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The crux of colic in babies: Causes, symptoms, and treatment

Nikki Stevenson

Nikki Stevenson

Nikki is a parenting writer and a mom to three wild boys who keep her on her toes (and occasionally make her question her sanity). With over 15 years of experience in the parenting industry, she has more tips and tricks than Mary Poppins on speed dial. When she's not typing away at her keyboard, you can find her sipping on coffee, hiding in the bathroom for five minutes of...
Created on Apr 22, 2024 · 9 mins read
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It’s late evening and, once again, you find yourself walking the floor with your baby, who’s been crying for hours.


Everyone from your mother-in-law to your best friend throws around the word “colic” like it’s just another rite of passage for parents, a phase that will soon pass. But when you’re the one soothing a baby who seems inconsolable, it feels like anything but a small hurdle.

Colic in babies is often misunderstood and underestimated. It’s not just a little crying—it’s intense, prolonged episodes that test your patience and resilience every day. As a new parent, it’s crucial to understand what colic really is, to recognise its signs, and most importantly, to know that there are strategies that can help. In this guide, we’ll explore the complexities of colic, from what triggers it to effective ways to soothe your little one, ensuring you know you’re not alone in this challenging journey.

What is colic?


Colic is a bit of a mystery even to experts.

Defined primarily by symptoms, colic is characterised by significant, prolonged crying in an otherwise healthy baby.

Babies with colic often cry for more than three hours a day, more than three days a week, for three weeks or longer. This isn’t just a little fussiness; it’s an intense and persistent cry that starts suddenly and, for many parents, feels almost impossible to calm. There is a difference when colic babies cry and healthy baby cries.

The term itself can be misleading; colic isn’t a disease or a diagnosis in the traditional sense. It’s more a pattern of behaviour that peaks around six weeks of age and typically resolves by the time the baby is three to four months old.

During episodes of colic, young babies may appear to be in distress, clenching their fists, arching their back, or pulling their legs up to their tummy, behaviours that are often accompanied by intense crying spells that occur late in the afternoon or evening.

Colic is a common phase that affects many babies. It’s estimated that up to 20% of all infants go through a colicky phase.


Symptoms of colic


If you’ve ever found yourself pacing the floor, trying every trick in the book to soothe your screaming baby, it may be that your baby has colic.

The cries of colicky babies are like a storm – sudden, intense, and seemingly out of nowhere. Your baby’s face might turn red, their little fists clench, and no matter what soothing tactics you try, the crying can last for hours.

These episodes often follow a pattern, typically flaring up at the same time each day, which can give you a slight, albeit weary, sense of predictability. Here’s what might tip you off that it’s colic:

  • High-pitched crying: It’s more piercing and intense than your baby’s normal crying.
  • Predictable timing: Like clockwork, it often starts in the late afternoon or early evening.
  • Clenched fists: Your baby might clench their fists, arch their back, or pull their legs up to their tummy, driven by abdominal discomfort.
  • Flushed face: The intensity of the cry can turn your baby’s face a bright red.
  • Inconsolable: No matter what comforting techniques you try, your baby is hard to soothe.

 


Understanding the causes


While the exact cause of colic remains elusive, researchers and paediatricians have some theories that might help shed light on why some babies experience this challenging condition.

  • The digestive system: It’s believed that when a baby has colic it could be linked to the immaturity of a baby’s digestive system, which can cause intense abdominal pain. As your baby’s gut is still developing, they might have difficulty processing the food they consume, whether it’s breast milk or formula, leading to discomfort that triggers crying episodes.
  • Overstimulation: Babies are born into a world that is vastly different from the womb, and adjusting to all the new sensory experiences can be overwhelming. By the end of the day, which is when colic often flares up, your baby may have hit their limit of what they can handle, resulting in the intense and inconsolable crying associated with colic.

Some experts also consider factors such as a baby’s temperament or allergies to milk proteins (in formula-fed or breastfed babies if the proteins pass through the mother’s diet) as potential contributors to colic. Each baby is unique, and what might be a trigger for one might not affect another at all.

Diagnosing colic


Diagnosing colic is more about ruling out other conditions than pinpointing colic itself. Since colic is defined by its symptoms—particularly its pattern and intensity of crying—it’s often a diagnosis of exclusion. Here’s what you can expect when you visit your baby’s healthcare provider to discuss possible colic.

  • Physical examination: The healthcare provider will review your baby’s health history and perform a thorough physical examination to check for any signs of illness that could be causing the distress. They are looking to exclude other reasons for the crying such as ear infections, urinary tract infections, or other health issues.
  • Assess crying patterns: Does it occur at specific times? How long does it last? Does your baby display other signs of distress or discomfort, such as pulling their legs up towards their belly or passing gas? These questions help differentiate normal crying from colicky crying, which is typically more intense and prolonged.

No specific tests diagnose colic, but your healthcare provider might conduct routine checks like blood tests to rule out infections or allergies, ensuring that the baby’s crying isn’t due to a more serious underlying condition.

If colic is suspected, the diagnosis will be based on the “rule of threes.” These criteria include crying for more than three hours a day, for more than three days a week, for at least three weeks in an otherwise healthy and well-fed baby. This pattern helps to confirm colic, especially in infants who are thriving and gaining weight appropriately.

Treatment options for colic


Managing colic can be challenging, as there is no one-size-fits-all solution or exact way to treat it. However, various strategies can provide some relief for your baby and reduce the intensity of colic episodes. Here’s a breakdown of the common treatments and soothing techniques that might help.

Medical treatments

For colicky babies who struggle significantly, paediatricians sometimes recommend treatments that may include simethicone drops, which can help to reduce gas and bloating that might contribute to discomfort. These are generally safe but should be used under medical guidance.

In cases where a food allergy is suspected – particularly in breastfed babies – doctors might suggest dietary changes for the mother, including eliminating dairy or other potentially irritating foods from her diet to see if the baby’s symptoms improve.

Formula-fed babies could switch to a hypoallergenic or lactose-free infant formula. These formulas are designed to be easier for babies to digest and can be particularly beneficial for babies with colic related to milk protein intolerance.

Home remedies

Many parents find relief in various home remedies that can soothe a colicky baby:

  • Warm bath: Sometimes, a warm bath can soothe your baby’s discomfort and calm them down.
  • Swaddling: Wrapping your baby snugly in a blanket can provide a sense of security and warmth, often easing the crying.
  • White noise or soft music: Sounds that mimic the constant whoosh of noises they heard in the womb can be comforting. White noise machines or soft music can often help in calming a crying baby.
  • Gentle motions: Rocking, swinging (even an infant swing), or taking your baby for a car ride can mimic the motion they experienced in the womb, which can be incredibly soothing.
  • Upright position: Holding your baby upright during and after feedings can help ease colic symptoms, especially if your baby tends to swallow air while feeding.

Preventive measures


Although it’s not always possible to prevent colic, ensuring that your baby feeds in a calm environment and not swallowing air during feedings (which can increase gas and discomfort) might help stop crying. Using bottles designed to reduce swallowed air and burping your baby frequently can also reduce colic symptoms.

While managing colic can be exhausting and emotionally draining, remember that this condition is temporary. Always discuss any concerns or persistent symptoms with your baby’s healthcare provider or child health nurse to ensure a healthy approach to treating colic.

When to see a doctor


While colic is generally considered a non-medical condition that improves on its own over time, it’s crucial to recognise when it might be something more serious. Here are a few signs that it’s time to consult your baby’s healthcare provider:

Intense or prolonged crying
If your baby’s crying is relentless and cannot be soothed for several hours, or if the crying is much more intense than usual, it’s worth getting a professional opinion.

Feeding difficulties
If colic symptoms include problems with feeding, such as refusing to eat, struggling to suck, or frequent vomiting, these could be signs of a more significant health issue.

Change in physical symptoms
Watch for symptoms like a fever, diarrhoea, or vomiting, which are not typical of colic and require medical attention.

Blood in stool
This can be a sign of a more serious condition and should be evaluated by a healthcare professional immediately.

Extreme fatigue or lethargy
If your baby is unusually difficult to wake up or seems lethargic when they are awake, this could indicate a more serious problem.

It’s essential to trust your instincts as a parent. If something feels off or you’re concerned about your baby’s health, it’s better to err on the side of caution and consult with your healthcare provider. Early intervention can often prevent more severe health issues and provide you with peace of mind.

Self-care and finding support


Caring for a colicky baby is a demanding task that can take a toll on any parent’s well-being. It’s crucial to prioritise self-care by getting enough rest, eating well, and engaging in some form of physical activity. This not only helps maintain your health but also strengthens your emotional resilience. Additionally, social support is vital. Reach out to family and friends, or join parent groups where sharing experiences and advice can significantly lighten your emotional load.

For those moments when the stress seems overwhelming, professional help can be a lifesaver. Postpartum depression and anxiety can affect both mothers and fathers, particularly under the continuous strain of a baby’s inconsolable crying. Don’t hesitate to consult a mental health professional if you find the situation is impacting your mental well-being.

Sources


https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6091773/

https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/drugs/19746-simethicone-suspension-drops

https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/diseases/10823-colic

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