Nine times out of ten, parents of colicky babies believe that their infants are suffering from some kind of pain. This would seem to be a reasonable guess, since colicky babies:
are not relieved by the comforts of feeding and holding
often writhe and grunt
may start and stop their screaming very abruptly
have a shrill cry that resembles the sound they make when they’re in pain (like after getting a shot)
Pain was what was on Sherry’s mind when she brought her baby in to see me for a consultation about his incessant crying.
Charlie, a robust two-month-old, had a normal examination. This surprised his mother who was convinced that his daily frenzies must be the result of pain. When I asked her how she could be so sure, Sherry sheepishly admitted that she’d accidentally hit Charlie’s head with the telephone receiver. She said, “When that happened, I realized that his cry after getting whacked sounded exactly the same as his normal afternoon screamfest. I thought, That proves it, he’s been in pain this whole time.”
Was Sherry right? Was Charlie’s crying caused by pain? Or had she somehow misread the situation? As you can imagine, since time immemorial, parents of crying babies have been analyzing their child’s shrieks, trying to come up with an explanation for why their contented little infant at times suddenly “morphs” into one of the unhappiest babies on the block.
The “Evil Eye” (and Other Theories):
How Our Ancestors Explained Colic
Before I got married I had six theories about bringing up children; now I have six children and no theories.
It wasn’t so long ago that people believed leeches could cure diseases and babies were born blind. Likewise, our ancestors made many guesses about why some infants cried so much. Deciphering a Stone Age baby’s cry may well have been one of the first multiple-choice questions in history:
Your cave baby is crying because:
a. She’s hungry.
b. She’s cold.
c. She needs a fresh loincloth.
d. A witch cast a spell on her.
Over the centuries, wild theories have abounded about the cause of prolonged crying. Here are a few:
The Top Ten Ancient Theories of the Cause of Colicky Crying
1. Someone who dislikes the mother gave the baby the “evil eye.”
2. The baby caught a draft.
3. The baby’s spirit is unhappy because her father denied the baby was his.
4. The baby is possessed by the devil.
5. The baby is communicating with the spirits of unborn babies.
6. The daytime is for adults to make noise, and at night it’s the baby’s turn.
7. The baby’s crying is a punishment for Adam and Eve’s original sin.
8. The mother’s milk is too thin.
9. The mother’s milk is too rich.
10. A trauma during pregnancy made the baby fearful.
Even Shakespeare tossed in his two cents about why babies cry. In King Lear he guessed: When we are born, we cry that we are come to this great stage of fools. Babies are amazing, but I’m afraid Shakespeare was giving them more credit than they deserve.