Colic in babies – everything you need to know

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Let’s be clear – all newborn babies cry. It is their only way to communicate their wants and needs to their parents. It is a way to let off steam when they are unhappy or overwhelmed. It is also a way to block out other noises and stimuli when they are finding things too much to handle.  When crying is excessive, the term used is ‘colic’. And a colicky baby is not on any pregnant mom’s wish-list. But with around 20% of babies suffering of colic, this is a common problem that many parents need to deal with. In this article, we discuss everything you need to know about colic in babies.

How to know if your baby has colic?

A general definition of colic is crying in an otherwise healthy baby for more than 3 hours a day, more than 3 days in a week and more than 3 weeks in duration. It generally begins in the second week of life, peaks at 6 weeks and resolve by 3-4 months. These little ones are difficult to console, have disrupted sleep and feeding and causes lots of anxiety and stress for their parents.

What causes colic in babies?

If anyone had the full and true answer to this question they would surely be rich. The truth is that we just don’t know. The symptoms are often attributed to cramps and gastrointestinal discomfort, as many babies will pull up their legs, struggle to pass winds or stools, and seem to be in pain.

But there is definitely is a neurological component as well. Baby has an immature immune system which may make him/her exceptionally sensitive to stimulation. These little ones cannot ‘self-soothe’ yet (nor can you teach them to do so by letting them cry it out), and this may lead to constant crying.

Below a few different perspectives on colic. In my opinion this is something that your baby will eventually outgrow, but by understanding these angles you may be able to make things better until they do. It may also help you to find some coping skills to make sure that you survive this stressful period.

  1. Exclude medical problems

I want to first stop and ask that you visit a paediatrician if your baby cries excessively. Don’t expect a wonder-cure (there isn’t one yet), but there are some more serious medical problems that can cause crying. These need to be excluded before you embark on the journey of finding solutions.

  1. Visit a chiropractor

Your baby’s position in the womb as well as how baby was born play a role in the alignment of baby’s spine. If your baby was breech or even just lying at a slight angle, or if your baby was born via Caesarean section or with an instrument birth there may be some malalignment problems. This can cause pain and discomfort for baby. It can also put pressure on the nerves that goes to baby’s gut, which can contribute to gastrointestinal pain and reflux.

In my experience as a clinic sister, most mothers find some improvement in their babies’ colicy symptoms after seeing a chiro. For some it may even solve the problem completely. Now and then a mom may feel that it didn’t help. However, it would be worth a try, and one would always prefer to find the source of the problem instead of giving unnecessary medication to treat symptoms.

Be sure that you find a chiro that specialises in babies, and never try any of these treatments at home!

  1. The personality link

Parents who have slightly older toddlers and children will tell you that they were handed a package at birth. Some personality traits were visible since the very beginning. Of course, you are still getting to know your baby, but you may look back in a few years’ time and recognize some character traits in your child that was already present from the start.

Some children simply are more high-need, or more impatient, or have shorter tempers. Some have sensitive tummies as babies and will continue to do throughout their lives. It is not necessarily something that you are going to just fix.

  1. The emotional tie

A baby is extremely sensitive to his mom’s emotions. They pick up on tension and anxiety very quickly, and this may manifest with crying and colicky symptoms.

Many moms will find that their babies are a lot calmer when they are with someone at home, and not on their own. Even if this person is not looking after baby, the simple fact that they are there ‘dilutes’ your emotion and attention. Babies respond favourably.

To be clear, there is nothing enjoyable about sitting with a screaming baby, and no mom will be able to just switch off their emotions completely. But by trying to relax about it a bit and by portraying to baby that ‘all is fine, mommy is in control’, you may indirectly improve the symptoms.

  1. The breastfeeding mom’s diet

If you are breastfeeding people will immediately blame your diet. The truth is that research shows that there is not one single food that causes cramps in babies and that moms can eat everything in moderation.

So if you suspect that something upsets baby’s tummy, by all means, see what happens if you eliminate it. But more often than not it does not make a big difference.

Another new buzz-word is ‘cows milk protein allergy’ or CMPA, which you are bound to read about when you start doing research. While dairy in a breastfeeding mom’s diet may present a challenge for some babies, it should not be the first straw you grab. Eliminating dairy from your diet is not easy to do. Consult with a healthcare practitioner before you embark on this difficult journey.

READ MORE: How to boost your milk supply

  1. Formula options

If your baby is on formula, it may be that he is sensitive to the formula and may benefit from a change. However, there are many different formulas on the market, each with their own purpose. Don’t attempt this change on your own, or base it on advice on what work’s for a friend’s baby. Speak to your paediatrician or clinic sister for some advice on how to choose a different formula.

  1. Not understanding what baby needs

We live in a society where moms are encouraged to get their babies in a routine and to get them sleeping on through the night in their own rooms asap. We want them to feed every 3-4 hours. We are told not to rock or hold them, as this will create bad habits and spoil them.

The truth is that all this advice is a bag full of nonsense. Babies have their own inherent patterns. They are too small to manipulate you. If they want to feed more frequently, or want to be close to you at night, or prefer being held to lying on their own, they are simply communicating their physiological and emotional needs. Not fulfilling in these needs may not only lead to crying and unhappiness in the short term but has the potential to cause long-term emotional harm.

Listen to what your baby is telling you, and follow his/her queues. Very often it is what feels right anyway, and you should trust your own instinct above advice from people around you.

ALSO READ: Top tips to get your baby to sleep

  1. Sucking and swallowing issues

A baby can have latching issues caused by for example a tongue tie. If you are breastfeeding and baby is swallowing excessive air, consider seeing a lactation consultant who can help you identify and manage any latching difficulties.

But formula babies may also struggle with this. In fact, even without a tongue tie, you can quite easily overfeed a formula baby, which can lead to them swallowing air and experiencing discomfort. Read about Paced Bottle Feeding, a method that helps you to give baby milk at a speed that he can manage.

Whatever the cause, don’t lose hope. This too shall pass. Until then, the most important thing to do is to look after yourself. Your baby needs a mentally well mommy. Of course, this is not completely possible during the first few months with a colic baby, but make sure that you manage this as well as you can. Ask for help, and think out of the box to find ways of doing it that help you cope.

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Christine Klynhans is a midwife and lactation consultant with a firm believe that gentle parenting can change the world. She has worked in midwifery since competing her B.Cur nursing degree in 2004, and has a special passion for education and for writing. She currently works in a well-baby clinic and give antenatal classes and breastfeeding support. She enjoys working with parents of babies and toddlers, aiming to help them find gentle solutions to their parenting problems and assisting them in incorporating healthy habits and natural health alternatives into their daily lives.