Did you know your newborn might cry because they have a natural instinct to stay dry? Could there be a connection to excessive crying bouts (like “colic”)? Find out in today’s episode as I take you through some possible explanations for your baby’s unexplained fussiness.
You Will Hear:
- The definition and common indications of “colic”
- Alternative explanations for prolonged, inconsolable crying
- How to find help if your baby’s crying is causing you extreme distress
- How EC helps to prevent diaper blowouts
- Why practicing EC could help to resolve some fussiness
Links and other resources mentioned today:
- Why parents are going diaper-free - Podcast #1
- Go Diaper Free Book
- Definition of Colic from Johns Hopkins Medicine
- The Period of PURPLE Crying
- Frustrated With Your Baby’s Crying?
- “Happiest Baby on the Block”
- What Would an Indigenous Person Say? - Podcast #147
- Newborn Cries While Pottying - Podcast #209
- Meg Faure on Unlocking Sensory Personalities - Podcast #186
- Our Common Enemy - Podcast #165
- Gassy/Fussy Babies - Podcast #159
- “The Golden Window” Newborn EC Program
- Find a Local Coach or EC Group
- Go Diaper Free Store
- Tiny Undies Store
Download the Transcript
If you can't listen to this episode right now (um, sleeping baby!?)...download and read the transcript here:
EPISODE 228: Can EC Prevent Colic?
Hello and welcome to the Go Diaper Free podcast. I'm your host for today's episode, Nicole Cheever, Go Diaper Free Certified Coach and mama of three kiddos who all did EC and potty training at different ages and stages.
Hi, everyone. Welcome back. Thanks so much for joining me again today. This is Nicole Cheever with Go Diaper Free, and this is Episode 228: Can EC prevent colic? You can find the show notes, links to everything I mentioned today over at godiaperfree.com/228. Please leave us a comment, ask us any questions you have, and chat with us over there on the blog. We love to hear from you.
Today's topic is really interesting. It actually came up as part of the very first episode on this podcast. Andrea polled her readers to find out why they wanted to practice EC, and one of the reasons was to possibly prevent colic. I want to give a little disclaimer here. I am not a medical or behavioral expert. I am an elimination communication and potty training coach, I'm a mom of three, and I am also someone who was “diagnosed” with colic as a baby, so this is a very interesting topic for me. I use the air quotes for a reason, I will tell you in just a minute. I wrote this episode a little bit backwards, like Andrea wrote her book, Go Diaper Free, where I'm going to give you all the meat right up front, and then I will get into the science and everything that I've researched that I think will blow your mind. I hope it will.
Let's get right to it. Can EC prevent colic? The answer is a very solid "maybe." It can, but there's no guarantee. Anecdotally, it seems to help improve colic symptoms. That's one of the reasons that Andrea's readers, when she first started this podcast, said that one of their top reasons for trying EC was to try to prevent colic. There hasn't been a lot of scientific studies done, but parents have reported that EC can help with their baby's fussiness.
Now, if you're joining us and you had a colicky baby or you have one right now and you either haven't practiced EC or didn't do it during that period, there's no guilt. There's no shame here, that's not the purpose of this episode, it's just informational. We don't know what we don't know. No shame or judgment upon any of us. This is a purely educational episode, and I hope you learn something new from it.
Now let's get to the science of it, and I hope you stick around for this because I find it very interesting. The definition of colic from Johns Hopkins Medicine:
“What is colic?
Colic is when a healthy baby cries for a very long time, for no obvious reason. It is most common during the first 6 weeks of life. It usually goes away on its own by age 3 to 4 months. Up to 1 in 4 newborn babies may have it.
Colic is defined as when a baby’s crying:
Lasts for more than 3 hours a day
Happens more than 3 days a week
Occurs for more than 3 weeks
Colic often begins suddenly, with loud and mostly non-stop crying. This constant, extreme crying can be very stressful and difficult for parents. Babies with colic are often fussy, gassy, and don't sleep well. But in most cases they grow and gain weight normally. Colic will go away on its own. This often happens by age 3 months, and in most cases by age 6 months.
What causes colic?
Experts don’t know for sure what causes colic.”
There are a few key phrases I want to pick out later in that, but first I want to mention that criteria that's used to diagnose colic, that's called the "rule of three": three hours a day, three days a week for three weeks or more. It's a little bit outdated. A lot of providers these days just identify colic when there's prolonged, inconsolable crying that is affecting the parents and the baby's life. So that's just the formal definition of it. As it said right there, experts don't know what causes it, and there's really nothing that you can do about it. Or so that's what providers have thought for a very, very long time.
There are other professionals that have come along since and have tried to offer solutions to crying, and I'll mention one of those in a minute. First, I want to bring up this advocacy campaign called the Period of PURPLE Crying. They have started their campaign because something that is unfortunately sometimes linked with colic is what's called shaken baby syndrome. Because our brains are wired to respond and relate to our baby's crying, as it said in the Johns Hopkins' definition, that can really affect the parents sometimes. If you have gone through colic, you will know what I'm talking about. It is a struggle. It is very stressful, and it can drive parents sometimes to respond harshly to their children to the point where they could become injured.
These advocacy groups have come up to try to bring light to the situation, educate parents about it. In fact, I found out about the Period of PURPLE Crying when my first was born. He was born in a birth center inside of a hospital, and we actually were required to watch a DVD from the Period of PURPLE Crying campaign and sign off a form that we had watched it before we were allowed to leave. So it was something that they took very seriously. Of course, it is a serious subject.
Here's where I want to encourage you: If at any point, whether your baby has colic or not, if at any point you're feeling stressed to the point where you're worried that you might harm your baby or you're worried that you might do something out of character, please put your baby in a safe place like a bassinet or a play pen. You can use a video monitor and just mute the sound and take a break. Take a 10 to 15-minute break. There is nothing wrong with taking that break. The crying does not harm your baby. Colic does not harm the baby. As the definition said, in most cases, they grow and they gain weight normally. It's distressing, absolutely, it's very stressful, but it doesn't hurt your baby. I know some of you may have heard opinions about sleep training methods like "cry it out" and how that's damaging. That's not this. If you are worried about the effect that your baby's crying is having on you, please, please, put them down somewhere safe and take a break. Maybe in that break you can go and call someone to talk to or call someone for help. I'm going to link this advocacy group in here. They have information on the type of help you can get. Take that break. Calm your nervous system first. Put your oxygen mask on first so that you can go and help your child.
Let's dive in just for a second about what the Period of PURPLE Crying is, how it's defined by this group. One of the reasons they put this definition together is as an alternative to colic, because it normalizes the crying behavior instead of pathologizing it and making parents think that something is wrong with their baby. Like the Johns Hopkins' definition said, these babies are normally healthy, they just go through these bouts of unexplained crying. All babies go through crying, but some babies, who are usually labeled as “colicky,” experience it more often and/or more intensely. So it's important for parents to understand, too, that it is a normal behavior, and that may help to lower the level of distress at least a little bit. It's not harmful. It's not related to future negative outcomes. If your baby has gone through colic or is going through colic, they still can grow to be healthy, happy little babies. It is a challenging period. That's why they call it a Period of PURPLE Crying because it does always resolve, and it will not be detrimental to your baby long term. So hopefully you find a little bit of comfort in that.
The purple is not the color, although I have seen my babies turn very, very bright red sometimes when they're intensely crying. The PURPLE is an acronym. The first P is “Peaks” because it usually starts at around three weeks and then peaks somewhere around eight weeks before it starts to lessen, so it gets worse and then it gets better. U is “Unexpected,” and the quote is, "It's not related to dirty diapers, feeding, or anything going on in the environment. It stops and starts unexpectedly no matter what the caregiver does." That point we'll get back to a little bit later because there are theories that it could be related to dirty diapers. But the point is that it seems to be unexplained. R is “Resistant to soothing.” The second P is the baby looks like they are in “Pain” or maybe even the sound of their cry sounds like they're in Pain. L is “Long-lasting bouts, it can be hours.” The E at the end is “Evening and late afternoons is most common.” Some people call this the witching hour. It can happen with every baby. Even though I have not had what would be described as a colicky baby, I've had three babies who have absolutely gone through the witching hour. That's the intent of this campaign is to help parents understand that colicky crying is normal. Every baby goes through it, but babies who are labeled as colicky just tend to be a little bit more sensitive and go through it a little bit more intensely.
Another alternative explanation is from Dr. Harvey Karp. I read his book, “Happiest Baby on the Block,” when I was pregnant with my first. It was given to me by a coworker, and she said it absolutely changed her outlook. I love the book, I think it's entertaining, it's written in a fun way. Especially if you're kind of a science-minded or even a person that likes mysteries and solving puzzles, it's a great read for you because he goes through all of the typical reasons that doctors and society have given for why babies have colic and why probably none of them are true. The Johns Hopkins definition noted gassiness. Dr. Harvey Karp goes through a pretty detailed explanation about why, when we characterize colic, it is most likely not gas. In fact, it's pretty impossible or improbable for it to be gas that the baby is struggling with. So I would recommend picking that up if you're interested.
He has some pretty funny little vignettes in it where he imagines elaborate Stone Age scenarios of why the baby is crying. One of them he does point out is because the baby might need a fresh loincloth, which I think is really funny. If you've listened to this podcast for a while or if you've read a couple of the posts on the blog about the history of elimination communication, you'll hear that many intact cultures practice EC around the world. They don't call it that, but they potty their babies from infancy, and they don't need to be changing those loincloths because either the baby is naked or they're in something that they can pee while they're wearing, like split crotch pants. So it's just a funny little story that he has in there, a little storyline.
He has a section that is called the 10 Universal Clues to Colic. These are the 10 identifiers of colic. The last two that are especially of interest to this topic are number nine, “babies are healthy and happy between bouts of colic,” and number 10, “in some cultures around the world, colic is rare or non-existent.” That's a very interesting point. I will link an episode, I believe it's an episode of the podcast: What would indigenous people say about pottying their babies? That's an interesting read to hear about intact cultures and how they go about, even in modern-day society, just pottying their babies right from birth.
Another thing that Dr. Harvey Karp mentions as being a reason babies might be having these crying bouts is because they're learning to poop. He notes that this muscle coordination is very difficult. If you have read in Go Diaper Free or listened here on the podcast about babies crying when they're first EC-ing, when you're EC-ing a baby from the newborn stage, that's very common because not only are they laying on their back a lot of the time, which is a hard position to poop in, they are also learning to coordinate their sphincter muscles and their abdominal muscles together. You have to relax your sphincter and tighten your abdominal muscles at the same time in order to get the poop out, so that causes a little bit of frustration in a lot of babies. That can be a reason for unexplained crying or at least crying that the parents can't identify the source of.
He also mentioned that babies have something called the gastrocolic reflex. Their intestines are pretty short, they're mostly full, once something goes in, something needs to come out. This is one of the reasons that many of us find our babies will poop while they're nursing. Because while they're taking food in, it cues their intestines that they need to make room, and it'll start coming out the other end. So I just thought that was really interesting he included that in his book because we teach that as coaches, and we talk about that in Go Diaper Free as a reason that babies might poop while they're nursing.
He also noted that sometimes babies are just very sensitive. Obviously, we all have different temperaments, different personalities. There is a podcast I will link about sensory personalities that's very interesting. It's an interview that Andrea did. Sometimes babies are just upset that they're upset. They start crying, it's not resolved within a certain amount of time, and now they're just mad that they're mad. If you have a baby that just tends to be more sensitive to certain stimuli, they're going to get upset a little bit more easily, and it might be hard to decipher what that reason is.
Lastly, in this information dump I'm doing here, I'm going to take a quote right from Go Diaper Free by Andrea Olson: "Human babies, like all mammals, are born with an instinct and a fine set of supporting hormones to not pee or poop on themselves, you, or their bed. They are born disliking feeling soiled and prefer to maintain good overall hygiene. Although the instincts for poop are often stronger than pee, some babies don't mind occasional wetness."
So that is all of the background information in a nutshell. Now I'm going to take you a little bit into the weeds to try to bring this full circle as to why and how EC might help improve the symptoms of colic, or we can just call it excessive crying as well. So bear with me here. Let's put the pieces of this puzzle together.
Here's what we know: Babies don't want to soil themselves. They cry to alert us of their needs. When babies cry, most caregivers run down the mental list of baby needs, checking them off to see which one baby wants. Are they hungry? Are they tired? Are they hot, cold, lonely, overstimulated? Or do they have a wet or dirty diaper?
Full-time conventional diapering teaches babies to ignore these instincts to not soil themselves, or at least to stop asking the caregiver for help, because it teaches them that we want them to use the diaper as a toilet. Again, we don't know what we don't know. Many of us were not raised to notice the requests for a hygienic way to eliminate. So the baby learns that they're supposed to use the diaper, and that they can go ahead and ignore those sensations in their bodies. Then when they're toddlers, we have to retrain them to pay attention to those sensations and use a different receptacle for a toilet.
What's known as colic or excessive crying typically ends within the “fourth trimester,” as it's known, which is the first three months after birth. This is also when we would have expected most babies to have learned to ignore these hygiene instincts. Some humans, as I mentioned, are more sensitive than others, and this seems to be true of so-called colicky babies.
Here's the scenario: Baby is crying because he wants to eliminate hygienically. Caregiver checks the diaper and it's dry, so they continue down the list of needs. When the crying doesn't stop after an attempt to meet all of those needs, (hungry, cold, etc.), the caregiver starts back at the top of the list. This time, once they get to the diaper, it's wet or dirty. Has this ever happened to you? Because it's definitely happened to me with my firstborn. You check the diaper one time, it's dry. You keep trying other things to stop the crying. You get back to the diaper, now it's wet. You say to yourself, or maybe even out loud to the baby, "See, I knew you had to go pee." That's a topic maybe for another day, but just going to point out that those of you that are worried that you don't know when your baby has to pee, there's your proof right there that you know when your baby has to pee.
All right, back to it. Caregiver changes the diaper now that it's wet or dirty. Most babies, those three out of four who are not categorized as being overly sensitive, have excessive crying, or “colicky,” those three out of four babies stop crying at this point. The caregiver thinks, "Oh, that's what you wanted," yet, for some reason, doesn't make the connection that baby didn't want to go potty on themselves.
What could be happening is these sensitive babies, these one out of four babies, by the time the diaper is soiled and gets changed, now they are just upset that they are upset. They've gotten into that snowball, heightened emotional response, and it's hard to come down off of that cortisol high. The crying could have already gone on for a long time even before the diaper got soiled because baby was resisting pottying in the diaper. While baby's sphincters are still immature at birth and do strengthen over time, they can still hold it for short periods. Parents could also be running into an ongoing cycle where the baby doesn't calm down before the next time they have to eliminate, so then it strings together. So baby's crying because they have to pee. They don't get changed for, let's say, 30 minutes. They finally pee and get changed. They're crying because they're angry and just crying and upset now. Then all of a sudden they have to pee again, so it's just like one continuous cry. That could be a possibility as well.
Since colic self-resolves around three months of age, this could be the baby getting to the point where they've learned that the diaper is where they're expected to pee or poop, even though they don't want to. So he's now being trained into diapers as a toilet and will need to be trained out later.
There you go, folks. That's the possible connection. It is a little bit of a rabbit hole, like I said. It brings me to so many other questions that maybe I'll poll you all on social media for. But it makes me wonder: if you had what's known as a “colicky baby” or a baby that experienced bouts of excessive unexplained crying, did you also have a hard time potty training? It makes me wonder if those things are linked.
In general, there's a lot we just don't understand about this whole topic. Obviously, a lot of factors at play. Needing to go potty is only one possibility in this scenario. Andrea herself has dealt with colic in some of her babies. She has six now, and she's practiced EC with all of them from birth. Two of them had oral ties. It turned out that that contributed to the fussiness in at least one of them. But in general, this is a multifaceted topic. Humans are complex beings. There's a lot going on. Every family is so different and dynamic. That's why the answer to this question falls squarely in the "maybe" category.
If you came here today hoping to find a yes or no, sorry about that, but I hope you still found this somewhat educational. If your baby has had colic symptoms and you've tried everything else, it can't hurt to try EC. At worst, you'll save some money on diapers, and at best, you might help resolve the issues a little bit.
If you want to take a deep dive in doing EC with a newborn, zero to four months, you can take a look at our Golden Window Newborn EC Program. This will teach you all about how to start EC in the newborn period and will go into how to resolve things like crying while you're trying to potty your baby that we talked about a little bit earlier.
Now, I want to hear from you. Do you have any experience with colic? If you practiced EC, do you think it helped alleviate any of the symptoms? What do you think about this theory? We'd love to find out. Please join us over on the blog. That's godiaperfree.com/228. Thanks for tuning in today, everyone, and we hope to see you back soon.
Thanks so much for listening. This is the Go Diaper Free podcast at godiaperfree.com. We'll see you next time.
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