even your child.

Know that sometimes, you are not the problem.

Ben Smith is a general paediatrician from Sydney and has two kids.