Why Colicky Babies are NOT Just ‘Fussy’

WHAT is with this term ‘fussy’ babies?  And how on earth has this word become used to describe colicky babies who scream for hours?  In some countries the terms ‘fussy baby’ and ‘colicky baby’ are even becoming synonymous…

Here’s why that REALLY gets my goat: the word ‘fussy’ means hard to please, worrying over trifles, whining, fretting about details.  It’s a word that fundamentally implies that the baby doesn’t have a real problem, its just being ‘choosy’ or ‘particular’ about what will make it happy. 

Now I’m sure there are babies who are a bit particular about how they like things, but its not a word that makes any sense to me when applied to a colicky baby.  By definition, a baby with colic is otherwise healthy and has had all their needs met, but is still screaming for more than 3 hours a day, for more than 3 days a week, for more than 3 weeks.  We’re talking about a baby with a terrible pain-like expression on their face and the sound that they’re making isn’t just a bit of a grizzle, it’s a high-pitched shriek that sounds genuinely distressed.  

Who in their right mind could spend any length time with a baby in that condition and think “Oh that baby is just being a bit choosy”?  Clearly there is a problem! 

My guess is that this belittling word ‘fussy’ has crept in as a by-product of the views expressed by Dr Harvey Karp in his popular book “The Happiest Baby on the Block”.  Karp’s theory is that colic is not caused by a gastro-intestinal issue and all that affected babies need to calm are settling techniques which provide auditory and physical stimulation that mimics the womb environment.  

Now I do agree that the right settling techniques can be incredibly powerful. I was amazed at the effectiveness of the Magic settling technique that I learned from renowned Melbourne baby-whisperer Angela MacPherson.  We had done similar sorts of things with Oliver before that (including making use of Dr Karp’s “5 S’s”), but it was astonishing to discover that if you combined those settling elements in just the right way it took settling to a whole new level.  (You can read more about this in my book).

However, to me it is quite telling that parents’ reviews of Dr Karp’s book tend to be completely polarised.  On the one had there are those who swear by his techniques, and on the other hand there are reviews by devastated parents who have tried their hardest, diligently “shhh’ing” and “swinging” (jiggling) for hours on end and it just hasn’t been enough.

Now why would the reports from parents be so polarised?  I believe that its because:

  1. For some babies, settling techniques will be enough (it was all they needed);
  2. For other babies, advanced techniques (like the Magic Settling Technique in my book) are powerful enough to settle babies despite their underlying gastrointestinal problems; and
  3. Other babies will be in such distress that even advanced techniques may fail. 

I think its REALLY important for parents to know that although advanced techniques are powerful, there is still a possibility that they might not work.  Acknowledging this is critical, so that parents know that it is not because THEY are failing, but rather because their baby has an underlying issue that is causing the problem.  Doing your best for a colicky baby and having your best efforts fall short feels bad enough, without somebody making you feel like the failure is yours or that your baby is just being ‘fussy’.

I can tell you from first hand experience, that once we addressed the underlying cause of Oliver’s colic, settling became a radically different experience.  For us it went from ‘possible to settle with great techniques, but still not easy’ to a relative cinch. (Check out the book if you'd like more information about your options to address the underlying causes of colic).  

The thing to remember is that Dr Karp’s belief that colic does not have a gastrointestinal cause is just ONE theory.  Many other doctors disagree and there are a number of theories about what the gastrointestinal culprit might be.  However, the bottom line is that nobody has been able to provide a conclusive answer.  (See "So What IS Colic Anyway?" for more information). 

So lets look at this as a matter of logic:

  • Babies with colic LOOK like they’re in pain and they sound like they’re in significant distress; and
  • Nobody can prove what the cause of that distress is. 

In that case doesn’t it seem sensible that we give those babies the benefit of the doubt? And if they have a significant problem, doesn’t it seem demeaning to call them ‘fussy’, as if its somehow their fault or they are just being difficult? 

Personally I vote we ban the term ‘fussy babies’!  Do you agree, or do you think your baby was just ‘fussy’?

Also I’d love to hear your settling stories: successes and failures – please feel free to share them here.  I believe that if we ‘colic survivors’ can share our experiences more, it will help those going through it now to know they are not alone.

Take care out there,


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