Colic is a term often loosely thrown around as a blanket diagnosis for babies who cry a lot in the first few months of life. For those who have it – it is definitely real. But why some babies get it and others don’t is a mystery.
It is natural for babies to cry that’s for sure. But if they’ve been fed, changed, are not too hot or cold and are still crying, what could it be? Could it be colic?
What is Colic?
According to Dr Renee Shilkin, author of Crying Babies & Beyond, colic is “bouts of gut spasm, due to pockets of gas or wind moving along the gut”. She suspects that it is mostly due to “gut immaturity and is more common in infants with an atopic background”.
Crying may occur and the more a baby cries, the more it may increase the amount of air trapped in their tiny gut. Colic could be diagnosed if a baby cries for more than 3 hours a day, 3 days a week for a few weeks at a time. That’s a lot of crying.
The problem with colic is that it is subjective because your baby is too young to communicate with you. As a parent it is impossible for you to see the wind or irritation that’s causing the pain. Colic could be diagnosed by a paediatrician around 3 weeks of age and may continue until approximately 3-4 months.
Symptoms usually occur 30 -60 minutes after a feed when your baby may start to act fussily and squirm or cry. These symptoms may disappear after a burp or passing of wind.
Tips to reduce colic
If you’re breastfeeding you may have a strong let down reflex so that baby has to gulp so fast they may take in extra air. Try to get a good attachment position when breastfeeding so that your baby swallows less air. If your baby takes a bottle, make sure that there is no air in the teat only milk at all times, to ensure they swallow less air. You may reduce gas by trying out different formulas for your bottle fed baby.
Some experts suggest that breastfeeding mothers should watch their diets to ensure that less “gas causing” foods are eaten or eliminated. These include cabbage, garlic, onion, cauliflower and brussel sprouts. Spicy foods should generally be avoided when the baby is young.
Dr Renee Shilkin and many health care professionals believe that certain infants benefit from removing dairy products from the breast feeding mother’s diet or changing to a dairy free formula if your baby is formula fed. There are so many new formulas on the market including several that have modified the dairy protein so it is much less allergenic. There are also formulas available that are totally dairy free.
Adding probiotics to a mum’s diet can help increase the good bacteria in the gut. This can have a knock on effect for baby and its gut flora resulting in less gas.
To Burp or not to burp?
In my experience my babies definitely had air that needed to come up so they could settle. I would “jig” my babies around until a massive burp came up. Sometimes I’d pump my baby’s legs with a bicycle-like motion to encourage the passing of wind. My kids suffered from both reflux and colic that they eventually grew out of over time! Many cultures do not burp their babies but their babies may be “burped” naturally by spending plenty of time being carried upright on the mother’s chest in a sling or wrapped onto her back.
In western culture, the usual way to burp the baby is to hold the baby upright and gently tap or rub the baby’s back. This encourages small bubbles of gas that occur after a feed to rise up and be expelled. Alternatively, your baby may pass wind from the bowel. Keep in mind that it is not possible to expel all gas bubbles that occur in the stomach.
Is Colic a myth?
Harvey Karp – the author of The Happiest Baby on the Block believes that colic is a myth. He writes that ‘babies are rarely fussy because of an intestinal (or even a medical problem). Only 5 to 10 percent of babies who cry frequently have health issues like a milk allergy, an ear or an urinary tract infection, constipation, or a hernia. Karp says, “I’ve come to learn that 90 percent of the time, parents can calm their baby’s screams in minutes”.
The first step is to recognise and understand the concept of “The 4th Trimester.” This theory is that the first 3 months outside the womb are considered to be an extension of the 3rd trimester. It’s basically letting your baby adjust to the outside world gently and warmly. They need a calming influence to help them settle just as they did in-utero. They’re capable of calming, they just need help in the form of cuddling, swinging or rocking, wrapping or swaddling, shushing and letting them suck and feed them if they’re hungry. You might like to read more on the 4th Trimester here.
Long Term Effects of Colic
Colic itself is not harmful for babies, but crying and tiredness can take its toll on parents. Don’t worry about forming bad habits with your baby if it helps get you through a certain stage such as swinging or rocking your baby. By around 3 months your baby should settle and by 4 months the symptoms should disappear. If you baby is still crying uncontrollably at four months old, there may be an underlying medical condition that remains undiagnosed and you should follow up with your doctor or a health care professional.
I know through bitter experience that the constant crying can wear you down. Constant crying can take a toll on both you as a parent and your baby. Sometimes you may convince yourself that your baby is crying because of you but it’s not because of you and is completely normal for a newborn to cry. If you’re feeling distressed, you should put your baby down in a safe place and call a friend or family member for support.
Laura Jana, MD, is the coauthor of Heading Home with Your Newborn (American Academy of Pediatrics). She says, “it’s easy to convince yourself that you’re the only one, that there’s something wrong with you, and that people think you’re a bad parent because you can’t get your baby to stop crying”. She advises parents that “getting support lets you maintain your sanity and gives you some distance and a little perspective”. All good advice. If it is all getting too much for you, you must tell someone and ask for help.
Is it something more serious?
Signs that there is something more serious happening include frequent vomiting, fever, loose or bloody stools, poor weight gain and feeding issues, eczema or lethargy. If you feel that something just isn’t quite right then consult your doctor.
It’s a good idea to keep a diary if you’re concerned about your baby. This allows you to follow up any patterns of crying, sleeping, pooping, feeding or vomiting. You may also like to record what you’ve eaten to see if there’s any foods that trigger the symptoms. You may also be so sleep deprived that you easily forget the sleep pattern or the last time the baby fed. Writing it down it down will help you remember!
Colic is not permanent
The good news is that usually as a baby matures, any “fussiness” or colic like symptoms will go away. Try to use safe measures to try to give relief to your baby. Once the colic is gone you will get to know your baby’s real personality. Colic is not a sign that your baby will grow into an unhappy person or a sign of their personality. I’ll never forget when my newborn son was admitted to Princess Margaret Hospital for 7 nights with severe reflux and failure to thrive. One of the doctors called him a “toad”! Now Jacob’s personality couldn’t be further from the “toad” he once was. He’s now a very happy and content child. Trust that this too shall pass – there is light at the end of the tunnel.