You’re a new dad — congratulations!
Or, if your experience is anything like mine was, I’m sorry.
My son turns two in a month and is — by all measures – a wonderful toddler, but I still can’t talk or write about him without this preface: he was a really fucking difficult infant. His fourth trimester — those first few months of adjusting to a world for which he was not yet ready — exhausted my reserves, tested my marriage, and drained our bank account. Contrary to the magical, special period of bonding I was promised, it was, without a doubt, the worst four months of my life.
At the playground, unsuspecting strangers will strike up conversation, expecting little besides small talk in return. “Cute kid” they remark, and I reflexively blurt out, “Thanks. He was a really fucking difficult infant!” This is followed by a detailed, unsolicited explanation of basically everything I’ve written below. Three minutes later, they make an excuse to scoop up their own toddler and leave.
Colic — what it looked like for my kid.
Like most newborns, Jude spent his first three days mostly asleep. Apparently this is what you do when the feeding tube you’ve been using for the past forty weeks has been abruptly severed and the only thing between you and starvation are three drops of Mom’s colostrum. Not so hard, my wife and I thought. We got this. Then, Day 4 arrived and all hell broke loose.
Later (much, much later), Emma and I would joke that we actually had two children: Jude 2.0, a happy, social, funny toddler; and Jude 1.0, a colicky, nocturnal ball of rage and gastric distress who started crying in February of 2018 and didn’t stop until late May. Jude 1.0 (aka Hurricane Jude, aka Guantanamo Baby) left a path of destruction in his wake.
Newborns have essentially three jobs: eating, sleeping, and eliminating (dads, to be clear, this is a euphemism for shitting and pissing). From the start, Jude struggled with all three. Nursing was a disaster. He couldn’t figure out how to latch properly, and the lactation advice my wife received basically boiled down to: unless you have perfect, thimble-shaped nipples that adhere to the Divine Ratio, your child is doomed to starvation, or worse, formula. Also, you should pump for 23 hours a day to ensure that you develop painful mastitis.
Jude could pee and poop just fine, but his GI tract seemed intent on making him miserable. After feedings he would go through forty or fifty minute waves of spasms, arching his back and tensing up, grimacing in pain (also, he was constantly farting). As for sleeping? A great night of sleep would be a three hour stretch, followed by a two hour stretch, followed by eleven cups of coffee and months of marital tension. On the worst nights, neither he nor I slept longer than thirty consecutive minutes.
Worst of all, there was the crying. Not like normal baby crying. High pitched, urgent, at all hours of the day and night. Like the sound a cat might make if you tried to shave it (*note: simile not based on experience). And completely unsoothable.
Colic is often characterized by a Rule of 3: three or more hours of crying, 3 or more days per week, for 3 or more weeks. Jude’s colic was more like a Rule of 7.
Coping with colic: Things that did NOT cure colic.
Cutting dairy (my wife, not me, although I doubt that would have helped, either)
Musical chairs that rocked and bounced and only intensified the crying
Unnamed individuals offering unsolicited parenting critiques
When Jude started crying, the only method that calmed him even temporarily was using the “Five S’s”: swaddling him, holding him on his side, swinging him vigorously, shushing, and giving him a pacifier to suck. I passed hours this way, cradling him in my arms (the NBA playoffs on in the background) and bouncing like a gymnast until he quieted down. The moment I sat down, he’d begin fussing and quickly crescendo into hysterics again. My wife — ever the savvy consumer — researched every imaginable product for “curing” colic. Gripe water accomplished nothing besides covering every surface in the nursery with a thin layer of syrup. A rocking bassinet was quickly abandoned after it was recalled as a suffocation hazard. By spring, our house was filled with all sorts of shit — baby slings, parenting books, and giant motorized swings — each as useless as the last.
We tried everything we could to get some relief. I spent hours researching websites about colic, and Emma changed her diet. We hired an occasional night nurse, wore him constantly, and even rented a Snoo (for those unfamiliar, the Snoo is like a normal bassinet, except it shakes your baby violently to “sleep” and costs more than our mortgage). Nothing helped.
Coping with Colic: Things that ACTUALLY helped
Wearing + Walking: One of the few tactics that actually helped calm Jude was strapping him into a carrier and taking a walk outside. The only problem was that he was born in February and we lived in Minneapolis. “Outside” was basically a skating rink where temperatures — I’m not making this up — were colder than the surface of Mars. The solution? I wore him against my chest and walked on the treadmill for hours, flipping through GRE vocabulary words on my phone.
That’s it. Literally nothing else we tried lessened his crying (although in our sleep-deprived haze, we never tried a probiotic, the one remedy that actually had modest scientific support). What I came to understand and eventually accept was that parenting an infant with colic was not like folding a dumpling or playing the violin, a skill that could be honed and mastered. Instead, it was a walk through fire, a trial to be endured.
With this in mind, accepting help made colic just a tiny bit easier to endure. My wife and I were fortunate to have family members fly in to support us throughout Jude’s fourth trimester. Though their visits always seemed too short, they were immensely helpful; we concluded that 4-to-1 is the proper staffing ratio for infant care. I cannot stress how valuable it was to be able to hand Jude — screaming — to a family member (especially a well-slept one) and take a nap, shower, or eat sitting down. This did nothing to soothe Jude’s crying or lessen his discomfort, but it allowed me to regain a bit of energy, and, equally as important, composure.
Perspective also helped. Part of what made dealing with colic so difficult was not knowing when it would end. Talking to other parents and reading the experiences of those with similar experiences served as an important reminder that yes, colic eventually ends, and no, it does not mean your child is destined for a lifetime of therapy. And although our official motto for the post-colic era is #neverforget, my wife and I took solace knowing that Jude would not remember any of it.
In the end, the only cure for colic turned out to be time. By four months, his crying began tapering off (ours lasted longer), and by about five months, colic was gone.
It gets better!
If you are a dad struggling with a colicky infant, know that it will get better. Colic is not forever, and it’s not an indicator of some personality trait or inherent temperament; it’s more likely an overactive colon or an underdeveloped gut. Knowing this doesn’t make it any easier when you’ve slept six hours in two days and you’re worried about neighbors calling CPS to report the sounds coming from your house. Still, knowing there is a finish line somewhere in the distance can be enough motivation to keep putting one foot in front of the other.
These days, when I look at Jude, I can hardly believe he is the same kid who nearly broke me as an eight pound blob. As those strangers at the playground know, I may never be able to forget just how difficult those first few months of fatherhood were, but I don’t want to forget them. They make me more grateful for the kid he is today.