All babies cry - but babies with colic cry a lot, for no obvious reason. Here are the facts about colic, and some tips to help ease the pain.
It's the bane of many parents' existence, and something that's generally spoken about in whispers at mums' groups – but what is the dreaded colic, anyway?
All babies cry, of course – it's just a fact of life. But babies with colic cry a lot, for no obvious reason: more than 3 hours a day on 3 or more days a week, for a minimum of 3 weeks. Around 1 in 3 babies will have colic in the first 3 months of life, but thankfully it's usually gone by the time they're 4 to 6 months old. Babies with colic often cry in the late afternoon or evening, and they may show other signs of distress, too: an arched back, clenched fists and a flushed face, sometimes accompanied by drawing their legs up to the tummy.
Colic doesn't discriminate: it occurs equally often in breast and bottle fed babies and affects both sexes. Doctors aren't sure precisely what causes these intense tummy upsets, but food allergies or an immature gut may be contributing factors.
Needless to say, colic is very distressing for both your baby and you! This can be quite a testing time as a new parent, but try to remember that the colic is not your fault, and it will pass. It's important to look after yourself, too; if you have friends or family nearby, consider asking them to look after your baby sometimes so that you can get some much-needed rest.
Unfortunately, there's no magic wand that will get rid of colic altogether, but if your baby's distressed, you might want to try some of these strategies.
If you're bottle feeding:
- Try switching to an anti-colic bottle to see if it makes a difference. These bottles are designed to keep your baby from 'gulping' air while feeding, which should help reduce the amount of gas in that tiny tummy.
- Check the flow rate on the teats you're using. Too large an opening will allow the milk to come out too quickly, and one that's too small might make your baby feel frustrated when feeding and gulp for the milk.
- Try sitting your baby a bit more upright when feeding to reduce the amount of air that gets swallowed during a feed. (Holding your baby in a less 'scrunched-up' position can also help avoid trapping air inside.)
If you're breastfeeding:
- Check to make sure your baby is correctly positioned and is 'latched on' well to your breast.
- Encourage your baby to take a complete feed at each breast. If you're not certain about latching on or how to tell when your baby's finished, you can ask your health visitor for a referral to a local breastfeeding clinic for extra support.
- Try to time your feeds for maximum serenity. If your baby is very hungry and crying for food, it's likely to lead to gulping air along with the milk.
- Take your time about burping your baby. It might take a while to get that little belch you're waiting for, but the more gas your baby gets rid of now, the happier your evening is likely to be.
- A warm bath and a gentle tummy massage can help relax your baby and release any trapped air. When massaging use a clockwise motion, moving your hand from left to right across your baby’s abdomen. You can also try positioning your baby across your knees, which will apply gentle pressure on your baby's tummy, and gently rubbing your baby's back.
- Babies find sucking very soothing, so you might consider trying a dummy to help calm your baby. Other soothing options: ‘white’ noise (such as the noise of a washing machine or hair dryer) and motion (riding in a baby sling or a pram, or going for a drive in the car) often have a calming effect.
- Some parents try cranial osteopathy, a gentle and non-invasive treatment that one study has shown may help treat symptoms of colic.
- Some herbal drinks, such as fennel tea, can have a relaxing effect on the baby's intestine (however, these are not usually recommended until at least 4 months.)
- Swaddling may make your baby feel more secure and relaxed.
If these strategies aren't helping, it's probably time to consult your GP or
health visitor for some advice. You might be advised to make some changes to your feeding routine to see if that helps.
Doctors suspect an intolerance to cow’s milk protein might cause some cases of colic. If you're breast feeding your baby, your GP might ask you not to eat any dairy products for a week. If this seems to be helping, you can continue to exclude dairy from your diet until your baby is three months old, but you'll need to take calcium supplements.
If excluding dairy doesn't solve the problem, you and your GP might look at eliminating other trigger foods from your diet (such as caffeine, eggs, and citrus fruits). It's important that you make these changes with the guidance of your GP; otherwise, you could be missing out on important nutrients that both you and your baby need.
If you're bottle feeding, your GP might advise changing your formula milk to a hydrolysed or partially hydrolysed whey-based formula. In these specialised formula milks, which are available on prescription, the milk protein has been broken down to help your baby digest it more easily. Another option your GP may recommend is a formula milk that's low in lactose and contains prebiotics.
Many over-the-counter colic remedies are available from the chemist, but we'd advise you to discuss these treatments with your health visitor or your pharmacist before you try them.
Getting the support you need
There's no doubt about it - colic is painful for everyone involved! As parents, it's difficult to cope when your baby's crying, so getting good guidance and support is crucial. Don't hesitate to ask family and friends for help when you need it, and remember that your GP and health visitor are always there to give advice.
If you're having a particularly tough day, you might want to ring CRY-SIS, a support group for families of colicky babies. Their Helpline is open every day from 9am to 10pm (08451 228 669), or you can get lots of good advice on their website, cry-sis.org.uk.