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Colic: The Causes, Symptoms and Treatments

All you need to know about colic

There is no magic wand when it comes to colic. However, there are steps you can take to tackle the condition. We take a look at everything you need to know about colic, the symptoms and treatments worth trying.

What is colic?

The NHS defines colic as repeated episodes of excessive and inconsolable crying, for at least three hours a day, at least three days per week, for at least three weeks in an otherwise healthy and well cared-for baby. Colic tends to occur in the first three months of your baby’s life and generally strikes in the afternoon or evening. Up to half of babies will suffer from colic at some point, but despite being such a common condition, there’s no conclusive cause – hence no single cure.

Many colic symptoms point to abdominal discomfort, leading some experts to theorise that colic is related to reflux (milk in the stomach coming back up into the oesophagus). It’s also been linked to a milk-protein allergy, lactose intolerance and wind. Many experts agree, in some cases, it’s likely to be related to stress rather than abdominal pain. 

What are the symptoms of colic?

Although the symptoms vary from baby to baby, a colicky baby will:

  • Cry as if they are in pain
  • Have a sudden onset of excessive, stop/start crying
  • Cry with clenched fists, stiff limbs and a tight stomach

A baby suffering from colic cannot be consoled by routine comfort measures.

Are there different types of colic?

Maternity nurse and colic consultant Fe Baker has worked with hundreds of babies and believes there are four different type of colic, each with its own set of specific symptoms and causes.

1. Digestive colic

A young baby’s digestive system isn’t fully developed, so she may feel pain in her stomach or abdomen. This is the traditional medical view of colic and it’s what most people mean when they talk about it.

Does this sound like your baby?

  • My baby seems uncomfortable and cries a lot about an hour after her feeds, and especially in the evening.
  • Sometimes she pulls her knees up to her chest.
  • When she cries it can sometimes sound like more of a groan.
  • Her tummy gurgles and feels quite hard.
  • I’ve noticed her moaning and wriggling around in her sleep too.
  • Often the crying isn’t that bad to start off with, but then it escalates.
  • It can take a long time for her to burp, but when she does she brings up a lot of milk.
  • She seems uncomfortable right before she does a poo.

How to treat digestive colic

If your baby has digestive colic, it’s time to turn detective. There may be several possible causes, such as an imbalance in her stomach acid levels, reflux or a milk intolerance. Sift through the possibilities to rule out possible causes, and you should be able to figure out the problem and take action to solve it.

  • Look for clues: Does your baby have diarrhoea, constipation, foul-smelling poos, a white tongue or severe nappy rash? If you spot any of these, talk to your GP to see if there is anything else going on that might be causing the crying.
  • Feed with care: If your baby has digestive colic, she is likely to benefit from a feeding pattern every three to four hours. When you can, ensure your baby has time between feeds to properly digest her food. It’s also a good idea to calm your baby before you feed her, rather than calming her by feeding her. Otherwise the air she’ll swallow can make her colic symptoms worse.
  • Check your feeding position: Whether you’re bottle- or breastfeeding, her chin must be up so she can suck, breathe and swallow without gulping air.
  • Empty one breast at a time: If you’re breastfeeding, let her empty your first breast before offering the other, as snacking from one side to the other provides only the fore milk. This is high in protein and sugar, but low in fat, so it relieves hunger but adds to colic.
  • Carry out checks if you’re bottle-feeding: If you’re bottle-feeding, check you’re using the right-sized teat for her age, and you’re holding the bottle so there’s no air in the teat. Take an extra minute at every feed to check the formula is always thoroughly mixed and at the right temperature.

2. Physical colic

During the first few weeks of life, areas of your baby’s body may be slightly misaligned. And it’s understandable why – perhaps if your natural birth was very quick or less than smooth, or you’ve had a c-section. Sometimes, nothing needs to have happened to have caused physical colic – your baby may simply be feeling the effects of being in a cramped position in your womb. She might be experiencing muscular, skeletal or joint discomfort, usually in her neck, back or pelvis. It’s similar to how you feel if you’ve put your back out: there’s a constant ache and you can’t get comfortable. 

Does this sound like your baby?

  • My newborn seems constantly uncomfortable. She cries a lot, but it's worse in the evening. Even when I cuddle her she feels tense, no matter how I hold her, but at least cuddling usually helps to console her.
  • My baby is happy on her own for a short time, and mainly sleeps well. But when she wakes, she cries immediately.
  • She doesn’t have a problem bringing wind up, and the health visitor says her poos are normal. Occasionally after a feed, she might posset, but she never vomits her whole feed.
  • If I wind her on my shoulder she arches her back and gets upset.
  • She cries as soon as I put her on her tummy.

How to treat physical colic

If you think your baby has physical colic, gently stretching her body can help to get everything back aligned and make her feel more comfortable.

  • Gentle movement: Incorporate gentle movement into your routine – move your baby slowly and gently.
  • Upper body stretch: Lie your baby on her back with her arms wide open. Slowly bring her hands together to clap, then open them again. Then bring her arms in and pass them across her body, as if she's giving herself a cuddle, then open them again. Move her arms so they’re lying down by her sides, then lift them alternately up over her head. Finally, lift both arms together above her head and bring them down again.
  • Lower body stretch: Lie your baby on her back. Holding her ankles with both your hands, gently lift her legs, so her bottom raises slightly, but keep her shoulders on the floor. Lower and repeat. Next, holding her feet, slowly bend her knees, then let her knees drop outwards and clap the soles of her feet together. Repeat. Now hold her legs just below her knees, bringing her knees together and bending them up to her tummy. Hold, then repeat. Finally, hold one leg straight on the floor, then bend the other, bringing her knee towards her opposite shoulder. Hold and repeat.
  • Baby massage: This is a great way to help with physical discomfort.

3. Intellectual colic

A baby who’s over-stimulated can become upset when there’s just too much going on for her to cope with. This seems to happen more after the first month, with babies who are alert, observant and very intelligent.

Does this sound like your baby?

  • My one-month-old baby often cries randomly for no apparent reason, especially at night.
  • Sometimes when we’re out she’ll go from being happy and interested to high-pitched inconsolable crying.
  • She doesn’t seem to sleep for long periods, often just 20 minutes at a time, even if we do lots of activities to tire her out. Sometimes she wakes up and cries immediately.
  • She wasn’t like this in the first few weeks, but now she finds it difficult to calm down once she’s crying.

How to help your baby with intellectual colic

Soothing a baby with intellectual colic is all about making it easier for her to adjust to this crazy new world.

  • Play white noise: A constant hum of noise often soothes this type of colic, as it’s similar to what she would have heard in your womb.
  • Fine tune your routine: Introduce a balanced daily pattern of regular activities in short time-slots.

4. Emotional Colic

Sometimes it’s hard to see any real reason for this type of colic: she’s simply feeling insecure in this new world, and needs reassurance from you that it’s all OK. Or it could be that she’s picking up on your emotions, if you’re worrying about doing the best job that you possibly can, or her crying upsets you.

Does this sound like your baby?

  • My baby cries at the worst possible moment – at the end of the day when I’m exhausted, or when she’s about to go in the bath.
  • Sometimes I feel like I just don’t know what she wants, so I feel upset too.
  • The crying goes on for a long time, and she curls herself up.
  • The slightest noise wakes her up, so I’m constantly tired.
  • Sometimes if I stop what I’m doing and pick her up, she’s happy again, but if I put her down she’ll get upset.

How to help your baby with emotional colic

The most effective treatments are for you, not your baby. The more confident you become, the more she’ll relax.

  • Be positive: You’re doing a great job! Listen to your intuition and remember it’s normal for new mums to worry about getting things right.
  • Take some time out: When your baby is having a colicky evening, let your partner cope on his own for 10 minutes while you take a short walk outside. You’ll come back in a better frame of mind and will be better able to help her calm down.
  • Swaddle your baby: Swaddling an oversensitive baby can create a feeling of security through the familiarity of womb-like boundaries. And this reassurance can help her to relax.

How long does colic last?

In most cases, colic will lasts for few months and will settle when your baby reaches the age of four to six months.

Is colic harmful to my baby?

Your baby may seem to be in pain, but usually there is no harm made to his body. In fact, colic is actually more stressful for you than it is for your baby. It's important that you stay as calm as you can and remember that it's not your fault.  

When should I seek advice for colic? 

Seek advice if your baby shows signs of being ill as well as crying – if she is vomiting, has a high temperature (above 38C), is floppy or unresponsive, has a rash that doesn’t turn white if pressed with glass or refuses to feed for several hours. If you feel overwhelmed, visit cry-sis.org.uk for support and advice.

 
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