Colic can be very distressing, both for babies and their parents. Listening to endless crying wears out even the most patient of us. Sometimes, it can be almost impossible to know how best to soothe a colicky baby. Fortunately, there are a range of strategies which often help.
First it’s important to rule out other causes for crying. Crying can be a sign of illness, so have your baby checked by a doctor to rule out a physical cause for their crying. If they are vomiting, have a rash or aren’t feeding well, it’s especially important they are examined. Try not to worry though, healthy babies with colic rarely have a medical condition.
What is Colic?
Colic is the term given when young babies cry a lot. If no other cause can be found for a young baby to cry, colic is generally the diagnosis. Colic is very common and affects around one in every five babies. We still don’t understand much about colic, but we do have some ideas about how to best manage it.
Often, colic management is about a whole range of soothing techniques, not one single response which works every time.
What are the Causes of Colic?
The short answer if that we don’t really know. There are a number of theories to explain why colic affects so many babies, some of which make more sense than others.
But there is little evidence to say with 100% certainty, that these factors are the cause for colic:
- Trapped air in the baby’s gut
- Sensitivity to certain proteins and sugars in breast and formula milk
- Overstimulation and the baby feeling overwhelmed
What we Know to be True About Colic
Crying in the first 3 months of life is common and normal. In otherwise healthy and thriving babies, it’s fair to expect them to cry for up to three hours each day. This usually happens in the late afternoon and evening. Colic is actually defined by the ‘rule of three - crying for more than three hours each day, for more than three days each week, and for longer than three weeks in a baby who is well fed and otherwise healthy.
It doesn’t matter whether a baby is breast or bottle fed, or a boy or girl: colic occurs in equal numbers. However, it is thought to be more common in babies whose mothers are smokers, or who smoked while they were pregnant. The research around this is still being proven.
Most babies ‘outgrow’ colic by the age of three months. By then they generally become more settled and their feeds and sleep times more predictable. They also have a bigger range of social responses than purely crying. This means they can communicate by smiling, cooing, frowning and grimacing.
Crying outbursts caused by colic are not harmful. Although the baby may look truly distressed with a flushed face and clenched fists, this does not impact on their physical development or mental health. As long as the baby continues to gain weight and feed normally, short, intense periods of colicky crying do no harm.