by Carly Sutherland
Source: Island Parent Magazine
Original Article: Click Here
Originally Published: April 2010
Before you go any further let me just issue a disclaimer, especially to the parents who are thinking, That wasn’t an air raid siren that kept me up, Lady!
I had what you would call a colicky baby. By colicky I mean he cried inconsolably for long periods of time for the first few months of his life—and then some—to the point that I was starting to feel dangerously unstable.
I did everything that was recommended. I wore him in a sling and baby carrier. I bounced him. I rocked him. I nursed on demand. I responded to his needs. Yet still. Waaaaah (and that “waaaaah” was coming from both of us, let me tell you).
By the four-month mark I was officially teetering on the brink and took him to the doctor. To be completely honest, I was hoping she would tell me something was wrong so that we could fix it. Acid reflux meds. A trip to the chiropractor. Anything to make my unhappy child happy. I was desperate.
But no. “He’s in perfect health!” my cheerful doctor chirped as my face fell in despair. “He’s just a bit colicky.”
But what exactly is colic?
According to Richard Ferber in Solve Your Child’s Sleep Problems (aka the Bible or Mein Kampf, depending on who you’re talking to, but I’m not writing a book review here), colic is “a condition in which a baby has frequent spells of intense crying and is difficult to soothe.” Of course, the most infuriating part of this definition is that it does not explain why.
Which leads me to my point.
I’m starting to think that colic is a myth, and a word that we should consider eliminating from our parenting vernacular. This “disorder,” I’ve come to believe, is about as real as unicorns and the Loch Ness Monster. Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not denying that those noises you heard from 11 p.m. to 5 a.m. were coming from your screaming baby. I’m just saying that there was probably nothing clinically wrong with your baby, so why does his crying need a special name, as if it were influenza or pinkeye?
See, in most parts of the world, there is no such thing as colic, per se. “Colic” is just something babies do, not something they have. In our part of the world, we love to diagnose and treat the symptoms, just as I was so desperate to do. When parents take their otherwise healthy newborns—keep in mind that I mean all serious medical explanations have been ruled out—to the doctor because of excessive fussiness, the diagnosis shouldn’t, in my opinion, automatically be “colic.” Instead, the diagnosis should be “baby.” Babies cry, for a whole gamut of perfectly understandable reasons that I won’t get into here. Indeed, some do it a whole lot more than others, but they all do it. It’s not a “condition,” as Dr. Ferber calls it. Taking your healthy baby to the doctor for crying, as I did, is kind of like sending your mother for medical testing because she criticized your fashion sense when you were 15.
Colic as a disorder is a Western construct. Most babies who come from cultures where colic is virtually unheard of belong to collectivist cultures. A collectivist culture is one in which people tend to view themselves as members of groups—families, work units, tribes, nations—and usually consider the needs of the group to be more important than the needs of individuals. In collectivist cultures, the harmony of the family takes precedence over the needs of the individual. We, in Western society, live in an individualistic culture. This is a culture in which people tend to view themselves as individuals and to emphasize the needs of individuals. We, I’d argue, are accustomed to putting ourselves first. It is no wonder that so many of us—myself included, and in a big way—are distressed by the transition to parenthood. We might look at our screaming baby and think that this routine is really, really cramping our style. It can be a shock to discover that the baby will not be fitting into our life, but rather, we will have to be fitting into the baby’s.
This is not to say that everyone who is stressed out by their crying baby is selfish. It’s just that an inexplicable bout of crying is not exactly something we’re accustomed to dealing with. It’s no wonder we find a crying baby to be a stressor worthy of a special label.
A further consequence of living in a collectivist culture often means being closely surrounded by extended family and community. Chances are, people from these cultures have had a bit of experience with babies before they become parents themselves. We on the other hand might have had little brothers or sisters, but it’s unlikely that we carried them around on our backs and helped toilet train them, like the kids from other cultures likely do with their younger siblings. We also might have done some babysitting, but that probably involved popping in a VHS tape of “The Little Mermaid” and snooping around in the junk food cabinet just as much as it involved actual responsibility.
My point is, when we do have kids, we’re often totally unprepared. And so, when we’re confronted with a howling baby, we often assume that something is wrong, that we’re doing something wrong, because who cries that much?! Like the five-year-olds from places like Ghana and Mongolia probably already know…babies cry that much, duh.
Also, perceptions of temperament are relative. Who says a fussy baby is necessarily “bad?” As Meredith Small pointed out in Our Babies, Ourselves, one study of Masai babies in Kenya found that more babies who were characterized as “difficult” (by Western definition) survived a devastating drought than other so-called “easy” babies. One conclusion we can make is that being “difficult” actually makes you the squeaky wheel and gives you an evolutionary advantage: you probably get picked up and nursed more than your more docile counterpart, thus increasing your likelihood of survival.
So I’m starting to rethink that colic diagnosis. My kid was just being a baby, apparently—and a survivor, at that!
Carly Sutherland lives in Victoria and now that she knows everything about parenting, she fully intends to do everything perfectly with child #2. You can also find her at web link.
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