M.Ed., RD, LDN, CLC, RYT-200
Andie is a Registered Dietitian, Certified Lactation Consultant, and Certified Personal Trainer who thinks of nutrition counseling as equal parts science and sensitivity. She specializes in lactation, sports nutrition, exercise fitness, and weight loss programs.
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Read time: 9 minutes
Colic is often discussed but seldom understood. A “colic baby” has seemingly never-ending episodes of inconsolable crying, no matter what you try to do to calm them. The term colic comes from the Greek word kolikos meaning “suffering in the colon.” Doctors and scientists assume that colicky crying is the result of pain in the gut, but often no clear answer exists as to why a colicky baby is so hard to soothe and the crying is so intense.
Interestingly, new studies coming out may indicate that some causes of colic may be infantile migraines, or intense headaches.1
While the causes of colic are challenging to pinpoint, newborn colic is assumed if an otherwise healthy and well-fed baby meets the Rule of Three’s:2
Any baby can suffer from colic, as the condition does not discriminate between gender, birth order, or feeding method. Worldwide, the prevalence of colic occurs between an estimated 5 – 19% of infants.3
Episodes of intense crying seem to appear more often during growth spurts or at the end of the day and seem to peak at about 6 weeks of age. The good news is that the condition resolves itself in up to 90% of infants by the age of 4 months (though if your baby has colic, these may be the longest 4 months of your life!).4
Because of the shear intensity of baby’s relentless crying, colic is strongly associated with post-partum depression5, 6 and is also a big risk factor for shaken baby syndrome.7 So making sure you have plenty of support from family, friends, and your own doctor is important. Please don’t hesitate to reach out for help anytime you need it!
Parents often mistake newborn colic for general fussiness. Many babies are fussy – they need extra comfort, nursing, and holding in the evening hours or when they are over-tired. On the other hand, colicky babies may appear to be in pain and are not comforted no matter what you try.
If you are questioning whether your baby may have colic, then your little one likely doesn’t. The intense crying of a colicky baby is dramatically different than a fussy baby.
If your baby is colicky and things do not seem to be improving, there may be a medical issue to blame, such as food allergies or intolerances, reflux, or other issues. Look out for these symptoms and if you notice them, contact your pediatrician for an evaluation:
Read more: Spitting up: Understanding Why and Why to do About It.
Also feel free to chat our team of registered dietitians, fellow moms, and lactation specialists, available from Monday – Friday 8 am – 8 pm (EST) and Saturday – Sunday 8 am – 4 pm (EST) for support and encouragement. Chat now!
Keep track of what seems to trigger the crying and what eventually helps to calm it. Record duration, intensity, time of day, and how close the episode is to a feeding or a nap. Also make a note of things like how often you used a baby carrier that day, how many bowel movements baby had, and if the crying seems to be getting better, worse, or staying the same.
Do not make yourself paranoid by recording every second of the day, but if you start to see correlations, then you can start implementing interventions that will calm both of you. These details and clues may also help your pediatrician identify a medical cause of colic.
Remember that what helps your baby one day may not the next! Keep trying different strategies as what comforts your little one often changes.
Read more: Is Your Baby Reacting To Something In Your Breastmilk?
If over-feeding or over-supply is causing gas or belly pain, try to nurse your baby for less time and more frequently or twice as often and half as much. More frequent nursing – with the resulting skin-to-skin and holding – may also comfort, soothe and calm your baby.
Babies usually have their most colicky times at the end of the day, so use the more peaceful and restful morning times to plan the rest of the day. If you know that the fussiest time usually starts around 3 pm after baby wakes from a nap, be ready to immediately go into a relaxing ritual of massage, baby wearing, a long walk and anything else that seems to calm the both of you.
Some babies cry less when they hear steady background noise. When holding or rocking your baby, make a continuous “”shssss”” sound, use a white noise machine, turn on a kitchen or bathroom exhaust fan, or play environmental sounds, like ocean waves, a waterfall, gentle rain or a human heartbeat.8
Should your baby’s colic stem from a headache, holding baby in a calm, quiet, dark environment may help most.1
Tummy Time: This position can put gentle pressure on baby’s belly, helping to push out the trapped gas.9 Wait at least 30 minutes after a feeding to allow your baby’s belly to settle before starting tummy time. Or try a more advanced move – use both hands and a lot of guided support to lay your baby tummy down on a large beach or exercise ball and gently roll them on the ball in a circular motion.
Forearm Hold: Also called the football hold, magic hold, and the colic carry. Try carrying your baby face down with their body resting on your forearm, the front of baby’s diaper area in your hand with their chin cradled in your elbow. Carrying your little one in this face-down position will place the same gentle pressure on their belly that is achieved during tummy time. While in the football hold, you can also gently tap your baby’s back or give a gentle bounce with your arm.
Hold your baby securely and dance with them around the house, bouncing gently up and down, swaying side to side, and using any mild movements that you find helpful. Bouncing carefully with your baby while sitting on an exercise ball may also do the trick.
Keep doing one movement for a while, without changing positions or over-stimulating baby with toys. It may take some babies a little bit to respond.
Draw a warm bath and climb in with your little one. Warm baths can help soothe and relax both of you!
Once out of the bath, give your baby lots of time to practice skin-to-skin time with either parent. Lay back and place your baby on your naked chest in a diaper with his ear over your heartbeat. The combination of the rise and fall of your breathing and the warmth of your body with be a great comfort to your baby.
Wait at least 30 minutes after a feeding before trying infant massage. Find a calm, quiet, comfortable spot to settle in, placing baby on her back. Use a gentle touch and avoiding tickling. You can try a little odorless, edible baby oil to help prevent damaging your baby’s skin.10, 11
Slowly stroke and knead your baby’s arms, hands, shoulders, waist, thighs, and feet. If you and your baby are comfortable, place baby on their tummy, head turned to the side, and gently massage their back, legs, and arms.
You can also use massage to help break up gas. While baby is comfortably lying in their back, gently rub their tummy in a clockwise motion and then pull your hands down the curve of the belly. Massaging in a clockwise direction helps to move gas along as that is the route the intestinal tract follows.
Read more: Baby massage benefits and techniques
Bicycling your baby’s legs in a circular motion can help to move the intestines and release gas trapped lower in the abdominal track. With your baby lying on their back, take baby’s legs in your hands and cycle them slowly back and forth as if they were riding on a bike. Take a break every now and then to press both of baby’s knees gently into their tummy for some extra pressure.
Some research indicates that wearing your baby (in a sling, wrap or carrier) during calm and non-colicky hours may shorten excessive crying later in the day.12 Carriers extend the womb experience for your baby and help with the adaptation to their new life on the outside. Use a carrier for several hours every day to help baby stay calm.
In breastfed babies, some studies indicate that the probiotic L. rueteri may improve colic symptoms.13, 14 Always chat with baby’s pediatrician before trying a new probiotic or other remedy to ensure it’s safe.
Take a short video of your baby’s crying and behavior during a colicky episode and play it for your physician so he or she can help you determine whether your baby is fussy or in pain.
Ask your doctor’s office for an extended visit (not just the 5-minute check-in) to ensure enough time for a thorough evaluation of your baby’s condition. Make sure all parents and primary caregivers are present for this appointment so the doctor can get a full and complete picture of what the baby is going through. One parent may downplay while the other parent may exaggerate so being there together will benefit everyone.
And speak with your pediatrician before trying any herbal or alternative therapies for colic, like herbal teas or oils, gas drops, gripe water, or sugar water. These treatments are unregulated, and research is inconclusive on their safety and efficacy. Always ask a doctor first.
Caring for a baby with colic stresses out all parents who are living through it. There is no shame in stealing a moment or two for yourself. Hand your baby off to another caretaker (call grandma, grandpa or a close neighbor!) or place baby down in a safe space and walk away for a few minutes.
Use this time to practice some breathing exercises, sit and stretch, step outside for some fresh air or just lie on the couch and close your eyes. Listen to music you love. Sometimes just a few moments away can re-energize you and make those feelings of frustration and even anger drift away. This will pass!
Research indicates that parents of difficult to soothe babies are at risk for depression. Feeling overwhelmed from caring for a fussy baby coupled with plaguing self-consciousness about taking a crying baby out in public can lead to isolation at the very time when you need the most support.
Ask family and friends to help you by taking a turn, so that every day you get a some sort of break. Look into hiring a mother’s helper or joining a parents’ group for colicky babies (or any other parents’ support group!). You and your baby deserve more, not less, community.
It’s completely normal for the cause of your baby’s cries to go unknown. While this will be frustrating, don’t take it personally. Your job is to provide as much appropriate care, comfort and support as you can, to offer a set of caring and relaxing arms so that your baby does not need to cry alone, and to do as much detective work as you can to figure out why your baby is crying and how you can help. The rest is up to your baby.
This wonderful resource from the California Department of Public Health explains normal baby behavior and some ways to cope.
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