While a screaming baby is nobody’s idea of fun, it’s important to remember that not every niggly baby has colic and the majority of those who really do have colic, won’t suffer from it for too long.
Colic, according to paediatrician and allergologist Dr Claudia Gray, is a broad term used by doctors and parents to refer to “prolonged excessive crying or unsettled periods for no apparent reason in the first few months of life”.
If that seems rather vague it’s because experts are, quite frankly, still not sure what the exact cause of colic is. Frustratingly for new moms trying to cope with colic, this means it can be hard to manage it and pinpoint what’s making their baby cry excessively.
It can be caused by any one of or a combination of factors, including: immaturity of the gut, abnormal bowel movement, trapped wind, lactose intolerance, reflux, exposure to tobacco smoke in pregnancy, emotional tension or stress during pregnancy, and many more in between.
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What experts do know for sure is that colic affects between 20 and 40 percent of all infants, and that it usually starts at about two weeks and is gone by three to four months.
They also know that colic doesn’t discriminate: “It occurs equally among males and females, firstborns and subsequent children, breastfed and formula fed babies, term and preterm babies,” says Dr Gray. “There is also no good evidence for an increase [in risk] after caesarean section.”
Crying vs colic
What makes colic even harder to correctly diagnose is that it’s prevalent in the first few months, the time when babies are usually crying more as they learn to adjust to life outside the womb. Throw a new, overwrought and tired mom into the mix, and you have a perfect recipe
“It is important for parents to understand a ‘normal’ pattern of crying. All children cry more during their first three months than at any other time, with crying averaging a total of two hours per day in the first six to eight weeks of life,” explains Dr Gray. “Colic, however, goes beyond ‘normal’ crying, and the persistent or excessive crying is distressing for the infant, the parents and healthcare workers.”
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A widely used guideline for defining what is colic and what is normal is the “rule of three”. If your baby cries for more than three hours a day, for more than three days a week, and it persists past the first three weeks, then it’s likely she has colic.
Dr Gray adds that crying episodes in colic usually start abruptly and tend to “cluster during the evening hours”. The cry is also more intense and high pitched than normal. “It is usually of a very piercing or ‘grating’ quality,” she adds.
To figure out whether or not your baby has colic, Sister Alma Strever also advises parents to go through a process of elimination checklist: “Has the baby been feeding regularly? Is he constipated? Has he had a wet nappy recently? Does the baby have a fever? Are you sure he isn’t too hot or too cold? Is the baby uncomfortable – could he have a wind after a feed?”
If it’s none of the above and the rule of three applies to your baby, then you may have a colicky baby.
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What does colic look like?
- High pitched, warbling cry.
- A red face.
- Knees flexed up to the chest.
- Hands rolled into fists.
- Face looks pained.
- Back arching and neck extension.
- Rigid body.
- Sweating and flushed face.
- Cold feet.
If you’re sure it is colic, the good news is that in most cases the symptoms will stop, often suddenly. According to Dr Gray, this happens in around 60 percent of three month olds and around 90 percent of four month olds. That’s the good news. The bad news is you still have to get through those three to four months.
And here’s the real kicker: there is no one size fits all solution. Just as the cause, or causes, of colic differ from child to child, so too are the strategies that will manage it.
“Each child responds differently to different strategies and most individual strategies work in about around one third of patients,” says Dr Gray.
Read: Why is my baby crying?
These strategies are wide ranging and can include one or a combination of techniques, such as changing the way you feed your baby, carrying her during crying spells, gently swaddling her, playing white noise or giving her a warm bath and a massage.
Some practitioners advise breastfeeding mothers to cut out all caffeine and/or wheat, eggs and nuts, while others will recommend treatments from chiropractors or craniosacral therapists. It really is a case of finding what works for you and your baby.
Whatever course of treatment or management you follow, Dr Gray stresses that the most important thing is to have your baby examined thoroughly to rule out other causes of pain or irritability, such as infection.
Keep calm and carry on
It’s equally important that you remain calm. Of course that’s easier said than done when your tiny baby is red in the face from screaming. But it is crucial, emphasises Alma.
“When moms become more and more anxious, baby can feel that and it makes it worse. We tell moms to try to relax, and to just wrap baby up and hold her close to them, or massage the baby a little bit.”
And whatever you do, don’t blame yourself, emphasises Dr Gray. “Parents should be reassured that the colic has nothing to do with their parenting abilities, and the difficulty that a colicky baby brings into a family should be acknowledged.”
Alma says this is why having the support of family, friends and other moms is so important. Above all, Dr Gray says to remember that “no child will come to long term harm as a result of colic, and it will eventually be outgrown”. Hang in there.
Also read: Colic or cranky?
When to worry
Although it’s always advisable to have your baby checked out by a medical professional to confirm that it is only colic, paediatrician Dr Claudia Gray says it’s important to remember that “babies with colic are thriving and developmentally normal” and therefore don’t require medical intervention.
If, however, your baby displays one or more of the following symptoms, she recommends you seek further medical attention:
- The crying is truly excessive (more than four to five hours a day) and the baby seems to scream all the time.
- Baby is not putting on an adequate amount of weight.
- Persistently runny stools, or blood/mucus in the stools.
- The stools are green or frothy.
- Excessive vomiting with pain, back arching or refusal to feed.