Understanding colic: Different cries, different pain

baby crying
baby crying

What you need to know:

Sometimes, the baby’s cry can be persistent and irritating. The baby will keep you awake throughout the night, and get cranky. This could be a sign of colic

The joy of being around an infant is immeasurable. Their cooing and gurgling sounds will crack any stone-faced human.

But beneath the gurgles is a feature that is common in all infants that every mother has to deal with. Colic and incessant crying!

These are the dreaded, piercing, unyielding shrieks that keep parents awake during the night.

And no matter how many babies a parent has had previously, every colic situation can be heartbreaking and tear-jerking.

“It is so heartbreaking when my baby goes into cry mode. There is no comforting her and this makes me break inside,” says Jerusha Waithera, a 32-year-old mother of two.

Sometimes, the baby’s cry can be persistent and irritating. The baby will keep you awake throughout the night, and get cranky when you are just about to get busy with that must-attend zoom meeting.

“I would ignore her at first in order to carry out some tasks, hoping that she would stop after a short while. But I never thought that she had such capacity to keep crying for such a long time,” says Damaris Mwende whose daughter recently turned two years old.

On any given day, an infant may cry for up to two or more hours! Sometimes, the cries will emerge from no known cause, which can lead some parents to perceive their infants as stubborn or needy.

Hannah Cheroitich says there are times she has deliberately ignored her infant for being stubborn.

“I feed and bathe her well. I know she is not hungry. She is just being stubborn; crying all the time. I just ignore her and let her cry herself to sleep, especially on days when I hardly slept the previous night,” she says.

Society, however, is not so kind to mothers who let their babies cry unattended. Such mothers are harshly judged as inconsiderate or bad.

Broken connection

When a baby starts to cry, the first thing a mother will try to do is shake or sway them in a bid to soothe them.

But according to child therapist Nancy Nduta, this is never the appropriate thing to do.

“Resist the urge to pick up and shake the baby. It’s not always the right response,” she says. For some mothers like Cherotich, ignoring the baby altogether is the solution.

However, Nancy says ignoring a baby’s cry may hinder the connection they feel with you.

“A more compliant baby will shortly give up. If ignorance becomes a trend, he or she will stop signalling, become withdrawn and realise that the crying is not worthwhile and that they aren’t worthwhile either,” she says.

“The baby will lose any motivation to communicate [with] you and only do so when it’s overly necessary, while in contrast, you will be thinking that you have a nice infant who doesn’t cry.” 

Granted, responding correctly to a baby’s cry is a major communication challenge that a new mother often encounters.

Most parents get along oblivious of how detrimental the cries are and as their children grow, the cries become less.

A mother may think that the infant’s crying is a bad habit that should be broken. But this is detrimental to the child’s development.

“Babies hardly cry out of a bad habit. The cry is often a trigger or signal that should be responded to rather than broken or subdued,” says Nancy.

According to a study by the University of London, there’s no direct correlation between your infant’s continuous cries and a stressful environment, obstetric complications, inadequate parenting, breast or bottle feeding or birth order and gender.

It is important that you consult your doctor if your infant cries painfully with frequent vomiting as this may be indicative of gastroesophageal reflux.

But to understand and respond positively to your infant’s cry-language, Nancy advises that you learn and master your infant’s pre-cry signals.

“Your baby will give signals to indicate that she or he is gearing up for a big cry. These include little grimaces, flailing arms, wriggling and, or anxious facial expressions, and changes in their breathing patterns,” she says.

Here are some of the types of cries your baby might unleash, what they mean, and what to do about them:

The cry of discomfort

With this type of cry, your baby will unleash a whiny, indecisive shriek. She or he will be repetitive in the crying.

The cry will tend to get louder the longer she cries. She or he may also tend to wriggle.  

According to Nancy, this type of cry is the most common among infants.

“The infant will let out this type of cry to tell you that she or he is experiencing discomfort. It could be the way you have positioned the baby on the sofa or the bed, or that the [diaper] they are wearing is wet, soiled, or too tight,” she says.

Start by readjusting their position, checking their pampers, and their temperature too.

The colic cry

This is the mother of all cries. The baby will be relentless and inconsolable, with no apparent reason, for periods longer than 3 hours, 3 days a week.

They will mainly cry in the late hours. “The baby will cry with a focus and force and her cries will most likely be piercing. The cries will come with tensed limbs, clenched fists, and arched backs, and appear as if the baby is trying to crawl from your arms,” says Maggy Odhiambo, a pediatrician.

The symptoms of colic usually begin from two to three weeks of age, peak in intensity around six to eight weeks and begin to subside at three to four months of age.

Your baby will require specific circumstances to calm down. Be on the lookout for them.

Additionally, bright green vomiting with colicky crying can suggest a serious intestinal blockage requiring immediate, fast medical attention.

The cry of indigestion

This type of cry will occur when the baby is experiencing severe abdominal pains.

This cry will involve whimpering, and a pushy sound that will be proceeding to an urgent, panicky cry.

When crying, the baby will pull up their legs or start flailing. To stop the crying and ease the indigestion or prevailing abdominal gas, try burping them.

If the pain seems more intestinal, lay the baby on her back and make exaggerated pedalling movements.

Massage the baby's lower abdomen from left to right in the shape of an ‘n’ (lowercase).

If these attempts don’t appear to ease their pain and crying, consider consulting your pediatrician for checkup and diagnosis.

The cry of hunger

This type of cry is sharp. It is a call to attention. It is siren-like, rhythmic and short.

“With this type of cry, the baby will intensify their crying and get louder in a bid to make you respond,” says Nancy.

The solution to this is food! If the baby is below six months, keep her on exclusively breastfeeding.

If she is over the six-month exclusive breastfeeding period, be careful not to over-feed them, especially if they took their meal a few moments ago.

It is important to understand that the baby may only need to suckle.

The cry of pain

If your infant cries violently with high-pitch and short loud screams, he or she will be signalling that they are in real pain.

This type of cry may also be accompanied by closed eyes and flushed or feverish skin.

If your infant unleashes this type of cry, start by checking for their temperature, swelling, blood, rashes and, or breathing difficulties.

You may also consider consulting your pediatrician for checkup and diagnosis.

The cry of fear

If your infant is startled or is in the presence of unfamiliar faces or surroundings, they may tend to recoil in fear.

To express anxiety or fear, the baby will begin to cry in confused pauses before eventually letting out a full high-pitched cry.

To soothe the baby, you will only need to observe the environment and cuddle or rock them to give them a sense of reassurance, comfort and safety.