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What really is colic?
Colic is a very broad and commonly used term by different people in different ways.
It is a condition mainly described by symptoms rather than a physiological explanation of what it is.
In the 1950s, Dr. Morris Wessel, a well-known New Haven pediatrician, defined an infant with colic as “one who, otherwise healthy and well-fed, had paroxysms of irritability, fussing or crying lasting for a total of three hours a day and occurring on more than three days in any one week for a period of three weeks.” (click for source)
Colic crying is often scheduled and happens around late afternoon or early evening.
It starts when the baby is about two to four weeks old and usually ends in about three months of age (in some unusual cases it might extend beyond up till six months.)
For your baby to be colic it is important that he is otherwise well-fed and healthy.
If he has any other medical condition, he might be crying because of that. Before pursuing any treatment for colic, it is important to make sure that your baby is in fact colic.
Symptoms of Colicky Babies
As colic is a condition primarily described only by its symptoms, it is helpful to keep an eye out for them.
Each baby has different symptoms of colic, some exhibit only one while others may show a number of them.
- Colic is not a serious condition. Colicky babies continue to gain weight normally and have no permanent marks on their development because of it.
However, it can be difficult on the parents’ nerves to handle a colic baby’s constant crying.
A colic baby seems to be in pain which he might exhibit by becoming red in the face, clenching his fists, drawing his legs up to his stomach and then fully stretching them.
- Some colic babies refuse to eat or become very fussy soon after the feed.
- A colicky baby may also lift his head and legs and pass gas.
- Colicky babies might also experience fussiness, irritability, difficulty in sleeping and staying asleep.
- Colicky babies show signs of gas discomfort and abdominal bloating. Their stomachs often become hard and distended.
Colicky crying, but why?
As mentioned, the major characteristic for colic is uncontrollable, extended crying, but due to what? As there is disagreement about what colic really is, there is a lot of difference in opinions about its causes.
Most commonly, colic is associated with gastrointestinal discomfort as ‘colic’ comes from ‘colon.’
In the first three months of his life, the baby’s digestive system is still immature and developing till the age of three months.
It has not yet developed the bacteria that aids digestion and is only learning to function. Therefore, it experiences spasms that cause colic.
Immature nervous system
Another suggested cause for colic is a weak nervous system and a tendency of the baby towards general irritability.
The baby, with an immature and developing nervous system, gets tensed up due to any external stimulation.
Some babies are more sensitive in nature than others (just like adults) and react more to their surroundings.
These babies are more prone to crying and becoming irritated due to some sudden change in the environment.
Sometimes it is also believed the colic can arise due to transmission of anxiety and stress from the parents to the baby.
The baby’s milk
Sometimes colic is also linked to the baby’s milk, whichever he may be taking, breast or bottle.
For breast milk, in a few cases, the diet the mother is taking, if it contains volatile chemicals, allergens or other gas producing foods, it may be passed to the infant.
For bottle fed babies intolerance for cow milk is sometimes supposed to be the reason for colic.
Babies also swallow air when they are feeding or strenuously crying. This builds up an air bubble that adds to the bloating and discomfort.
It is a vicious cycle, the more the baby cries of colic, the more air he swallows and increases his discomfort.
Crying triggering more crying
It is also thought possible that the baby’s own crying triggers colic crying in the same way a baby is startled by his own startle reflex.
Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD)
In some cases it is also suggested that colic is being caused because of undiagnosed GERD. This makes the baby vomit or become fussy after feeding.
All these causes of colic given above are conjectures and debated upon.
Several researches have been conducted upon the causes of colic, producing supporting and contradictory results for each of the above causes.
These reasons might or might not be the reason your baby has long spells of crying. As the causes of colic are not definitely agreed upon, there is no guaranteed treatment.
Treating the colic is basically making the baby and the mother as comfortable as possible.
Treatment/Remedies of Colic
Before consulting your doctor for treatment of colic or concluding that your baby is in fact colicky and trying some home remedies, check for the following. These may be things other than colic that might be making your baby cry:
- Is your baby hungry?
- Is he tired and sleepy?
- Is he wet? Is it time to change his diaper?
- Is there a lack of contact between the mother and baby? Some babies want to be cuddled all the time
- Does the baby startle due to jerky movements or sudden noise?
- Is his body temperature normal? He may be too hot or too cold.
- Is he in pain because of something else? For example an open nappy pin or rash?
- Check with your baby’s doctor for other illnesses like fever, vomiting, cough etc.
If you are sure that your baby is not crying for any of the above reasons, then perhaps he is colic.
There is no set treatment of colic; different babies are comforted in different ways. Perhaps one of the following might work for you:
Do not over feed your baby in order to make him stop crying. If he is bottle-fed do not urge him to finish his formula. Over feeding may cause gas and stomach aches.
Reduce amount of air
If your baby is bottle-fed, check the size of the nipple. If it is too big or too small, the baby might be taking in more air than he needs. Also try using a curved bottle or a bottle with collapsible disposable liners.
The aim is to reduce the amount of air being swallowed by the baby.
In bottle-fed babies allergies to cow’s milk or soy formulas have also been thought to cause colic. Consult your doctor and if he recommends, try switching to a different formula.
Changes in a mother’s diet
For breast fed babies there might be something in the mother’s diet causing the colic.
Check with your baby’s doctor and with his consultation drop onions, cabbage, cauliflower, spicy foods, caffeine, beans or other gas producing foods from your diet.
Eliminating dairy from your diet might also be helpful although you should always check with the doctor. He might not recommend it or give you some calcium supplements.
Make sure to burp your baby after every feed to avoid the build up of an air bubble.
A peaceful environment
When the baby is having a crying episode, take him to a place that is less noisy.
Bright lights, a lot of activity, a large number of people around, fatigue and over stimulation, may make the colic episode worse.
Warm bath/water bottle
Give your baby a warm bath or place a warm water bottle on your baby’s abdominal area.
Make sure the water is not too hot by checking it on your hand first and then, for further caution, wrap it in a towel before placing it on the baby.
You can also try gently massaging the baby’s stomach and back.
Try different positions
Some positions are more comfortable for colic babies. For example he might like lying on his stomach in the mother’s lap, or being held with his abdomen resting on the mother’s forearm.
As with constipated babies’ cyclic motion, laying a colicky baby on his back and bringing his legs towards his body and pressing his thighs against his abdomen might prove helpful.
Rhythmic sounds and movements
Colic babies like rhythmic movements and a feeling of closeness. Try rocking or walking your baby or talking him on a car ride. Rhythmic sounds like those of a dish washer, vacuum cleaner, clothes drier etc. also calm babies down.
Some babies also respond well to rhythmic musical tapes.
Allow the baby to suck at the breast, his finger, or a dummy. Sucking in one way or the other sometimes helps babies to calm themselves down.
It is important for parents to allow themselves a break once in a while, as colicky babies can be very taxing on their nerves. Get help and go out for a walk or a movie.
Do not feel bad about ‘abandoning’ your baby; you need your time too. It is also important for mothers not to feel guilty about a crying baby.
Mothers often tend to feel that way when they can do nothing to pacify their child. Also remember not to feel responsible for the colic, you are not causing it and it is not your fault.
Do not let this interfere with the development of a close relationship with the baby.
Colic is very common in infants up to 3 months of age, so do not worry, relax and enjoy parenthood.