Colic affects around one in five newborn babies and continues for the first three or four months after birth. It doesn’t discriminate between breast-fed and bottle-fed babies or between boys and girls. The fact that it always passes eventually is little comfort for the red-faced, screaming babies, or for their beleaguered parents, who are often stressed and anxious because of the constant crying…
WHAT IS COLIC?
Colic is identified where a baby is seen to be excessively & inconsolably crying, but it is not a medically defined condition and does not have a single agreed cause. No one knows for sure what colic is or what causes it, in fact there are believed to be a variety of possible causes.
Therefore, if there is no single root cause of colic, it makes sense that it might take trying a few different approaches to find out what might help your baby through their experience of it. The definition of a colicky baby is one who is distressed and cries uncontrollably for extended periods of time.
One key thing to know is that colic is not due to anything you are doing wrong. It can be very tiring and difficult to deal with, but it will pass with time. Colic generally seems to peak when baby is around 6 weeks but is usually expected to be passing by around 12 weeks.
Signs that your baby may have colic include:
- Inconsolable bouts of crying for at least 3 hours a day, 3 days a week.
- A flushed appearance.
- Drawing their legs up to their chest and clenching their fists as if in pain.
- Passing wind frequently.
- Passing stools with difficulty.
- Disrupted feeding and sleep routines due to bouts of crying.
If you suspect that your baby has colic, it is important to have them examined by a doctor. Babies cry for many reasons, and some of them require immediate medical attention.
WHAT CAUSES IT?
There is not a single known case for what causes colic, and in fact, it may be caused by different things in different babies.
In a small proportion of cases, there may be an underlying medical cause of colic. A variety of diseases can be causes of colic—diseases that include cow’s milk protein intolerance, carbohydrate malabsorption, infantile migraine, or acid reflux.
Two of the most well-known medical reasons for colic-like symptoms are:
With a dairy or lactose intolerance, parents will need to work with their health professionals to look at baby’s feeds and how to accommodate these intolerances. The good news is that the majority of babies will grow out of lactose intolerance as their digestive systems mature.
A baby with reflux may vomit an excessive amount of their feeds. However, many babies suffer from ‘silent reflux’ which means they get excess stomach acid causing a burning sensation without vomiting. Babies with reflux often cry when lying flat as acid is more likely to come up from their stomach.
There are some basic things which you can do to help reflux, including using gravity to keep those stomach acids in the stomach! So try raising the mattress slightly so they are not laid completely flat for sleeping (raise under the mattress, not by raising the baby, as items in with baby are a suffocation risk). Also keeping baby upright during the day may help (see babywearing further down the page as a great way of doing this).
WHAT YOU CAN DO
Use calming positions
The “tiger in the tree” position is a great position for baby, and a great one for us dads to use, as we tend to have stronger and longer forearms than mums to do this one!
Lie your baby along your arm, so their tummy is in your hand and their head is resting in the crook of the elbow.
As your baby’s weight shifts onto their tummy, the change in pressure can help release wind and alleviate any tummy discomfort.
Using massage to help the functioning of the digestive system is another way of helping with colic. Lie your baby on their back and gently rub in a gentle clockwise circular motion around the bellybutton. This helps food and wind to travel through the gut and be digested more quickly.
Little stretches of the arms up above baby’s head, also give the digestive system more room to work. Tucking your baby’s knees up to their tummy and out again several times, releases the anal sphincter which allows all that wind and poo to release! With any of these techniques just be aware that if your baby resists them, don’t force the movement – try again another time.
Check for tongue-tie
It is always worth getting some specialist support if your baby has colic and your partner is breastfeeding. A breastfeeding specialist can check for tongue-tie (which may be affecting how your baby can feed) as well as helping you with positioning and breastfeeding latch.
If baby has a difficulty with latching on this can affect their feeding patterns, which may in turn led to colic possibly caused by digestive discomfort.
Getting support with breastfeeding is not about having done it wrong, and it is important to reassure your partner of this. It is just about seeing whether there are any tweaks that can be made which can improve it – and seeing someone who is specially qualified in supporting breastfeeding is really important. Ask who your local breastfeeding specialist is or even better, find out the details of a local Lactation Consultant.
Consider their Birth
During birth, the baby’s cranial bones move and overlap so that they can fit through the pelvis. This is normal and the bones usually return to their normal position over a few days after the birth. Sometimes however things don’t return to normal causing abnormal skull compression, which can affect a baby’s digestive system and cause pain.
This is more likely to have occurred where labour was very long, baby was malpresented or if the birth required the use of instruments or was a caesarean.
If this is a possibility, two options which parents can try is:
1) Allow their baby to suckle as much as possible – either at the breast or if formula fed, on a dummy. The sucking action allows cranial bones to realign, and therefore reducing the discomfort over time.
2) See a specialist in baby cranial osteopathy. Visiting a cranial osteopath which may help release any tensions held within the body or head from their birth. A cranial osteopath will be able to gently check the neck for any issues troubling the baby. This is something which you are likely to book privately as it is not available on the NHS as a treatment, but for some families it makes an incredible difference.
Give them comfort
Your baby spent the first 9 months of their life in the womb, and by recreating that familiar environment, you can help them to feel calmer and more comfortable, which might also help them cope with their colic. Ways of doing this include:
- Skin to skin contact – this is exactly what it sounds like. Strip your baby down to their nappy, you take your top off, and just have a cuddle. Skin to skin contact helps stabilize your baby’s body temperature, heart rate and stimulates the release of oxytocin – the love and bonding hormone.
- Use white noise. When your baby was in the uterus they had the constant soothing sound of white noise, mum’s heartbeat, the swooshing of her blood circulating, etc. White noise includes the hum of a washing machine or the sound of a hoover and these days you can also buy white noise CD’s, cuddle toys, mobiles and apps to use as well.
- Swaddling. Using a swaddle gives baby back that sense of containment they had when they were in the womb. If you try this, make sure you follow swaddling safety guidance including:
- Never swaddle over baby’s face
- Make sure your baby does not overheat and only swaddle with cotton
- Always place your baby to sleep on his back
- Do not swaddle tightly across your baby’s chest
- Do not swaddle tightly around your baby’s hips and legs, his legs should be free to “froggy up” into a typical newborn position.
- Don’t swaddle a baby after 3 months if they have not been swaddled before.
- Bathing. Your baby spent 9 months in amniotic fluid, so the sensations and sounds of water are often reassuring. You can bath baby in a normal bath (placing a wet flannel over their chest can also be reassuring for them), or invest in a tummy tub which keeps your baby in a position which is even more reminiscent of the uterus.
- Babywearing. This simply means carrying your baby in a baby carrier, sling or wrap. Keeping baby close gives them reassurance, which can naturally calm them, but in addition to this, it gives them movement. Babies tend to love movement – as it’s something else they also got used to during their 9 months in the womb! So try dancing, swaying from side to side, going for a walk. If these things work there is nothing wrong with doing them – don’t worry about spoiling your baby – if it works, it works! Babywearing is also great for babies who suffer from reflux, as it allows them to stay upright for longer (so gravity keeps those acids down), which may allow baby to feel more comfortable, soothed and sleep for longer.
YOUR ROLE AS DAD
When a baby has colic it can be very hard on the family, and particularly on the main carer who is looking after baby for most of the day. If your partner is the main carer, make sure that you give her some time off when you are at home – it can be very difficult spending all day with an inconsolable baby.
Practical things you can try:
- Taking your baby for a walk, even if they are crying, so your partner can have a bit of quiet time.
- Send your partner for a nap/sleep in another room with earplugs while you cuddle and comfort your baby. If your partner is exhausted this might be necessary to allow her the opportunity to re-energise a little. It probably won’t be easy on you, but it is important that you also try and support your baby through this phase, and not leave it all up to your partner. In case you are concerned, this is different from using a cry-it-out technique, as you won’t be ignoring or leaving your baby alone to cry.
- Don’t take the easy option every time. Just because you know that putting baby on the breast might break up some of the crying spell, don’t automatically just hand baby to mum every time they cry. This can be a lot of pressure on mum, especially if she is the main carer during the day, and it can make her feel as though you are putting all responsibility on her, which emotionally can be very tiring.
Where there are two of you as parents, you need to work together as a team to cope with the colicky phase, and ideally before one of you is absolutely stressed and exhausted – you need to look out for each other!
For more info: NHS Choices