Colic: Facts, Causes and Treatment
The term “colic” has been around for years, often used to describe any baby that cries for an extended period of time. Many parents wonder if their baby has colic and, if so, what can be done to treat it, help it or make it stop.
What is Colic?
According to many experts, colic is inconsolable crying in an infant that lasts many hours a day, starting in the second week of life and lasting until about 3 months of age. About 40 years ago, a pediatrician named Dr. Morris Wessel conducted a breakthrough study on excessively fussy children.
The definition he chose to use to describe colicky babies was not considered scientific, but it stuck with physicians. His definition of a colicky infant was a child who cried for more than 3 hours a day, for more than 3 days a week, for over 3 weeks. This is often referred to as the “Rule of 3’s” and these rules came to be known as the Wessell Criteria, which is now used in most current studies of babies with colic.
Key Facts about Colic
- Some experts believe that colic occurs in all babies, but what differentiates it from baby to baby and from being diagnosed as “colic” is to what degree the baby cries.
- About 20-25% of babies meet the definition of “colic” (based on Wessell’s Criteria).
- Many colicky babies may pull up their legs or extend their legs, clench their fists, and pass gas. Some may have hardened or distended tummies filled with gas. (Gas does not cause colic, but seems to be a symptom of colic from babies swallowing too much air when they are crying.)
- The crying is often worse in the evening hours.
- The crying of a colicky baby often seems discomforting, intense and as if the baby is in pain.
- Colic usually reaches its peak at 6-8 weeks after birth.
- Colic ends for 50% of cases around 3 months and in 90% of cases by 9 months of age.
- A colicky baby is not an unhealthy baby.
- Babies with colic often need to be held and comforted more (which will not result in a spoiled child, despite common concerns).
What Causes Colic?
After all these years, doctors and researchers still have no definite answer to what causes these long crying bouts in some babies.
The following is just a short list of things that may increase the chances of colic or cause colic:
- A sensitive temperament that needs more attention
- Immature nervous system
- Unusually sensitive to stimulation
- Breastfed babies may be bothered by foods in their mothers’ diets. (Studies have shown colic and cows milk in mothers diet to be related.)
- Bottle-fed babies may be intolerant of certain proteins in their formula.
- Overfeeding the infant or feeding too quickly
- It appears that infants whose mothers smoked during pregnancy have twice the risk of developing colic
- Intestinal gas ( resulting from too much air swallowed while having crying fits)
- Not burping after a feeding or incorrect positioning after a feeding
- A low birth weight baby
- Acid reflux
Treatments for Colic
There is no proven cure for colic, since there is no definitive cause. Many of the treatments are aimed at reducing the intensity of the crying and eliminating any factors that could be making it worse.
The following list is some of the most common things used to relieve crying or decrease colic:
- Holding your child is one of the most effective treatments. The more hours held, even when they are not fussy, the less time they will be fussy in the evening.
- Place a warm water bottle on your baby’s stomach (make sure it’s not too hot).
- Breastfeeding mothers may reduce colic by making sure baby is getting lots of “hindmilk” at each feeding and not just “foremilk.” This can happen by making sure one breast is finished before offering the other or only offering one at a feeding and emptying it completely.
- Breastfeeding mothers may need to evaluate what they are eating by keeping a food and crying diary.
- Gently rub your baby’s stomach, in a clock wise direction. (This is the direction the intestines work.)
- Bottle-fed babies may have an allergy or reaction to ingredients in their formula and may need to be switched to something different.
- Talk with your health care provider about using probiotics.
- Seek Chiropractic care.
- Lay your baby tummy-down across your knees, while gently moving your legs to massage the abdominal area.
- Burp your baby often.
- Hold your baby upright as often as possible.
See other ways of Soothing a crying baby.
Could Colic be something more serious?
There are those times when a baby that cries a lot has a true medical problem or condition.
Some medical conditions that can result in excessive crying include:
- Reflux or GER (Gastroesophageal reflux)
- Food allergy
- Intestinal obstruction
What are NOT signs of Colic?
Colic symptoms do not include:
- Mucus or bloody stools
- Vomiting or projectile spit up
- Decreased appetite
- Limp or pale skin
Contact your health care provider if your baby shows any of these signs.
Coping with Colic
Parents of a baby with colic need lots of support and lots of encouragement. This is not the time to try to be a “super parent;” this is the time to lean on your support system and ask for help when needed.
- Try to have meals prepared (or frozen for quick preparation) ahead of time so that you are not distracted during the fussy evening hours.
- Take turns with a spouse or other family member in holding the baby during the hardest hours of the day.
- Talk with your health care provider if you are feeling overwhelmed by your crying baby—remember a colicky baby is often very overwhelming for any parent.
- If the crying is too much and you don’t know what to do—put the baby down in a safe place and get a minute alone to take a cleansing breath and remind yourself this will not last forever.
- Try to sleep when your baby sleeps so that you are well rested when they are the fussiest.
- Seek out support groups in your area for new moms such as LaLeche League or a MOPS group.
Compiled using information from the following sources: Infant Colic; Empirical Evidence of the Absence of an Association With Source of Early Infant Nutrition. ARCH PEDIATR ADOLESC MED/VOL 156, NOV 2002 Mayo Clinic, http://www.mayoclinic.com American Academy of Family Physicians , http://familydoctor.org/ A.D.A.M. Medical Encyclopedia [Internet]. Atlanta (GA): A.D.A.M., Inc.; ©2005. Colic and Crying; [updated 2007 Jul 26; cited 2008 Jan 22]. Available from: http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/encyclopedia.html