The term colic likely conjures up an all-too-familiar scene of a screaming baby and a frazzled mother, desperate to help her inconsolable child. Not all crying babies have colic, but all colicky babies cry—and they cry hard. They may stiffen their little bodies, arch their backs, or curl up as if in pain. When babies bawl like this, they take in a lot of air, which creates gas and more pain, making them cry even more—fueling a vicious cycle that many parents struggle with on a daily basis.
Researchers are still unsure of colic’s exact cause, but some experts believe that the condition is related to the immaturity of a baby’s digestive system. Others theorize that a baby’s immature nervous system and inability to handle the constant sensory stimulation that surrounds her cause a breakdown by the end of the day, when colic most often occurs.
Whatever the cause—and it may be a combination of all the theories—colic is among the most exasperating conditions that parents of new babies face. Colic occurs only in newborns, up to about four to five months of age. Symptoms include:
- A regular period of nonstop, inconsolable crying, typically late in the day
- Crying bouts that last one to three hours or more
- A healthy and happy disposition at all other times of the day
Can Colic Be Prevented?
Given that the causes of colic are still up in the air, experts don’t know if it can be prevented. Even if you do everything “right” and take all the steps to discourage the condition, it still may happen. If you think your baby has colic, talk with your pediatrician and take her in for a checkup to rule out any medical cause for the constant crying. If your little one is given a clean bill of health, then you’ll know colic is the culprit in the daily crying bouts.
Remember that nothing you do will eliminate colic completely until your baby’s system is mature and able to settle on its own. That said, there are ways to help your baby though this time. Look for patterns to your baby’s crying; these can provide clues as to which suggestions are most likely to help. Stick with an idea for a few days to see if it works, and watch for any signs of improvement (not necessarily complete quiet). If the particular course of action doesn’t seem to change anything, don’t get discouraged—just try something else. Here are some ideas:
- If you’re breastfeeding, feed on demand (cue feeding) for nutrition as well as comfort, as often as your fussy baby needs a calming influence.
- Foods that give you gas might do the same for your baby if you breastfeed, so try avoiding these culinary culprits. Eliminate one possible cause for a few days and see if it makes a difference in your baby’s fussiness. The most common baby tummy offenders are dairy products, caffeine, cabbage, broccoli and other gassy vegetables. Don’t assume the culprit, if there is one, will be obvious—pay close attention for telltale signs after every meal.
- If you’re bottle-feeding, offer more frequent but smaller meals and experiment with different formulas—with your doctor’s approval.
- Try different types of bottles and nipples that prevent air from entering your baby as she drinks, such as those with curved bottles or collapsible liners.
- Hold your little one in a more upright position for feeding and directly afterwards.
- Offer meals in a quiet, distraction-free setting.
- If your baby’s a binky fan, offer her one when she starts to whimper.
- Invest in a baby sling or carrier and use it during colicky periods.
- Go outside for a stroll if the weather’s nice. Otherwise, bring your stroller in the house and walk your baby around, or gently bounce her and hum or sing as you stroll in a quiet, dark room.
- Give your distressed baby a warm bath if she likes that; the warm water can soothe away any body aches, and provide a welcome distraction for her.
- Place a warm (not hot) towel or wrapped water bottle on your baby’s tummy
- Massage your little one’s tummy, back or give her a full body massage.
- Swaddle your baby in a warm blanket. Studies have shown that by restricting your little one’s motor movements during sleep, the mimicked “womb” will be comforting to her (Make sure she doesn’t overheat, though).
- Hold your baby in a rocking chair, or put her in a rocking cradle or infant swing—the constant motion can placate even the fussiest of children.
- Keep your baby away from highly stimulating situations during the day—such as television and noisy, flashing toys—to prevent sensory overload. A particularly busy day may mean a fussier evening, so brace yourself for tears if you’ve been on the go all day long.
- Play soothing music or turn on white noise such as a talk radio station, or play a CD of nature sounds, such as ocean waves or rainfall.
Trying to comfort your colicky baby often feels like fighting an uphill battle. Equipped with these infant-soothing tips, you’ll be able to provide calm for the storm and soothe her tiny tears.
Parenting educator Elizabeth Pantley is the president of Better Beginnings, Inc., a family resource and education company. She is also the author of twelve parenting books, including the popular "No-Cry" series.