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Infants » Newborn Development

The Experiences of Parents

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A first-time mother described her experience this way: “When I was pregnant, I had these romantic visions of my husband, child, and me running through fields of flowers. The reality was quite different. I spend day after day walking this screaming baby from room to room, crying right along with her. I snapped at my husband so much I’m amazed that we’re still together. I have never felt so out of control of my life. I vowed I would never have another baby.”

Few parents are prepared for the tremendous changes an infant will bring to their lives. Even with the easiest of babies, the early months are marked by periods of physical exhaustion, emotional upheaval, and doubts about one’s parenting abilities. Family routines must be reorganized to accommodate a new member. Relationships with friends, spouse, and extended family also must be redefined. At few other points in the life cycle are the changes so sudden and profound,.

For parents of colicky infants, the difficulties involved in making this step are magnified many times over. These mothers and fathers must adjust to parenting under conditions of exceptional stress. They grieve the loss of the “perfect” baby of their fantasies. Confronted with an infant they cannot seem to comfort, the parents consider themselves failures as nurturers. They may worry that their relationship with their child in later years will be damaged somehow by their inability to ease the present unhappiness. To make things worse, parents are bombarded with a hodgepodge of contradictory information when doctors, nurses, relatives, friends, and baby care manuals advise them about the underlying causes of colic and how to deal with this condition.

It is not surprising that parents of colicky babies express feelings of helplessness, rejection, guilt, frustration, resentment, and anger. A common first reaction is for the mother to blame herself; sometimes the father, too, blames the mother. Over and over again, the mother may review the pregnancy, birth, and parenting techniques, trying to pinpoint something she may have done to cause the colic. Women who had cesarean delivery may conclude that they are being punished for not being “good enough” to give birth vaginally. Breast-feeding mothers may become convinced that their milk is “bad” or that they are not producing enough to satisfy the baby’s hunger. Mothers of bottle-fed babies often think colic would never have started had they only breast-fed. And many women may conclude that they are not fit for motherhood. Said one mother, “I thought I had some sort of deep-rooted character flaw that was responsible for my baby’s colic. Everyone knows that good mothers just don’t have colicky babies!”

Another normal reaction is to feel intense anger toward the seemingly ungrateful infant who is turning life upside down. This feeling can lead to fantasies of retaliation. In severe cases, if counseling is not sought, the parent actually may abuse the crying child. The following incidents were remembered by three mothers who had been worn down by pent-up resentment and physical exhaustion:

“With my first child, who was a wonderful baby, I used to tiptoe into his room 10 times a night to make sure he was still breathing. With the colicky one, I almost used to hope he’d die of crib death.”

“Just as I had finished the dishes and was about to relax for the first time all day, Max would wake up screaming. I would visualize myself yanking him out of the crib and beating his head against the wall until he stopped crying.”

“I used to walk up and down the hall with this screaming baby. I’d say, ‘Stop it, Emma,’ and squeeze her leg real hard. Later I’d look at her, so innocient, and I’d cry that I could have done that. How could I want to hurt her when I lover her so much?”

These mothers eventually learned to have another caretaker watch their babies for an hour or two when they felt their anger building up.

These feelings of resentment and anger are frightening to new parents,. They fear something is terribly wrong with them because they don’t always feel overwhelming love for their infant. Parents must be able to admit their contradictory feelings toward their baby. Expressing these feelings usually lessens the intensity of the anger and makes it easier for positive feelings to be experienced as well.

Grandparents may be lifesavers when they look after older children, prepare meals, or take over while the parents nap or go out for the evening. But grandparents also can add unintentionally to the tension. One woman recalled a nightmarish 15-hour trip to visit her husband’s parents. “When we got off the train, my mother-in-law snatched the baby away and cooed to him, “there’s nothing wrong with you. Your mama just doesn’t know how to handle you.’” Another said her mother refused to believe that her grandson had colic. “She told me that women in this family don’t produce colicky babies, that it was all in my head. She acted as if it were some kind of social stigma.” This type of misinformed, negative feedback makes an already insecure mother feel even less self-confident.

Special circumstances can make life with a colicky baby even more difficult. Unless they are living with other adults, single parents are denied steady relief because no spouse returns home at the end of the day. Families who live in cramped apartments lack the space to walk back and forth with a fussy baby and may face the added pressure of neighbors who complain about the noise. Several parents in this situation have confessed that they were afraid neighbors would think they were abusing their children and would report them to the police.

Parents whose first child is colicky have not had the chance to build confidence in their nurturing abilities. Other problems arise, however, with older children in the family. Time the parents could otherwise spend napping or enjoying the momentary quiet must be spent with the siblings. One mother joked that her 2-year-old son’s sibling rivalry was lessened by his brother’s colic. “After all,” she said, “he could tell we weren’t thrilled with his new competitor.” But many children, especially toddlers who need a certain amount of routine, are deeply disturbed by the chaos that a colicky infant creates and the tension that they sense in their parents.

Ask Dr. Susan