Under three months of age, what babies encounter day-by-day is completely in the hands of the people around them. Having come out of the ‘float chamber’ environment of the womb, babies are not adapted to the cascade of sensations now arriving from around them.
To make matters worse, at about 4 to 5 weeks of age this situation increases as they start to be attracted to visual stimuli around them such as human faces, movement and the light. Unfortunately the development of the ‘off’ switch for this comes along a little later. It is not until after three–four months that they start to develop the ability to direct their attention elsewhere and calm themselves when their environment becomes too stressful.
This means between the ages of four to twelve weeks our little ones have this difficult period where they are attracted to sights around them, but are unable to ignore them when such visual input starts to overwhelm them.
This is the ‘colic’ window. This is the era where all babies to some degree start to complain towards the end of the day that they have had as much sensation as they can deal with, and they are now stressed and upset. Hence the phenomenon of ‘6 o’clock’ or ‘evening’ so-called colic.
Young babies have a fairly primitive way of showing stress. They get upset and tense, they draw their knees up to their chest and scream, looking for all the world like they have tummy-ache. As far as the baby is concerned there is no difference to them between pain and stress: same hormones, same reaction. But don’t be fooled, it’s not tummy-ache.
You deal with it by being with them and calming them in neutral, visibly uninteresting surroundings. It may take a few days for them to de-stress and settle down. Have a look at my FAQ on this website: ‘Bore your Baby to Sleep’ for more on this.
At 3 to 4 months the baby’s brain develops the ability to redirect his attention elsewhere when she is getting overwhelmed and from then on she is better at calming herself down. That is why it is also called ‘three-month colic’, because that’s when it tends to settle.
Pity the poor baby whose four-twelve week window falls over the Christmas period!
Christmas time brings the perfect storm. There is the stressed and an even more than usually busy mother. But more important is the hordes of doting relatives and Christmas parties jammed with people all of whom are determined to wake up the sleeping baby to give him a cuddle.
Doctor’s offices become jammed with screaming babies in late December. Babies need calm, quiet, loving surroundings for the first months until they are of an age when can cope with more.
So put your baby into a darkened, calm bedroom when the revelling crowds arrive and if they want to see him, show them his picture on your phone.