Most parents have heard of baby colic and are familiar with what it means. Long hours of trying to soothe a crying baby aren’t much fun, especially when it seems that everything you have tried doesn’t make much difference. But it can help to understand the causes of colic and what may help comfort a crying baby.
What is colic?
Colic isn’t a diagnosis but more a set of symptoms. Colic is defined by crying which is excessive and frequent in an otherwise healthy, well fed and thriving baby. It’s not uncommon for babies with colic to cry for up to three hours or more each day.
Babies with colic can go red in the face, pull their legs up to their tummy as if they’re in pain, stiffen when they’re held and not calm, despite feeding and nursing. They can really look like they’re in distress and sound as if they are as well.
Babies who have colic are generally happy and content in-between their bouts of crying.
When do babies have colic?
Generally colic peaks between the ages of six to eight weeks before it gradually settles by twelve weeks. Sometimes crying episodes start earlier than six weeks, even in babies only a couple of weeks old.
Interestingly, colic used to be called ‘three month colic’ because that’s the age when most babies tend to calm and their behaviour becomes more predictable.
Crying is generally worse from the late afternoon into the evening. Some parents call the time from 4pm onwards ‘the witching hour’ because that’s when crying tends to be worse.
What causes colic?
We don’t really know the exact cause, but it’s thought to be due to gut maturity. Some health professionals feel that crying is one way for a young baby to ‘vent’ and release energy from the nervous system. Others feel that crying is due to trapped air in their gut, digestion issues or sensitivity to certain proteins in breastmilk or formula.
Though there’s many theories, there’s little clear evidence for the cause of colic, despite lots of research.
What’s purple crying?
The acronym Purple is used to describe specific types of baby crying and what is often described as colic. Six characteristics of crying behaviour have been named, as a way of offering support for parents whose babies show colic type behaviour. Purple crying can be a useful way to understand the phase of a baby’s life when they are more likely to be unsettled.
P – Peak of crying
U – Unexpected
R – Resists soothing
P – Pain-like face
L – Long lasting
E – Evening
How can I help my baby with colic?
There is no one ‘right’ way to care for a baby with colic. Generally it helps for parents to stay calm and emotionally and physically available to their baby when they are crying.
Having a mental checklist which includes making sure your baby is well fed, has a dry nappy, is comfortably dressed and isn’t sick makes a difference. Sometimes offering another breast or bottle feed can be comforting, also try:
- Giving your baby a deep, warm bath and massage afterwards.
- Wrapping your baby in a light muslin wrap if they are under three months and not yet rolling.
- Taking your baby for a walk in their pram or in a sling.
- A change of holding position.
- Offering a dummy. Though for babies who are still establishing breastfeeding, dummies are best avoided.
- Trying not to over stimulate your baby. Often, crying is a sign of tiredness and a cue that it’s time to settle and sleep.
- Holding your baby close and gently rocking, shshing and soothing them. Focus on your own emotions and try to be calm and relaxed. Though this can be challenging, it will help your baby to feel secure.
- Some parents find that giving colic medicine to their baby helps. Speak with your healthcare professional and/or pharmacist if you are thinking about doing this. And always follow the manufacturer’s recommendations on use.
- Asking another trusted adult to care for your baby if you’re feeling overwhelmed. It’s important to have some physical distance and have a little break if you’re feeling stressed.
Baby feeding and colic
Sometimes the only way a young baby with colic will calm is to have a breast or bottle feed. The sucking action can have a calming effect, though once they stop, the crying can start up again.
It’s difficult to overfeed a breastfed baby as they regulate their own milk intake, though it’s easy to overfeed a baby when they’re on formula.
- One sided breastfeeding at each feed can be useful for babies who may be getting large volumes of milk if they’re offered both breasts.
- If you’re bottle feeding, make sure you’re preparing the formula exactly according to the manufacturer’s recommendations. Formula which is too concentrated can overload a baby’s kidneys and formula which is too diluted won’t be satisfying and may lead to failure to gain enough weight.
- Aim for a feeding time of at least 20 minutes if you’re bottle feeding. The harder the screw cap is secured to the bottle, the slower the flow of formula. Aim for a slower, rather than faster feeding time if your baby is greedy and finishes their bottle quickly.
- Burp your baby regularly during their feeds and when they’re finished.
When should I take my baby with colic to see a doctor?
If you are worried about your baby, always have them checked. Even if there are no clear signs that they are sick, it’s important that you seek reassurance if you’re concerned.
Have your baby seen if they have:
- A temperature
- Are not gaining weight or are losing weight.
- Are vomiting, have diarrhoea or a decrease in their wet or dirty nappies.
- A rash
- Any colour changes
- Long sleepy periods where they’re difficult to rouse
- Any crying changes to becoming weak or high pitched
Speak with your healthcare professional about any concerns you might have about your baby.
Written by Jane Barry, Midwife and Child Health Nurse.