Colic is not really harmful. It tends to disappear by the time the child reaches 3-4 months. But taking care of a colicky baby night after night can be extremely frustrating and tiring for new parents.
Children can have this kind of problem from as young as two weeks old. It tends to pass by the time they are 3-4 months old. But that's cold comfort when your baby is in the throes of intense crying bouts. Hang in there. Try different ways of alleviating the discomfort (see tips below). And accept help from others so you can get some sleep occasionally.
Colic, exhaustion or just normal crying?
It's easy to confuse overtiredness or normal crying with colic. Because babies do cry – quite a lot. At six weeks, most normal babies tend to cry for a total of about two hours a day. This time gradually reduces as the child gets older. Watch our film offering tips on calming a crying baby.
With colic, children generally cry for at least three hours a day, at least three hours a week for at least three weeks. Crying bouts generally come in the late afternoon or evening in a recurring pattern.
Other signs of colic are if your baby draws their knees up to their tummy or bends their legs to stretch them. Your baby may have wind and a growling, rumbling tummy.
What causes colic?
Experts don't actually know what causes colic. For a long time it was believed that babies with colic cry because their tummy hurts, but that has not been proven. What we can say is that colic occurs almost exclusively in the western world. Around a fifth to a tenth of babies in Scandinavia are affected.
Breastfeeding or bottlefeeding do not seem to influence the risk of colic – this can affect any child.
Sometimes it can be simple tummy ache. For example, children may be sensitive to cow's milk protein. If this is the case, it can be helpful for breastfeeding mothers to avoid eating or drinking dairy products. If your child is fed baby formula discuss with your doctor whether it's worth trying a dairy-free variant that you can buy from a pharmacy.
Substances in gas-producing foods such as cabbage, onion and beans may also end up in breast milk – avoid these in your own diet for a while and see if your child gets better.
Tips for alleviating discomfort from colic
Here are some ideas as to what you can do to alleviate your child's discomfort. Try one thing at a time – that way you see what really works.
• Peace and quiet. Expose your child to fewer new impressions for a while.
• Try being close at all times: carrying baby on your arm as she lies on her tummy, leaning her over your shoulder, or carrying her in babywearing wraps or slings.
• Cow's milk can be a potential cause; try eliminating it from your own diet or change infant formula.
• Avoid eating lots of gas-producing food if you are breastfeeding.
• If you are breastfeeding: drink fewer caffeinated drinks such as coffee, tea and coca-cola.
• Give your baby a colic massage, sometimes known as baby massage. This has no side-effects and most parents of babies with colic try it, with varying results.
Watch our short film on how to give your baby a massage.
• Some people believe that colicky babies are calmer when they are swaddled in a particular way. If you want to try this, ask your paediatric nurse to show you what to do.
• Stomach drops containing lactobacillus have been shown to help with colic. It usually takes one to two weeks before you know whether the drops are working for your baby. These drops are available prescription-free from a chemist.
• Minifom is a medicine in the form of oral drops that can be used to alleviate problems with wind. It is also available prescription-free, but its effect on colic is subject to debate.
• Keep your baby's tummy warm with a pad, a light blanket – or why not a warm bath?
• Take a trip with your baby in a child's car seat, or push the pram over an uneven path in case it soothes them.
Ask for help
Caring for a baby with colic is extremely stressful. All parents find it tough and frustrating to watch their child cry hour after hour without being comforted. Sometimes nothing seems to help.
Ask family and friends for a moment's relief, take turns getting proper sleep, or ask your paediatric clinic for help. This is particularly important if you are feeling so powerless, and perhaps angry, that you're having trouble managing your emotions. Never shake a baby in frustration – it can cause irreparable injury.
There are internet forums where parents with colicky babies can get support and tips from each other. Take it one day at a time. Hang in there, and remember colic doesn't last forever.