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Providence Clinic Helps Parents Cope with Colic

Dr. Barry Lester says even fellow medical professionals "get frustrated about something they don't know how to treat," and parents wind up blaming themselves.
Dr. Barry Lester says even fellow medical professionals "get frustrated about something they don't know how to treat," and parents wind up blaming themselves.
Elizabeth and Kevin Kretchman found help at the clinic when son Zachary was troubled by colic.
Debbie Elliott, NPR /
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Elizabeth and Kevin Kretchman found help at the clinic when son Zachary was troubled by colic.

Colic is one of those things all new parents talk about. What to do about it is another matter.

Dr. Barry Lester runs what may be the nation's only colic clinic. It can be found in Providence, R.I., at the Brown University Center for the Study of Children at Risk, affiliated with Women and Infants Hospital of Rhode Island.

Lester rejects a generally accepted definition of colic, which is based on the so-called "rule of threes." If your infant cries for three hours a day, three days a week, for three consecutive weeks, it's diagnosed as colic.

First of all, Lester says, no parent should endure three weeks of that sort of crying before getting help. Secondly, he says, it doesn't address the quality of the cry. Babies who have colic are most definitely in pain, Lester says.

"A pain cry is different than a non-pain cry," he says. "Just talking about time isn't addressing the quality of the cry."

Elizabeth Kretchman was referred to the colic clinic when she went to be screened for post-partum depression. A study by the doctors here shows a strong correlation between colic and depression in mothers. They don't know if one causes the other, but they do know that as colicky babies improve, mothers feel better. And when mothers feel better, they respond better to a fussy baby.

Lester says mothers find a safe place at the clinic to voice all the things new parents are not supposed to admit. They may feel inadequate. They may not really like their new baby... or they feel they are somehow responsible for the baby's pain.

"I think one of the most effective interventions we do -- and do as soon as we can -- is to in a sense let the mother off the hook," Lester says. "And to say this is something going on in your baby. Not something you did."

Elizabeth and Kevin Kretchman say their son Zachary's colic affected their household and put a strain on their relationship, and doctors at the clinic say families ofen arrive in a state of crisis.

Things are looking up for the Kretchmans. But it still upsets Elizabeth Kretchman that she couldn't get help from her regular pediatrician. All he could suggest was switching infant formula.

Lester says that's pretty common, too.

"People get frustrated about something they don't know how to treat," he says. "So telling someone 'I have a diagnosis but I can't help you' is not something most people want to do."

And so, he says, most pediatricians just advise parents to hang on and tough it out for a couple of months.

Lester says just letting colic run its course is a bad idea.

"Early experiences change a baby's development and life forever," he says, leading to consequences such as a baby's inability to properly bond with a mother... emotional and behavorial problems... and in worst-case scenarios, child abuse.

Babies' cries are the primary trigger for shaken baby syndrome and other forms of child abuse.

Lester says he'd like to see pediatricians everywhere take colic more seriously: treat physical causes, get the family organized in a time of chaos and give parents the emotional tools they need to get through it.

"Sometimes what parents really need is a professional to say 'Do this.' Like, 'Go to a movie.' You know, 'I'm giving you a prescription to go out with your husband for dinner.' And because we said it, it's OK to do. Sometimes, that's what it takes."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.