What Do a Baby’s Cries Tell Us?
by A. Lawrence, Ph.D.
Maybe it is a pity that babies do not get to talk earlier, from birth say. If colic problems were to kick in at around three weeks, then we could start asking them the sort of questions with which doctors so delight in perplexing us adults:
“What is the source of your discomfort and where is it located exactly?”
“Describe the intensity of the pains – say on a scale of one to ten”
“How often do these symptoms occur?”
“Do you get them just after feeding or later?”
“Do any sorts of food particularly disagree with you?”
All useful information no doubt, but if our baby really could supply the answers, perhaps we would have cause for even greater concern.
However, nature has arranged an alternative form of communication. It is usually called ‘crying’ – or in some cases, ‘screaming’ – and is often accompanied with wild hand and leg signals, and bottling up of breath for endless seconds before a full volume screech is emitted, audible from far, far away. It has the power to command our instant and frantic attention –waking us out of the deepest sleep – and never gives up trying to tell us something. Although we all know that baby’s cries are saying: “I am in terrible pain and I want you to do something about fixing it, right now…this minute…can’t you do something for goodness sake?… Soothe this horrid thing away, can’t you? You’re my parents you should know what to do”; unfortunately it isn’t always so easy to take away “the nasty pain” as we would all like. For one baby in five the cause of the trouble will be colic. As to the best way to go about alleviating it, these are questions on which medical opinion has still yet to agree, let alone provide a satisfactory answer.
Quite simply, nobody is really quite sure what causes colic or how it may be effectively treated with one hundred percent success. Perhaps, different babies experience different forms. Medical opinions over the past fifty years have often reflected the contemporary thinking of the time. The fifties and sixties saw widespread use of antibiotics and antacids to subdue possible digestive tract upsets; the seventies later favored a psychological evaluation of the relationship between mother and child, while current theories involve gastric problems such as allergies caused by formula food additives. Alternative medicine offers such techniques as belly massage, aromatherapy, chiropractic spinal manipulation, cranial osteopathy and even acupuncture.
Further back in time, colic was considered the product of excess stomach gas which could be relieved by rubbing and rocking the baby about until internal pressures were released in one colossal burp. Victorians often favored the use of “Gripe Waters” containing alcohol and powerful opiates. The novelist Charles Dickens tells of the copious use of London gin in subduing raucous infants, one shudders to think of the complications to the child further down the road of life. How attitudes do change, today getting one’s child stoned to stifle its cries would rightfully bring down the full weight of the law and the outrage of society.
Although colic is seldom the precursor of something truly life threatening, it is impossible to dismiss the very profound impact it can have on a family’s way of life. Colic can stress the structure of family relationships to the limit and put them at risk, along with the health, happiness and livelihood of distraught, sleep-starved parents. The fact that colic may be caused by all manner of intestinal problems does not make treatment any easier. It is certainly true that some babies are far “needier” than others and often resort to crying just to get attention and comfort. But although no parent finds it easy to ignore those insistent cries for help, sometimes a mother’s own distress will only serve to exacerbate the problem.
An infant can cry out loudly for many reasons: hunger, overtiredness, desire for human contact, sudden alarm at some external sound or movement, overheating or cold, or stomach pains caused by hunger, indigestion, reflux or excessive wind. Since we are unable to ask the child what is the problem is, we must make our own diagnosis and act on it. Different babies can be comforted by different means. Sometimes just moving the baby around or ‘white’ sound might do the trick, while a comforter may calm hunger pangs (imagined or otherwise), or just physical contact will reassure the infant and help soothe away the distress. Some modern all herbal gripe waters can be particularly efficacious.
Parents too can sometimes over react – what may be considered normal crying by some folks might be thought to be a case of extreme colic by others. A visit to the doctor should help reassure anxious parents as to whether their child is in fact abnormally subject to extreme colic. Details of when and how long the baby cries, eating and sleeping habits and the pattern of bowel movements can help a medical advisor reach a sound diagnosis.
It may just be that colic is just one more difficult phase of parenthood that we may have to live through – rather like teething – as our infant’s delicate internal mechanisms experience change, dealing with the problems of a rapidly growing little body constantly in contact with new and often pernicious substances and organisms. One phase constantly used by grandparents “don’t worry, dear, they grow out of it –you did” may in fact provide little consolation to stressed parents at the time, but happily in the long run usually proves true.
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