In many ways, newborns are not quite ready for the world at birth and need a “fourth trimester” of gentle holding, stroking, shushing, and wrapping, says Harvey Karp, M.D., assistant professor of pediatrics at UCLA School of Medicine. And babies who have colic are especially in need of such soothing.
A baby’s needs during the first three months of life — and not gas, immaturity, or temperament — are the main cause of colic, writes Karp in The Happiest Baby on the Block: The New Way to Calm Crying and Help Your Newborn Sleep Longer.
Colic is defined as: • Crying that lasts more than three hours a day and occurs more than three days a week or • Crying that lasts more than three hours a day and continues for more than three weeks, regardless of how many times a week it occurs.
Colic is not uncommon.
Researchers have found that 15 to 20 percent of infants younger than 3 months cry or fuss for more than three hours a day, and 50 percent cry or fuss for two hours a day. Karp notes that a fourth trimester of rhythmic stimulation calms babies by activating their calming reflex. “This reflex is a virtual ‘off switch’ for crying infants younger than three months,” he says, and any parent can learn how to activate it through the five S’s: swaddling, side/stomach positioning, shushing, swinging, and sucking. These activities mimic babies’ experiences during their months in utero and help most babies sleep an extra one to two hours a night.
Here’s how the five calming techniques work:
• Swaddling — Wrapping the baby snugly in a receiving blanket provides the continuous contact and support experienced in the womb. • Side/stomach position — Place your baby, while holding her, either on her left side to assist in digestion or on her stomach to provide reassuring support. Once asleep, you can safely put her in her crib, on her back. • Shushing sounds — These sounds imitate the continual whooshing sound made by the blood flowing through arteries near the womb. This white noise can be in the form of a vacuum cleaner, hair dryer, fan, or white-noise CD. • Swinging — Newborns are used to the swinging motions experienced in the womb. After birth, this calming motion, so comforting and familiar, is abruptly taken away. Rocking, car rides, and other swinging movements can help. • Sucking — “Sucking has its effects deep within the nervous system and triggers the calming reflex and releases natural chemicals within the brain,” says Karp. This can be accomplished with breast, bottle, pacifier, or even a finger.
Karp urges patience as you try different calming techniques. Anxious parents, he says, “may make their baby’s crying worse by impatiently jumping from one calming intervention to another” without waiting to see how their baby responds.
A faulty alarm.
“Crying in early infancy is an excellent signal of need, but a poor signal of what is needed,” Karp writes in an article for Contemporary Pediatrics magazine. It is a graduated system of alerts, with mild cries giving the impression of mild need and intense cries giving the impression of urgent need, he explains.
“The trouble is that some babies skip right past a mild cry into an intense cry, even when their need isn’t urgent. Like a smoke alarm, which blasts out the same sound regardless of whether the toast is burning or the house is in flames, a colicky baby emits the same powerful shriek regardless of whether he is startled, needs to burp, or is in true pain.”
Recreating the sensory environment of the womb “calms newborns, not because they’re nostalgic for the ‘good life’ they had in the womb,” says Karp, “but because it triggers a profound soothing response — what I call the calming reflex — that halts crying and promotes relaxation.”
Check out Karp’s website at thehappiestbaby.com/colic for more info plus some terrific videos.
Kathy Sena is an award-winning freelance writer specializing in health & parenting topics. Visit her blog at parenttalktoday.com.