Baby colic - what it is, why it happens and what you can do about it

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All babies cry. At birth, it is the only way a child can communicate that one or more of its needs aren’t being met. But, as with many things in life, not all crying is equal and while some babies cry more than others, some babies cry so much that there is a special term for the phenomenon. It’s called ‘colic’.
Colic is a very misunderstood term, however. The way it is often used in lay circles leads people to think that it is a single medical condition but that’s a common misconception. In this blog post, I clarify exactly what colic is and discuss why it occurs. I also provide a summary of research into treatments for colic so if you know someone whose baby may have colic, please share this post with them.
Please note that the information included in this blog post is for informational purposes only. It should not be construed as medical advice.

What is colic?
So, if colic isn’t a single medical condition, what exactly is it? It’s basically an umbrella term that describes a baby that cries a lot. The actual medical definition of colic is the occurrence of bouts of crying in an otherwise healthy baby that:

  1. occurs in the first 3 months of life;
  2. lasts more than 3 hours a day;
  3. happens more than 3 days per week; and
  4. occurs each week for at least 3 weeks.

Many babies that cry a lot are labeled as ‘colicky’ by parents and other family members. However, it often turns out that these babies are suffering from wind pain. It’s only babies that meet the above definition that are medically classed as ‘having colic’. And you’ll note that the definition excludes babies that have a defined illness or medical condition. If a cause for the crying can be identified, then the baby is no longer classed as having colic.
How common is colic?
Because there is no known definitive cause for the crying that defines the phenomenon, colic is poorly understood. However, it is believed to occur in 5-28% of babies.

Possible causes for colic
While it is true that researchers can’t yet answer the question ‘what causes colic’, they do have some guesses as to possible causes for colic:

  • a food intolerance or allergy - potentially to cow’s milk or soy protein
  • an immature digestive system
  • an underdeveloped central nervous system
  • ‘difficult infant temperament’
  • a baby’s inability to clearly communicate its needs
  • transference of a caregiver’s anxiety to the baby

As medical professionals have known about colic for an incredibly long time (the ancient Greeks wrote about it) but still haven’t discovered what causes it, it is likely that there are a variety of factors that together cause the excessive crying.

What can be done to help babies with colic?

The subject has not been fully researched to provide a definitive answer as to what causes the symptoms this does not mean that there is no help for these precious little people. In the year 2000 a pair of researchers conducted A Systematic Review of Treatments for Infant Colic looking specifically at the treatment options. The following was highlighted:

  • Pharmaceutical —there are pharmaceutical remedies that some parents use.  However, they don't state that they are a definitive cure and the disadvantages of these outweigh the benefits making them inappropriate for the treatment of colic.
  • Dietary modification —babies developing digestive system can be susceptible to what their mothers eat and also the formula they consume. A low allergen diet may help to reduce the symptoms. Different field studies have been done on what a mother consumes like egg, wheat, nuts and milk as opposed to babies fed with milk-based formula. The results from these studies were mixed. It was found that some babies had shorter colic spells when fed soy-based formula.

A recommended course of action for a breastfeeding mother is to pay close attention to the colic episodes of her baby and also what her dietary intake was. Keeping a record of this will help both the mother and doctor with determining the treatment course to take. The same principle applies to formula fed babies; a pattern of symptoms can be traced to what the baby consumes.

  • Behavioural treatment —the only behavioural treatment for colic that is supported by science is decreased stimulation. The evidence is severely limited but if you have a colicky baby, it may be worth a shot. 
  • Naturopathic treatment —while herbal tea and sugar seem to offer some relief to babies with colic, there are health concerns associated with both treatments. If you are interested in trialling such a treatment, it would be best to consult your doctor before doing so. Treatments with probiotics or fennel appear to be effective, but again you should consult your doctor before attempting to treat your child with either remedy.

What should you do if you suspect your baby has colic?

The first step in coming to a diagnosis of colic is to rule out what is not colic. So, if your baby cries a lot the checklist is:

✅ Baby is clean and dry
✅ Tummy is full and well burped
✅ Well rested and occupied with some form of entertainment or interactive play  
✅  No discomfort from pain or teething, illness or constipation

If all these can be ruled out and your baby still cries enough to meet the criteria for colic, then it is time to move to the next step. Keep a symptom diary for baby and a food diary for Mom (if the baby is breastfed) and for baby (if the baby is formula fed). It would also be good to keep track of parental mental health to see if any bouts of anxiety or depression coincide with increased crying in a baby.
Once you’ve gathered all your information, speak with your doctor. You can then discuss possible treatments such as dietary modification if the food diary indicates that might help. You might also discuss possible naturopathic treatments, especially if you haven’t been able to identify any patterns.

What should you do if you suspect your baby has colic?

If your baby cries a lot, your first port of call is to try to identify a cause for your baby’s crying. First, check that all baby’s basic needs are met - meaning that Bub has a clean nappy, is well fed, isn’t tired, isn’t bored and doesn’t need to be burped. Once these potential causes of crying are eliminated, move on to the more advanced needs such as pain from teething, illness or constipation. If all these can be ruled out and baby still cries enough to meet the criteria for colic, then I would recommend you start keeping a symptom diary for baby and a food diary for Mom (if baby baby is breastfed) and for babyBub (if the baby is formula fed). You could also keep a parental mental health diary as well to see if any bouts of anxiety or depression in a parent coincide with increased crying in the baby.

Once you’ve gathered all this information, head to your doctor to discuss any patterns or lack thereof. You can then discuss possible treatments such as dietary modification if the food diary indicates that might help. You might also discuss possible naturopathic treatments, especially if you haven’t been able to identify any patterns.

You may also like to check-out the 3-way anti-colic Minbie nipples, because this groundbreaking teat has many benefits including: (1) babies can latch properly while feeding so they aren't likely to ingest air through the sides of their mouth while feeding (2) babies draw saliva enzymes to their stomach to help with digesting the milk (3) with Minbie teats babies practice for a proper breastfeeding latch, thus assisting you to breastfeed and your breastmilk has lots of goodness in it to help your baby digest the milk.  

Benefit by using the wonderful Minbie anti-colic nipple - you can check it out by clicking the shop link now below. 

Have your say

Have you found a treatment that worked for your baby with colic? Share it in the comments and you might just help another family in a similar situation.

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