Colic is the term given to excessive and frequent crying for no apparent reason. When your baby appears to be completely healthy, however, they are consistently difficult to soothe. It is a very common problem, with 1 in 5 babies affected. It is more common in babies who have had a difficult birth, were premature, living in a home with smokers or are exclusively bottle-fed. It’s not known exactly what causes colic, but it’s thought to be caused by cramps in the digestive system. Some theories suggest that babies may be born lactose intolerant and experience cramping caused by lactose in their formula or their mother’s breastmilk. However, there is little evidence to support this theory.
Colic is not dangerous or harmful for babies and some doctors think that babies may feel no pain whatsoever during bouts of colic. Doctors diagnose colic by ruling out every other illness that may be afflicting your baby. If your baby is still reaching milestones, feeding well and gaining weight, it’s most likely just colic causing them to be upset. Colic usually affects babies between 2 weeks and 6 months old. It’s characterised by “The Three 3s” which are: crying for more than 3 hours per day, more than 3 days per week for more than 3 weeks. Your baby may also be clenching their fists, bringing their legs up to their chest and turning red in the face.
What should you do?
Unfortunately, there is no treatment for colic. You will get to know what helps your baby during bouts of colic. Babies tend to cry the most in the evening time, keep a note of the times and develop a relaxing routine around this time. Try different methods until you find something that works for your baby. We’ve dug up some tried and tested techniques which are backed by doctors:
- Cuddle your baby during crying episodes. Don’t worry about spoiling your baby by comforting them every time they cry. Babies cannot be “spoiled” until at least 9 months of age. This is when they start to learn about actions and reactions, for example, “I miss mammy, so I’m gonna pretend there’s something wrong so she cuddles me”. A colicky baby needs all the love and hugs they can get.
- Sit your baby up during feeds. Gravity may help their digestive system and prevent gas from building up causing further discomfort.
- Wind your baby often.
- Gently rock your baby, the movement may help any pains they may experience which could spark a crying episode.
- A warm bath can help them to relax and go to sleep easier.
- Keep your baby’s environment relaxing. Avoid bright lights, noise and crowded rooms.
- Rub your baby’s belly when it’s almost time for their evening cry-session. Some doctors suggest that colic is purely behavioural, so changing their routine can break their habit of crying at certain times. Making time to relax with your baby and rub their belly will make them feel soothed and happy before they get their usual urge to cry.
Feeding your baby directly from the breast, rather than pumped breastmilk, can help them to relax as they have the added benefit of a happy hormone called Oxytocin. Also, try to avoid swapping breasts until the first breast is completely empty. The milk which is produced by an almost-empty breast has more fat, which slows down your baby’s digestion. Slower digestion is great for keeping your baby full and preventing digestive discomfort. However, caffeine in your breastmilk may speed up your baby’s digestive system, making discomfort more likely. Try to avoid caffeinated drinks for at least 4 hours before breastfeeding or expressing breastmilk.
Try making an extra 2oz of formula than your baby usually takes. This allows them to eat as much as they like without swallowing any air. Once they stop you can be sure that they are completely full. Also, avoid changing your baby’s formula, if possible. Many parents of colicky babies think their baby is crying from hunger so they try “hungry baby milk” as a first step. Always talk to your baby nurse or your doctor before changing your baby’s formula. The new milk might irritate their stomach and upset them further.
There are no products on the market which can cure colic. For many years, parents have used herbal products like Gripe Water in an attempt to soothe a colicky baby. Although products like this have been around for many years, there is little evidence to suggest that they actually help with colic. Some formulations may actually alter your baby’s stomach acid levels, leading to more digestive distress. Always ask your doctor before giving your baby any kind of supplement.
Many parents are starting to explore chiropractic treatments as a remedy for colic, as well as reflux and flat head syndrome. However, there is no evidence to support the idea that spinal manipulation can help with colic or any other ailment.
Things to look out for
Although colic is not harmful to your baby, it makes it harder to know when they’re feeling unwell from an illness. Many parents say their baby has a “colic cry” which sounds different to their “normal” cry which is intended to alert you to hunger, dirty nappy or illness. This is a great example of your parent’s intuition kicking in. However, if your baby is only a few weeks old, you may not be feeling like trusting your intuition to tell you when your baby is sick. Here are some signs that you should visit your doctor:
- You are not sure if your baby actually has colic
- They are vomiting green liquid
- They have been projectile vomiting
- They have blood in their poo
- They are not feeding well
- Their symptoms started after you introduced formula
- They are losing weight or not gaining weight
- They have a temperature greater than 38 degrees
- If you are struggling to cope
Looking after yourself
It’s no surprise that colic is very difficult for parents. It’s completely normal to feel like you’re doing something wrong. With 20% of babies experiencing colic, you definitely know someone who has been through what you’re going through with your colicky baby. Reach out to other parents to see how they dealt with this difficult period. Remember that colic usually goes away by 6 months old, so it won’t always be this way. You may feel rejected by your baby, especially when someone else seems to be able to soothe them. Your baby is not rejecting you, it’s simply the mental stimulation of being held by someone new with new smells, a new voice and a calmer aura. After a while of trying to soothe a crying baby, you’re probably warm, tense and your voice is probably higher in pitch. Taking a break and allowing someone else to soothe them may help. Don’t be afraid to ask family or friends for help. If you’re feeling overwhelmed, talk to your baby nurse or your doctor. This phase will pass soon, but don’t feel pressure to just grin and bear it. There is help available!