For expectant parents, simply hearing the word “colic” is enough to invoke feelings of fear. Caring for a baby with colic often (and understandably) causes frustration among parents, but there is actually some good news to share. While the underlying cause of colic has yet to be identified, there are many things you can do to try to minimize your baby’s crying, as well as the feelings of frustration commonly associated with this stressful—but thankfully short-lived—condition.
What is colic?
First, let’s take a moment to define colic. Defining colic is not as easy as any of us would like, and it’s often defined more by what it isn’t since it’s particularly important to rule out other potential conditions or causes.
Contrary to popular belief, colic in infants is not always associated with abdominal pain. It is defined as a condition marked by recurrent episodes of prolonged and uncontrollable crying and irritability. Typically, the cause of these bouts is unknown, and the irritability subsides once the baby is 3-4 months old.
What are the symptoms?
It has been estimated that colic affects between 15 and 40 percent of babies (and, by association, their parents!). While it is entirely normal for babies to frequently cry (an average of two hours per day at 2 weeks old, up to three hours per day at 6 weeks old), babies who have colic characteristically cry more, with crying more prolonged and uncontrollable than normal. If your child frequently cries, there may be another underlying reason. Learn more about why your child might be crying here.
What can I do?
With that said, undoubtedly the most important thing I can share with you is to answer the question just about every parent of a colicky baby asks themselves (and hopefully, their pediatrician!): “What now?” Here are some things you can do:
- Rule out other causes. Because the cause of colic is unclear and its definition relies on some relatively non-specific symptoms, it is especially important to make sure that parents engage the help of their baby’s pediatrician to rule out other causes and conditions that have similar symptoms. As a general rule, any baby who has additional problems with sucking, eating, appetite, pooping, weight gain or vomiting should be evaluated by a physician.
- Make sure the time is right. Colic generally occurs in infants between 3 to 6 weeks old and peaks between 6 to 8 weeks of age. Thankfully, the condition typically resolves itself by the time babies reach 3 to 4 months old. If your child is outside of this age range, be sure to discuss it with your child’s pediatrician for other potential causes.
- Discuss dietary options. People often blame components of formula (like cow’s milk proteins) as the culprit behind colic, but this is rarely the cause. It’s important to discuss your baby’s diet with a health care professional before making any changes. If you are concerned that some ingredients passed on to a baby through breast milk are causing irritation, it’s generally fine for moms to try to cut out potential culprits (like caffeine, dairy, soy, egg and wheat) as long as they maintain a healthy overall diet and it doesn’t interfere with breastfeeding.
- Don’t leave yourself guessing about gas. Gas is often blamed for babies’ crying and presumed discomfort—especially since it is prominent in babies with colic. That said, it’s not clear whether gas is a cause of colic or is the result of it, since the extra crying associated with colic can mean the swallowing of additional air. Either way, it’s worth the effort to see whether increased burping during and after meals helps reduce the symptoms.
- Get moving. The rhythmic movements associated with rocking, walking, massaging, swinging and driving (safely secured in an appropriate car seat, of course) all have the potential to help with trying to calm a colicky baby.
- Consider certain sounds and stimulation. Soothing music, “white noise” (i.e., the sound of a clothing dryer, blow dryer or vacuum) and even just making a “shushing” sound all have the potential to help calm or lessen the crying. Decreasing the amount of stimulation that a baby with colic gets can also help reduce the amount of crying that occurs.
- Take comfort. No matter how much you prepare, facing the challenge of caring for a colicky baby can seem overwhelming. Taking comfort involves not only focusing on the fact that there’s a light at the end of the tunnel, but also reaching out for and accepting any offers of support from trusted loved ones—even if it’s just to give yourself some peace and quiet for a few moments.