Curing My Daughter’s Colic

A Pediatrician and First-Time Mom Confronts the Limits of Medicine and Learns the First of Many Parenting Lessons

Illustration by Be Boggs.

I should have seen this coming. I was too lucky during pregnancy, contending only with a few weeks of morning sickness and a bout of sciatica. By week 37, I was still able to both see and touch my toes. Delivery was perhaps even easier (please don’t hate me), with my obstetrician imploring me not to tell my friends about my quick and easy labor. I may have been exhausted, overwhelmed, and wearing mesh underwear, but my first three weeks as a first-time mom were magical.

Then came colic. Night after night, cuddles were met with blood curdling screams, each one more enigmatic than the last.

Yet by all reasonable standards, she was completely fine: her diaper was dry. She just ate. There was no sign of reflux. She’d just woken from sleep. Nevertheless, every night, for weeks, my daughter continued to cry, typically from the hours of 10 PM to 2 AM.

At the time, I was in my third year of my pediatric residency, merely weeks away from becoming a board-certified pediatrician. I felt as though I should know how to comfort my daughter, if not as her mother than as a medical professional, who had dedicated more than a decade toward higher education, and the last three years to pediatrics exclusively.

On my newborn rotations in residency, I regularly counseled new parents on the nuances of infants and provided experienced parents refreshers, both clinical and practical. I recited feeding regimens, skin abnormalities, stooling patterns, and other “basics” with ease. I lived by the five S’s— swaddle, side-stomach position, shush, swing, and suck—introduced by pediatrician Harvey Karp in The Happiest Baby on the Block. Again and again, moms watched in awe as I used these techniques to soothe their babies to sleep after marathons of cluster feeding, and I felt like I was empowering them to do the same.

But all of these methods failed to pacify my own daughter. Her screams were so piercing that one night, I took her to her changing table, completely undressed her, and looked at every finger and toe for hair tourniquets. Finding none, I proceeded to perform a full physical examination, complete with cardiac auscultation and primitive reflex assessment. Everything was normal. I swaddled her up, held her in my arms, and sank deeply into the recliner in her nursery. She screamed herself to sleep, and I felt like a failure.

First described in 1954 by physician Morris Wessel in a paper describing infants who cried excessively, colic stems from the Greek “kolikos,” which means “relating to the colon.” Wessel and others suggested that colic stems from gastrointestinal issues, but modern medicine has not pinpointed an exact etiology. To meet the definition, an infant must cry for at least three hours per day for at least three days per week for at least three weeks without an otherwise identifiable cause. Approximately 20 percent of newborns, like my daughter, are subject to this phenomenon, primarily from 3 to 12 weeks of age. But few research dollars are allocated to the condition, because it is self-limiting: In other words, curing colic “just takes time.”

Seeing my daughter through colic was a singularly terrifying and exhausting experience, one that jettisoned me into the realities of motherhood.

But I wasn’t ready to hear that yet. I’ve always believed that mothers and doctors fix things; we clean up the scrapes and bandage them up. And if we cannot cure the ailment, we give comfort. Finding myself in a situation with my own daughter where I could provide neither my confidence in my abilities as a parent and medical professional plummeted.

In the following weeks, I received a lot of well-meaning advice from friends and family who wanted to help ease the burden. I leaned into my own medical background, as well, reading what little else I could find on the subject: Some parents find comfort in giving their newborns mylicon drops, a medication advertised to relieve the bowels of gas. Others change their infant’s formula or their own diet if they are breastfeeding. I gave my daughter a probiotic, Lactobacillus reuteri, the only medication studies show to have mild benefit.

In my line of work, I have fought harder battles than an infant with colic. During this global pandemic, I have treated patients dying in pediatric intensive care units, unable to be surrounded by their family or friends. Now as a pediatric hematology and oncology fellow, I regularly tell mothers and fathers their child has or is dying from cancer.

But this was my daughter, and her pain penetrated my heart in ways I’ve always hardened myself against while at work. In short, I lost sight of one of the most basic tenets of medical ethics: you do not treat your family.

I was reminded of this at her three-month check-up, when her pediatrician (also a friend from residency) assured me that I was not overlooking any aspect of my baby’s health. This affirmation gave me a new sense of resolution and confidence. Yes, she’s uncomfortable, but I was doing everything in my power to ensure that she’s healthy and loved. With that realization, I started to trust myself as a physician again and recognize that I needed to give myself the space to be her mom first and doctor second. In that space, I found new conviction in the cure for colic: time.

I started to take each day hour by hour, diaper by diaper. And sure enough, like clockwork, around 13 to 14 weeks, the nonsensical crying ebbed almost as quickly as it washed over us.

Relief was an understatement. Seeing my daughter through colic was a singularly terrifying and exhausting experience, one that jettisoned me into the realities of motherhood. There is a helplessness that nobody warns you of as you celebrate the birth of an infant. How somehow your own heart has left your body, and survival, both yours and theirs, is dependent on their wellbeing.

The experience has also lent me a new understanding to each patient encounter. In the moments where I recognize the same of loss of control in new parents that my husband and I went through, I bypass the five S’s and remind them to trust themselves and give it time.

Time is the most contentious medicine. Glance around the waiting room the next time you are at the doctor’s office. I imagine you will find most engrossed in their phones, trying their best to pass the time. We all want something active to help us feel engaged, most especially when there is nothing to do.

But take it from a pediatrician who is also a mother, your child will grow faster than you can possibly imagine. You will be thankful for that some days. Other days you may wish to stop blinking all together, if only to slow down the changes happening right in front of you. But that is not how time works.

Right now, I am enjoying my daughter’s cries of excitement as I walk through the door after a day at the hospital. And I am hoping that one day soon she will sleep through the night. Fingers crossed.

Sarah Ferri is a pediatric Hematology and Oncology fellow physician at Akron Children’s Hospital. She is a first-time mother and wife and writes in her “spare time.”
PRIMARY EDITOR: Jackie Mansky | SECONDARY EDITOR: Sarah Rothbard
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