No one can really prepare you for how hard it can be to have a new baby.
And when your baby is extra challenging, it can feel even harder.
Parents often worry something’s wrong because their baby is more upset than other babies seem to be.
If your baby is unhappy more often than not, someone might suggest your baby has colic.
Perhaps you’re wondering, ‘What is colic?’ and ‘How can I help my baby feel happy?’
Let’s explore these questions together. You’ll also find some tips to help you both find happiness.
What is colic?
The term colic is used when a baby seems to be suffering from belly pain or wind pain and cries a lot.
If there are no other obvious medical conditions, some health professionals use the ‘rule of threes’ to help parents determine whether their baby is experiencing colic.
The rule of threes refers to the definition of colic coined by pediatrician Dr. Morris Wessel in 1954. The American Academy of Pediatrics refers to Dr. Wessel’s definition as occurring when a healthy baby cries:
- For at least 3 hours a day
- More than 3 days a week
- For more than 3 weeks in duration.
Studies show infant colic occurs in 10-40% of babies. It usually starts around 2-3 weeks of age and peaks at around 6 weeks. It can start to settle from 3-6 months.
Is colic normal?
To a degree, colic is normal, and it can come and go. Colic tends to appear in normal, healthy, young babies.
Colic is often the ‘diagnosis’ for babies who are growing and developing normally but have periods where they’re unsettled (colic episodes) and show the symptoms of colic, as listed below.
Symptoms of colic in babies
Do you have a baby under the age of about 3 months?
Does your baby have episodes with the following symptoms?
- Has crying spells, lasting several hours in a day
- Screams, sometimes inconsolably
- Shows tension in the abdomen or body
- Doesn’t settle easily (if at all)
- Cluster feeds (has many feeds close together, such as 3 or 4 within a couple of hours)
- Passes gas frequently
- Goes red in the face
- Makes facial grimaces
- Brings his legs up to his chest
- Arches his back in distress.
Colicky crying tends to begin around the late afternoon or early evening and can last for a few hours a day or more. Among parents with young babies, this time of the day is often referred to as the arsenic hour.
Please don’t worry, though. Your baby is probably perfectly healthy.
Read on to find out more.
What is the main cause of colic?
No one is exactly sure what causes colic in many young babies.
Here are 5 theories that go some way to explaining things that might be causing or contributing to your baby’s colic.
#1: An immature digestive system
When their infant is colicky, many parents feel their baby is ‘gassy’ or ‘windy’ and seems to have tummy pain.
In the womb, your baby’s digestive system doesn’t really do much, because nutrients are delivered directly to the baby’s bloodstream. After birth, it’s quite immature and can take a while to adjust to functioning on its own.
After birth, there’s milk and sometimes air coming in, and gas brewing from normal gut flora. Trying to work out how to get it going either up or down can be tricky.
Sometimes if your baby is crying excessively and also vomits, it might be reflux.
It could also be the more serious gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) or, as it is also known, gastro-oesophageal reflux disease (GORD).
Check with your doctor if you have concerns your baby is suffering reflux.
You can read about this condition in our article Reflux In Babies-10 Common Questions.
#2: Cows milk protein intolerance or allergy
Read more about CMPI in our article Cows Milk Protein Sensitivity In Babies- 8 Facts.
In other cases, breastfed babies might react to certain foods in their mother’s diet, which can cause them discomfort.
Food allergies or intolerances are common. Using a food diary can help you pinpoint what might be triggering your baby’s symptoms.
Lactose overload can result in babies becoming unsettled and gassy. It can also cause them to have a green, explosive, and frothy bowel movement.
This doesn’t mean your baby has lactose intolerance. That’s something completely different.
Read more about this condition in Lactose Intolerance- 4 Facts About Intolerance In Babies.
#3: Brain overstimulation
Since colic episodes tend to start late in the day, experts have put forward another theory. Perhaps the baby’s nervous system has been overstimulated, after taking in so much through the day.
Complete exhaustion from too many stimuli could be the cause of your baby’s colic signs, such as crankiness and fussiness.
#4: Tanking up
Because babies with colic tend to cluster feed during episodes, it might be they are ‘tanking up’. This means they are taking in more higher fat, calorie-rich milk in preparation for a longer stretch of sleep.
These episodes are more like normal crying; sometimes just knowing this helps parents ride out the wave and cope better.
#5: Poor feeding technique
There’s evidence to suggest underfeeding or overfeeding can be a reason for colicky behavior in newborns.
The research shows there’s a simple remedy: improving your burping technique can solve the gas problem, and give your baby instant relief.
If you have a baby with colic, it’s important to reach out to your doctor or healthcare provider for help with feeding, whether from breast or bottle, and to find the cause of colic in your baby.
How long does colic last?
Colic tends to start at around 3 weeks, just as babies are becoming more wakeful and active. It’s common for up to one or two colic episodes to occur every 24 hours in a young baby.
Is colic worse at night?
During pregnancy, when you were awake, walking, and talking, your baby was being rocked around all day and was most likely sleeping and settled.
At night, during pregnancy, when you lay down and stayed still and quiet, the baby often woke and spent more time wondering where the party went.
It’s common for babies to have day and night mixed up after birth and takes them a while to sort that out.
Typically, most babies are more unsettled at night than at other times of the day. Usually, your baby will cry in the early evening and can continue well into the night.
As long as your pediatrician or doctor has ruled out illness and other health problems, this is normal. Knowing this can help families cope better as they care for a crying child.
How do you relieve colic in babies?
During an episode, a colicky baby seeks comfort to help regulate himself. When your baby wants to cluster feed during this time, it’s not just about the actual feeding, it’s also about the close contact between you and him.
Here are some remedies to give your baby comfort and help settle him:
- Hold your baby in a sling or baby carrier. As you hold your baby, the closeness this provides helps a baby settle and feel protected and safe
- Swaddling can be helpful when a baby has been overstimulated
- Stay close to him(e.g. skin-to-skin)
- Take your colicky baby for a walk in the pram
- Speak to your doctor about the use of gripe water or other remedies such as Infants’ Friend, to relieve gas
- A white noise machine can be soothing for crying infants
- Normal noises, such as a washing machine or hairdryer, can distract your crying baby and be a temporary cure
- An infant swing might benefit a colicky baby and give him comfort while you get things done
- If breastfeeding, eat a well-balanced diet and reduce known stimulants such as chocolate and caffeine, to prevent gas
- If you’re breastfeeding, reduce dairy and soy intake, as this can be a contributing factor to milk allergy
- If you’re bottle-feeding, it could be the formula you’re using; other types of formulas might be more appropriate to try.
Our article Probiotic Could Reduce Colic Crying, Research Says shows how parents are finding one probiotic useful in helping relieve their baby’s crying.
There are other reasons why your baby might be unsettled. If you’re concerned about your baby’s crying for any reason, ask your doctor or healthcare provider for help.
How do you soothe a colic baby at night?
Everything is harder at night – especially when you’ve been used to doing whatever you want and then sleeping soundly.
Things are harder to tolerate at night after the daily trials and tribulations of parenting. Your baby might pick up on your frustrations and this could have an effect on his sensitivity.
Try to stay as calm as possible. If you feel anger or stress, take a break, if you can. Ask your partner or a family member for support.
Some babies like the sensation of going for a car ride to help them settle. The car seat can make them feel secure and the movement can lull them off to dreamland.
You might be able to introduce a dummy or pacifier if your baby seems to like to suckle and you have no problems with your breast milk supply or baby’s weight.
Check your baby’s body temperature to make sure he is warm enough, but not too hot, as this can be a reason your baby is unsettled.
Can you let a colic baby cry it out?
‘Cry it out’ is a delicate subject. Alarmingly, some sleep schools still promote this as a recommended way to get your baby to ‘learn to self soothe’.
Should we really let babies cry themselves to sleep?
The Australian Association of Infant Mental Health says letting our babies cry for prolonged periods of time isn’t good for their development.
Our article Cry It Out Method-6 Baby Experts Who Advise Against It discusses why our experts recommend more gentle ways to settle your baby.
For me, as a mother, it goes against my maternal instincts to put my babies down and let them cry until they have nothing left and just give up or exhaust themselves.
There are much more gentle ways you can help your baby get the rest he needs for his development without causing distress.
This great article How Do You Get A Newborn To Sleep? offers you some helpful and gentle steps to take.
How do you deal with colic?
Let’s be real: coping with colicky babies is hard work.
All new parents want their children to be happy and well. When their baby cries, they can feel scared, guilty, and powerless to do anything.
If it’s all getting too much for you, make an appointment with your pediatrician, or ask your doctor for support and help to find ways to cope.
It’s important to rule out any health conditions, and to make sure your baby is feeding properly, gaining weight, and meeting developmental milestones.
An International Board Certified Lactation Consultant (IBCLC) can help you work through any breastfeeding concerns that you think could be causing colic.