The Colic baby and their sleep temperament:
We often hear from parents who have struggled through and survived colic with their babies. I say survive because parents who have experienced colic will understand that is about survival, it’s about taking it one day at a time, recruiting help from grandparents and friends and doing everything in your power to help your baby stop crying and sleep.
One mum described it as “I was a shell of a mum, I didn’t bond with my baby, some days I didn’t even want to be around her. Her cries became the background song of my life, and I began to resent my coffee group friends whose babies were happy and didn’t cry all the time. She is now so sensitive and highly strung. She is 9 months old, and if she doesn’t get her naps at the right time, or a loud noise suddenly occurs she wakes up, or if she is awake, she starts crying. She is clingy around new people but also won’t be easily settled at night, you know I can’t feed her to sleep or rock her to sleep anymore.”
This is a common description of a colic baby, they are often not soothed by carrying or feeding like regular new-borns. (Barr et al 1991).It is hypothesised that they don’t have the same degree of chemical responses to skin on skin, or soothing mechanisms and don’t produce the same amount of calming hormones such as oxytocin.
This temperament described can be pretty typical in a baby who did have colic as a new-born, they are sensitive, easily startled or upset, and often have trouble calming themselves once they do get upset. Possibly due to a different chemical structure of the brain, or due to nurture…. The first 3 months of their life is stressful, and this has an impact on their temperament and personality. One scientific study supports the idea they cannot calm as easily as non-colic babies, it has found that colicky babies often cried as frequently as regular babies but they cried for longer, reinforcing the idea they struggle to calm down once upset. (Barr et al 1992)
All of this can affect their sleep too, we know that easily started or over stimulated babied can quickly become over tired. This can then lead to fragmented night sleep as baby struggles to get into a deep sleep, due to that over tired state. They might struggle to switch off at nap time, or struggle to settle back to sleep once something small wakes them up. They usually need the perfect sleep environment, absolute darkness, quiet, or nice white noise, and the perfect timing each day to ensure they can take a nap. They will often struggle more than other babies around nap transitions, and busy times of the year.
You need to protect the sleep of a colic baby, they have had a rough start. They usually need to learn at some point to self-settle as they never had the opportunity to naturally develop healthy sleep habits in the 4th trimester. This can be done with gentle sleep training, or traditional sleep training. But either way one must acknowledge that your colic baby might not respond in the same way to being soothed during sleep training as a non-colic baby. They might not find your touch or nursing attempts as calming as quickly as a non-colic baby. They might take longer to settle than your friend’s baby, or take more time to learn to consolidate his naps.
We also need to respect their stressful start in life and offer extra opportunities to nurture and love and bond with these babies. Respect their clinginess and don’t force them onto strangers for cuddles, give them that safe place to be in your arms. Try lots of skin on skin (even if you bottle feed), baby massage, bathing together. Respect that they are genuinely frightened or upset by loud noises and respond to this. Respect that they will be finicky about sleep, and respect their sleep windows, don’t try to push them to fit in with swimming lessons or music classes. The following melt down won’t be worth it!
But understand they aren’t damaged, just a different temperament, and most importantly they can still learn to sleep well, and still need just as much restorative sleep as a non-colic baby.
Barr RG, McMullan SJ, Spiess H, Leduc DG, Yaremko J, Barfield R, Francoeur TE, Hunziker UA. 1991b. Carrying as colic “therapy”: a randomized controlled trial. Pediatrics. 87(5):623-30
Barr RG, Rotman A, Yaremko J, Leduc D and Francoear TE. 1992. The crying of infants with colic: A controlled empirical description. Pediatrics 90: 14-21.Barr 1999