You bring your newborn home and for weeks you marvel at your baby who does little more than sleep, eat, poop and cry once in a while. Then one day a few weeks later, she erupts with ear-shattering wails, complete with clenched fists and an angry red face. No matter what you try, you can’t comfort your crying baby — and as if it couldn’t get any worse, your baby manages to repeat this horrendous performance every night at the same time for what seems like forever! Welcome to the world of colic!!
What is Colic?
All babies cry – it’s the only way they know how to communicate their needs and as parents, we’re biologically programmed to respond so those needs get met. But in babies with colic, the crying starts suddenly, for no apparent reason and has no apparent cure.
The term ‘colic’ is really just a catch-all term for problem crying in otherwise healthy babies, the problem being, there’s no solution to it! It’s pretty common and occurs in one in five babies. Episodes can go on for hours at a time, sometimes late into the night. It's extremely difficult to calm a colicky baby and carers can end up feeling completely helpless with no solution in sight.
Colic tends to follow the ‘rule of threes'
- Starts at around 3 weeks old
- Lasts more than three hours at a stretch
- Occurs at least three days a week
- Persists for at least three weeks in a row
Of course some babies can cry more often and for a lot longer than this.
The good news is that colic doesn't last. Most bouts peak at around 6 weeks and then end as abruptly as they started, around the time a baby is 3 months old (later in preterm babies).
Symptoms and signs of colic in your baby
- Wails are loud, piercing and continuous (baby’s not so much crying as screaming)
- Crying occurs at the same time every day (usually in the late afternoon or early evening)
- Crying seems to occur for no reason (not because baby has a dirty nappy or is hungry or tired)
- Baby pulls up his legs, clenches his hands into tiny fists and tightens his abdominal muscles
- He closes his eyes or opens them very wide, furrows his brow, even holds his breath briefly
- Bowel activity increases and he may pass wind / gas or spit up
- He’s very active, even frantic, his face may even turn bright red
- Baby won't settle down to sleep or eat no matter what you try.
What causes Colic?
While the exact cause of colic is a mystery, experts do know it’s not the result of genetics or anything that happened during pregnancy or childbirth, or parenting skills (or lack of them). Here are some theories on what's behind colicky crying:
- Overstimulated senses. One possible explanation: Newborns have a built-in mechanism for tuning out sights and sounds around them, which allows them to sleep and eat without being disturbed by their environment. Near the end of the first month, however, this mechanism disappears, leaving babies more sensitive to the stimuli in their surroundings. With so many new sensations coming at them, some babies overwhelmed, often at the end of the day. To release that stress, they cry (and cry and cry). Colic ends, the theory goes, when baby learns how to filter out some environmental stimuli and, in doing so, avoids a sensory overload.
- An immature digestive system. Digesting food is a big task for a baby's brand-new gastrointestinal system. As a result, food may pass through too quickly and not break down completely, resulting in pain from gas in the intestines.
- Infant acid reflux. Research has found GERD (gastroesophageal reflux disease) is sometimes a colic trigger. Infant GERD is often the result of an underdeveloped lower esophageal sphincter, the muscle that keeps stomach acid from flowing back up into the throat and mouth, irritating the oesophagus. Symptoms include frequent spitting up, poor eating and irritability during and after feedings. The good news is, most babies outgrow GERD by age 1 (and colic usually goes away long before then).
- Food allergies or sensitivity. Some experts believe colic is the result of an allergy to milk protein (or lactose intolerance) in formula-fed babies. Much more rarely, colic may be a reaction to specific food in mum’s diet in breastfed babies. Either way, these allergies or sensitivities can cause tummy pain that may set off colicky behaviour.
- Tobacco exposure. Several studies show that moms who smoke during or after pregnancy are more likely to have babies with colic, secondhand smoke may also be a culprit. Though the link exists, it’s unclear how cigarette smoke might cause colic. The bottom line for many more significant health reasons: Don’t smoke or let anyone else smoke around your baby.
In addition to frustration and exhaustion, you may experience feelings of inadequacy and guilt as you try in vain to soothe your baby, so while staying calm is easier said than done, these guidelines may help ease the strain until colic passes. Just remember, you should never give your baby any medication, herbal or otherwise, without talking to your paediatrician first. And always talk to your doctor before making major changes in your diet or your baby’s.
If you suspect overstimulation:
- Observe baby - watch how your baby responds to certain stimuli and steer clear of any that seem to cause distress.
- Create calm - try to create a peaceful environment, help her relax, dim the lights and keep noise to a minimum.
- Avoid the try-everything approach - rocking, bouncing, driving, swinging and singing may actually make things worse!
If it might be gastrointestinal issues:
- Apply pressure to baby’s tummy - some colicky babies find relief when pressure is placed on their abdomen and the power of touch alone can be very soothing for both mother and child. So place your baby face-down on your lap or upright with his tummy against your shoulder, or try the “colic carry,” where your baby lies facedown with his belly resting on your arm. Then gently rub or pat his back as you hold him.
- Ask about gas drops - studies show that reducing gas may reduce the discomfort (and crying). So ask your paediatrician about trying gas drops. However, research hasn’t yet shown that this treatment definitively helps with colic.
- Consider probiotics - probiotic drops may reduce crying in some colicky babies, probably because they ease tummy troubles (probiotic bacteria grow naturally in the digestive tract and help promote intestinal health). Again, research has yet to back this up.
- Try gripe water – a natural colic remedy, made of herbs and sodium bicarbonate, in drops. Many parents swear by gripe water, but no reliable studies have shown its effectiveness in reducing colic symptoms. And just because something is natural doesn't mean it's safe, ask your doctor before giving your baby this or any herbal remedies.
- Watch what you eat - if you’re breastfeeding, talk to your doctor about whether you should try temporarily eliminating any foods from your diet that can cause tummy troubles, such as gas-causing cruciferous veggies (cabbage, cauliflower) or allergenic foods (dairy, soy, wheat, eggs, peanuts, tree nuts, fish).
- Switch formulas - for some, swapping a standard formula for one that doesn't contain cow's milk can make a difference. Studies have found that giving colicky babies hypoallergenic whey-hydrolyzed formula decreases colic symptoms in some babies.
Other calming remedies for colicky babies:
- Swaddle - toss a blanket in the dryer and while it's still warm and wrap it snugly around your baby. The combination of warmth and the feeling of security may help calm baby’s tears.
- Make white noise - the hum of the vacuum cleaner or dryer can be comforting to babies (it reminds them of the womb). You can now download white-noise to your smartphone.
- Play soothing music - a crying baby might also respond to quiet singing or the melodic strains of a lullaby CD, some babies enjoy the sounds of nature. Experiment to find something your baby seems to like.
- Offer a pacifier - some colicky babies seem to want to eat all the time because sucking is soothing, not because they’re hungry.
- Get active - some colicky babies respond well to movement, so try carrying your baby in a carrier or taking her out in her pram. Even just rocking or dancing with her in your arms could help.
Should I take my baby to the doctor?
While the odds are that your baby’s daily screaming sessions are due to colic, it’s a good idea to talk the situation over with your doctor, if only to get some reassurance and maybe a few extra soothing strategies. Describing the crying (its duration, intensity, pattern, any variation from the norm and any accompanying symptoms) will also help the doctor rule out any underlying medical condition (like reflux, an infection or a milk allergy) that could be triggering the crying.
For parents: Coping with Colic
The one reassuring thing about colic is that colicky babies thrive! They gain as well or better than babies who cry very little and are no more likely to have behavioural problems later on. They’re also often more alert as babies and better problem solvers as toddlers.
If you’re at the end of your rope, don’t hesitate ask for help, whether from your partner, mother, friend or a babysitter. And if you're on your own, leave your baby in his crib or bassinet while you flee to another room for a minute or two. While it's always best to respond promptly to your little one's screams (after all, it's his only way of communicating with you), a brief escape may be healthier for both of you.
Keep in mind, too, that this shall pass. Just when you think you can't take another night of it, the crying will let up — and then it's gone forever. As wiped-out as you may be, give yourself a well-earned pat on the back. You've just survived your first (and maybe worst) major challenge of parenthood.