Two weeks and six days. That is how much time we had with our newborn son before the colic. It was a Monday afternoon, twenty days after my son was born when the inconsolable screaming began. Pediatricians generally diagnose colic when a baby’s crying happens in at least three-hour stretches, at least three days a week, and persists for at least three consecutive weeks. My son surpassed that threshold every day, week after week, for months.
Colic crying is not the typical newborn baby crying that comes with hunger, sleepiness or discomfort. It was a cry I had never heard before (and still haven’t) – a blood-curdling screaming you expect from someone being tortured. We were prepared for our neighbors to call the police, or Child Protective Services (we lived in a condo building with neighbors next to and below us). His body would violently contort with his eyes closed and his tongue throbbing in his wide open mouth. He appeared to be in severe physical pain. His face often turned purple – from lack of oxygen, I guess. He was inconsolable.
Occasionally I’d try and track when he cried, in hopes that would help our doctor solve the mystery. At his worst – when not sleeping or nursing – he had a total of fifteen minutes in an entire 24 hour period not screaming. Seven to ten hours a day he screamed and cried. Inconsolably, incessantly and inexplicably.
For my own sanity, I was hoping to get out on walks with him. After two separate walks outside with his constant, torturous, ear-piercing shrieks being so loud that people actually came out of their homes to ask if we needed help, I decided not to go on a walk again.
I spent a lot of time bouncing on an exercise ball – just to occasionally make the crying slightly less unbearable. After about an hour bouncing on the ball with our son, my husband said something along the lines of, “wow, you must burn thousands of calories each day doing this!”. Um, NO! To add salt to the damn wound, I actually gained weight during those few torturous months! We were rarely able to leave the house. Most nights I’d inhale a pint of Ben & Jerry’s and wash it down with two glasses of wine. I found solace in my spoon and pint of Boom Chocolatta. If we were out of ice cream, I’d curl up on the couch with a jar of Nutella instead.
I grew him in my body for nine months. After birth, his sole source of nutrition continued to be my body. His skin was up against my skin almost every minute of the day. This little human was literally a part of me in every sense, and he was absolutely miserable. That is enough to pull a mother into the dark depths of sadness. His suffering was like a knife in my heart.
I felt angry, heartbroken, helpless and hopeless. On top of that, I felt guilty. Guilty that I couldn’t console my own child, that I didn’t feel attached to him and that I was neglecting my 1½-year-old daughter. It was a very low period in my life, and I felt guilty that I wasn’t able to enjoy a single moment with my new baby. I was depressed. I don’t know how much of the depression was because of the colic, but the colic certainly didn’t help.
Everyone said it would get better, and to just “hang on”. “He will outgrow it”, they’d say. An hour seemed like too much more to bear, I could not fathom weeks, months, or whatever the indefinite amount of time was. I needed to hear an actual day and time that it would be over. Without that, I didn’t trust that this wouldn’t be my life for eternity.
Pediatricians say that colic is “harmless”. Clearly, that is true for them because they live many miles away in a colic-free home. Colic can be devastatingly awful for those living with it all day, every day, without a break.
I was unable to enjoy the rare quiet moments because I was always on edge, afraid to relax knowing the screaming was going to start again any minute. The occasions I had respite didn’t last long, his wails were around the clock. He was relentless. The physical and emotional stress escalated every day that passed. His screams were at the ear-splitting decibel used as a torture technique in psychological warfare to break the will of prisoners.
It broke me.
It destroyed my brain, crushed my soul and tested the limits of my sanity. I was detached, delusional and incapable of functioning like an adult. The exhaustion went deep into my bones. I couldn’t fall asleep at night because the second I closed my eyes I could hear him shrieking, only to open my eyes and see him sound asleep in the bassinet next to me. Side note: Those phantom cries lasted for many months after the actual screaming stopped.
We tried the “5 S’s”, gripe water, dairy/soy elimination, colic drops, gas drops, probiotic drops and every other kind of “drops”, but to no avail. The road was long and difficult. It got better in waves. As our pediatrician and a lactation consultant predicted, it was “beyond colic”. It was colic mixed with silent GERD (reflux), eating issues because of lip and tongue ties, and torticollis as a result of his vacuum extraction (torticollis often isn’t painful, but proved to be causing him physical distress). For simplicity, I usually just refer to it as colic, but in reality, it was a cocktail of troubles blended with the inexplicable phenomenon that is colic.
He had his lip and tongue ties released with a laser when he was three-months-old. After that, things slowly improved. It was probably a combination of the procedure and the fact that the colic tends to get go away around that age. From four to five months, his crying probably just met the minimum to be officially diagnosed with colic. Then, after five months, all that lingered were the piercing wails during car rides. Every single minute, of every single car ride, was the blood-curdling, high-pitched, purple-faced screaming. At the advice of a lactation consultant, I took him to an infant chiropractor when he was six-months-old. It sounded ridiculous, but I was desperate and willing to try anything. After the first adjustment, he never screamed in the car again. Seriously. It was miraculous.
Now, my son is a very happy and easy-going toddler. He is sweet, he is social and he is smart. I worried that the incessant and intense crying would cause permanent neurological damage, but he seems unaffected in the aftermath of colic.
I, on the other hand, am still recovering. For many months I completely froze up every time he cried just a normal baby cry that comes with hunger or a dirty diaper. Even today, I tense up when he is upset, and over a year has passed since the screaming stopped. I still have flashbacks and anxiety. My heart palpitates and I nearly break into a sweat when I remember those days, yet I have the strange need to occasionally rehash the nightmare. I still resent that we were not able to enjoy the early months with our son. There was a great blog post in the New York Times titled, “My Post-Colic Stress Disorder”. While “PCSD” is not an official mental health condition, it sure feels like one to me. The trauma from the experience continues to wane, but the emotional impact is long-lasting.