Now anyone who’s had a baby recently has, most likely, been subject to a less than Oscar-worthy, documentary type feature produced for hospitals called ‘The Period of Purple Crying’. Usually for ‘normal’ mommies, it’s shown just before discharge while you’re in your room, and for us NICU mommies it was shown to us in Care-By-Parent or just before you got to take your bundle home from the NICU.
The main jist of the movie is that sometimes babies will cry for hours, and there isn’t anything you can do to make them feel better. This type of crying starts at around 2 week of age and will peak around 3 months before petering off around 4-6 months of age. And when I say hours I mean it, upwards of 6 hours of crying a day. Now in the grand scheme of a whole day, 24 hours, 6 hours doesn’t seem like a large period of time…until you experience it! This video goes on to warn parents of the dangers of shaking your baby in frustration (tragically many infants are fatally shaken each year, their little necks and brains are very fragile) and gives some strategies to help cope when your baby is inconsolable. Each parent is made to sign off that they’ve seen the video and given a copy to take home and show to anyone who might spend time with your child. For those of you who know this type of crying by another name, yes I’m talking about ‘colic’! I don’t meant to make light of the video, it deals with some very serious issues, however when you read the rest of this post you’ll understand why my sanity requires I find a modicum of humor in the situation.
I remember our viewing of the video in CBP and think back to Andrew and I giggling about it. “Don’t shake your baby? How stupid can people be? Of course babies cry!” Then thinking to ourselves, ‘Well my baby won’t cry that much! He’s an angel!’ As preemie parents we were warned before we left the hospitals that preemies tend to be amazing sleepers until they catch up to their corrected due date, then the ‘real’ developmental milestones begin. We took Vaughan home when he was 6 weeks old, or 38 weeks corrected gestation, that’s two full weeks before he was actually due to be born. In the NICU he slept like a champ and rarely, if ever, cried. The nurses were always telling us how good he was, what a great sleeper etc, and we thought we were in for an easy ride as new parents! When we took him home, sleeping was the least of our worries!
One of the differences with having an underweight preemie as opposed to a regular newborn, was that Andrew and I weren’t able to feed Vaughan on demand. He left the hospital at only 5 lbs 2 oz and needed to be woken up every 3 hours to eat 43 ml of milk. If he missed more than two feedings we were to take him back to the hospital immediately since he couldn’t afford to loose weight or become dehydrated. So when we got home we had alarms set to wake up every three hours on the dot and try to coax what seemed like an insurmountable amount of fluid into our tiny boy. So when most mommies are able to let their new babies sleep at will, we were often waking V up in the middle of a sleep to eat. Not fun for parents or baby!!
Now we took V home on the 23rd of Oct, 2010 and the first two weeks were a big adjustment but nothing crazy. However around the second week of November we noticed something strange about our little angel. He started to cry….and cry….and cry….and cry. In fact he would cry so hard his little face would go purple and no sound would come out until he sucked in giant gulp of air. All of our old tricks for settling him to sleep were useless and we were often left staring at this tiny baby in our arms and wondering what the heck was wrong with him, what demon had possessed our sweet little man!?! Now the video had warned that that the ‘Period of Purple Crying’ most often occurs in the late afternoon/early evening. Vaughan started at around 11pm and would go straight through to about 6-7am the next morning. And when I say straight I mean it. There were multiple nights I went with absolutely no sleep at all since he cried almost constantly and when he’d finally settle that damned alarm would go off and it was time to wake him up to eat yet again which inevitably started the cycle all over again.
One morning in particular epitomizes the emotional toll colic can take on the mind of a new mother, I had been up for two nights straight with maybe a 3-4 hour nap once Andrew had come home from work. I had been up all night with V and this one was a bad one. He was completely inconsolable and eventually at 6:30 I strapped the little guy gently into his swing and stumbled into my own bed next to Andrew. Half awake, he could hear Vaughan screaming his tiny head off in the next room and asked me if everything was all right. I immediately burst into tears, sobs if you will, crying harder than I can remember crying in my whole life. I tried to explain what was going on but I’m not sure I made any sense or that any words at all were coming out of my mouth other than gibberish. I curled myself into a fetal position with my hands over my ears, while Andrew, bless his heart, got up and spent some time with his very vocal son.
At this point, V and I were a part of a post-discharge infant nutrition study for preemies at the hospital where he was born. I remember taking him to an appointment where our Lactation Consultant looked at V in awe, nicknaming him ‘barracuda’, and telling me he had the worst case of colic she’d ever seen. When this is coming from a nurse who’s been dealing with infants for almost 30 years, and had two colicy infants of her own, I was both impressed and horrified. She also assured me it would pass and suggested we try something called Infacol, an infant antacid, that might help a bit. We gave him the medicine (over the counter and would totally recommend it to anyone having issues with a colicy infant) and while it wasn’t a miracle by any means it did help decrease the crying slightly for which all three of us were grateful.
Then, after 6 solid weeks, on Christmas Eve, Vaughan slept…and slept….and slept! We nixed waking the little man up for a feeding and let him go…and he slept for 5 hours in a stretch!! This may be one of the most exciting things that has ever happened to me. After that night V didn’t sleep solidly through the night but we had no more all-nighters and the colic seemed to clear up as quickly as it started.
Now, after sharing the whole sordid tale there are definitely some thoughts I was able to put together after I caught up on some sleep and the anxiety of waiting each day for 11pm had passed. That video definitely made a difference for us, not matter how much we giggled at the start. It was a relief to know that nothing was wrong with V, he wasn’t in pain, etc and that it was okay to leave him in his crib or swing for a few minutes if we needed a break, we weren’t bad parents. I think it’s important to all parents to realize you can’t be superman/woman and that even you need a break. Just because you had a baby doesn’t make you indestructible and that it’s okay to ask for help or admit that having a newborn isn’t all rainbows and sunshine. It doesn’t make you terrible parent or ungrateful for your miracle, it makes you normal! When they say it takes a village to raise a child, I think the person who coined that phrase must have spent some time with a colicy infant!
As for Andrew and I, we did all the nights completely by ourselves while V had colic and while I do feel proud to say that, if I ever found myself in the same position again I’d definitely ask for more help. Emotionally it was hard on all of us, Andrew was worried for both V and I, and I was having anxiety attacks in the evening just waiting for the first peep around 11pm. Some nights as soon as V started to cry, I cried right along with him, through feedings and diaper changes, just wondering when this was all going to get better. The stress did take a toll and I was diagnosed with the beginnings of an ulcer just after the Christmas holidays. It took me a long time after the colic cleared up to be around other newborns with it. The sound of a colic cry is worlds different than regular newborn sobs and just the hint of it, for at least 6 months, made my adrenaline surge and my palms go sweaty.
While V was in the clutches of the ‘Period of Purple Crying’ the most common piece of advice I got from people was ‘Don’t worry, it will pass’. Which was great, but I knew that, and it wasn’t doing me any good when I’d gone 48 hours with very little sleep. No offense to those who tried their best to calm us down, but that ‘eventually’ was a long time in coming and when we were staring at a purple faced infant, that light was a long way down a dark, dark tunnel. I knew I wasn’t going to have a 6 year old who screamed for a third of the day but I wasn’t sure I would make it two more days with no sleep, listening to a desperately unhappy infant cry for another 8+ hours a day.
The advice I’ve offered to parents I’ve met since then with colicy infants is to take it one hour at a time if you have to, put the baby down and take 5-10 minutes to yourself if you need it, trade off with your partner to save both of your sanities, ask for help and don’t be afraid to use Infacol or Ovol or any of the other over the counter colic remedies. Do what you need to do to keep both yourselves and your baby healthy and as happy as you can. What you also need to keep in mind is that when your infant is screaming they aren’t getting the rest they need either and no one is winning in this situation. With colic unfortunately you need to make the best of a bad situation and yes it will pass eventually, but I can guarantee you that it won’t be soon enough!
However, even with the gloomy note of this post, we survived and are all stronger for it. V has never gone back to that type of crying (Thank God) and we finally got to feed on demand. All’s well that ends well right?? If you’d like for information on the Period of Purple Crying, we’d be happy to let you view our copy of the video or check it out on youtube: