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Colic in babies

September 30, 2020 • read

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Colic in babies

Speak to any parent with a colicky baby and you’ll hear one description: horrible. Learning how to soothe your baby is part of the parenting curve, but babies with colic can’t be soothed. While we know that colic isn’t caused by bad parenting, it often makes new parents feel inadequate in their new role and it’s correlated with higher rates of postpartum depression and marital dysfunction. The good news is that babies with colic do grow out of it. The bad news is that it can take a while. Here’s how to cope with a colicky baby.

What is colic?

All babies cry, but babies with colic cry longer than other babies, and seemingly for no reason. Colic is defined using the so-called “rule of threes.” This means that a baby meets the criteria for colic once they’ve hit three hours of crying a day, for at least three days a week, over a period of three weeks and are gaining weight and growing normally. Many parents report that their child’s periods of crying tend to happen in the afternoon and evening, but they can take place at any time of the day or night.

There are a number of theories about what causes colic in babies, but we don’t actually know what’s behind it. The numbers on colic aren’t clear either — statistics show that somewhere between 5% and 25% of babies have it at some point. Babies with colic often draw their knees up into their bodies, arch their bodies and tense their muscles while they cry, which can make it look like they’re in pain. Despite this, most doctors agree (and the research backs them up) that colic isn’t caused by pain — gastrointestinal or otherwise. New research suggests that colic might actually just be a normal part of infant development. In short, babies cry, and some babies cry more than others, especially between three and eight weeks.

Colic in breastfed vs. formula-fed babies

Rates of colic aren’t different in formula-fed vs. breastfed babies and colic symptoms in both are the same. Sometimes, however, breastfed babies can be misdiagnosed with colic, when they’re actually having trouble latching on to the breast properly instead. An improper latch stops them from draining the breast fully. This means they get less of the richer and fattier hind milk (and end up hungrier). This can also cause an overactive “letdown” in one or both breasts, making the milk spray out forcefully. This can be uncomfortable for the baby, causing them to choke and pull off the breast. If your baby cries frequently and you feel like they aren’t latching properly or aren’t draining the breast fully at every nursing, it’s worth speaking with a lactation consultant. But breastfeeding is no more likely to cause colic than feeding your child formula. 

Baby colic remedies

While it seems like it will never end when you’re in the thick of it, most babies grow out of colic by three or four months, without any lasting effects. Time is the only proven cure for colic. Certain techniques may help but figuring out how to soothe a colicky baby depends on your child, and there’s no specific recipe for success. Some parents swear that baby wearing lessens the duration and intensity of their baby’s colic. Others find that reducing environmental stimuli can help, as can rocking, shushing, singing softly or bouncing your baby. Playing soft, soothing music or even running a fan or a vacuum cleaner in another room can create a soothing background noise. A warm bath might also be helpful — especially if you get into the tub with them.

Some parents find that their colicky baby cries all day, but sleeps easily and relatively uninterruptedly at night. Others have significantly more trouble figuring out how to make their colicky baby fall asleep. Walking the child around the block in the stroller or taking them for a spin in the car can help. Others swear that placing the child’s car seat on top of the dryer is the secret to sleep success. Whatever your go-to move, always make sure to follow safe sleep guidelines to reduce your child’s risk of SIDS.

What doesn’t work for colic

Many nursing mothers go on elimination diets, trying to figure out what foods are causing colic in their breastfed babies. While cruciferous vegetables like cabbage and broccoli may cause gas for nursing babies, gas doesn’t cause colic. Dairy is often blamed for colic as well, but children who have dairy allergies or intolerances usually also have loose stool and other signs. Other remedies such as gripe water and ovol are marketed as helping to reduce both gas and colic, but none of them are backed up by evidence.

Baby colic and maternal mental health

There’s growing recognition of just how serious Postpartum depression (PPD) and anxiety can be — after all, they affect almost one in four Canadian mothers. And having a baby with colic significantly increases the risk that a new mother will develop PPD. Even if they don’t meet the criteria for PPD, parents of colicky children report higher levels of stress, anxiety and lower levels of parental self-esteem. Mothers with a colicky baby are also more likely to stop breastfeeding earlier and experience marital problems and social isolation. 

Colic is no joke. Having a baby who won’t stop crying is extremely distressing and enlisting the support of friends and family is crucial to get through it. You need to be able to take regular breaks from your child, even if it’s just to walk around the block. Unfortunately, higher rates of child abuse are seen in children with persistent crying. If you find that your baby’s crying is more than you can handle, put them down in a safe place like their crib and take a 15 minute break. Crying won’t damage them, and it may even help them learn to self-soothe. Parenting a newborn is incredibly challenging, and parenting a newborn with colic is exponentially more difficult. The most important thing you can do as a parent of a colicky child is to get support for yourself.

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