What is colic, and how can I help my baby with it?

What is colic

There is no magic treatment for colic, but with a little trial and error, you might just find something that works.

Logan, Chantal Foisy’s infant son, sobbed nonstop every night from 8 p.m. until 6 a.m. Foisy, who lives in Barrie, Ontario, claims “nothing helped.” “It took everything I had not to scream at him, but I knew it wasn’t his fault. Those five weeks were the longest of my life. When the colic disappeared, I nearly died with joy.”

Katharine, my own daughter, sobbed uncontrollably, her small fists clenched and her scarlet face wrinkled in pain. Rocking, nursing, singing, or automobile journeys were rarely soothing to her. I wanted to cry when friends told me it would only last “three months.” As a new mother, I felt inept. Why couldn’t I calm down my baby?

Anyone who has had to deal with a colicky baby’s incessant wailing understands the feelings of self-doubt and frustration that come with it. Unfortunately, no one knows what causes colic, and there is no one-size-fits-all solution that can make it go away in every baby. However, you may empower yourself with tools that, at the very least, work some of the time. It’s worth a shot, as any parent who has been there understood.

The good news is that colic usually goes away as quickly as it appears. Meanwhile, here’s all you need to know to get through the night.

What is colic?

Most clinicians use the “rule of threes” to diagnose colic: an otherwise healthy infant who screams for three or more hours a day on three or more days a week during the first three months of life. Some specialists employ a broader definition, such as “excessive weeping in an otherwise healthy newborn.” The wails usually start around two weeks after birth and peak around six or seven weeks. It’s usually at its worst in the evenings. Colicky babies account for 10 to 20% of all newborns.

Lorna Faires of Guelph, Ont., said her daughter Alyssa started weeping the first night in the hospital and then calmed down. “But it started again at four weeks, and it continued until she was three months old.” Alyssa wept every morning between 10 and 11 a.m., and every night between 7:30 and 8 p.m. for three hours. “After my husband walked her for hours, she would finally fall asleep,” Faires adds. “At one point, we sent our elder daughter to stay with my mother-in-law for a week so she could get some rest.” Faires, like other parents of colicky babies, has no idea why her baby is crying so often. She admits, “We never figured it out.”

When your baby cries, she may draw her legs up, create fists, burp, and look to be in discomfort if she has colic. Having your family doctor or pediatrician examine the infant to rule out other diseases, such as an ear or bladder infection, is a good idea before assuming colic is the culprit. “First and foremost, we must ensure that the kid is healthy,” says Jeremy Friedman, director of inpatient pediatric medicine at Toronto’s The Hospital for Sick Children.

What is the cause of colic?

Despite the fact that medical specialists do not know what causes colic, they feel it is a natural part of development, albeit at the terrible end of the spectrum. Because many infants scream between 30 minutes and two hours each day, this is the case. Colicky babies cry more than ordinary babies.

Friedman says, “We have to recognize that babies have varied temperaments.” As a result of their sensitive temperaments, some babies appear to cry frequently and loudly, to the point that they are categorized as colicky. There is no difference in development, IQ, or temper later in life between colicky babies and their counterparts, according to studies. So don’t worry if your kid is colicky right now; she won’t be a tough adolescent in 13 years!

Dairy products in a mother’s diet can cause issues for her breastfed baby in a small percentage of cases. If you feel this is the cause of your baby’s colic, consider removing all cow’s milk products from his or her diet for seven to ten days. You can gradually reinstate milk into your diet if the situation improves. According to pediatrician Jack Newman, an assistant professor at the University of Toronto department of medicine who works at multiple Toronto breastfeeding clinics, some sensitive babies can take only a little amount of milk in their mother’s diet, but most can handle some.

Cow’s milk sensitivity can also affect babies who are bottle-fed. Switching from a dairy-based formula to a soy-based formula, according to some parents, helps with colic. If cow’s milk is the problem, this may help, but it’s not a guarantee. Some babies are allergic to soy; in that case, so-called “hypoallergenic formulas” that break down cow’s milk is an option.

Other foods, such as corn, wheat, eggs, and shellfish, may cause allergic reactions in nursing newborns. According to research published in Pediatrics in May, kids with a history of colic who were given apple juice cried more and slept less than those who were given white grape juice. When babies without a history of colic were given apple juice, they showed no signs of colic. (Note: The Canadian Paediatric Society advises parents not to feed juice to infants under the age of four months.) You can try eliminating foods one at a time to figure out what’s bothering your baby, but keep in mind that by the time you figure out what’s bothering him, the colic may have gone away.

Micheline Hickey-Ross of Miramichi, New Brunswick, noticed that stopping eating particular foods helped her daughter Asa’s colic. “When I took out bananas, apples, green pepper, cucumber, tomatoes, and a few other foods, she was completely different.”

Newman recently tried distributing pancreatic enzyme tablets to the mothers of colicky newborns on the advice of a doctor in California. “It helps metabolize the proteins so they don’t get into the mother’s milk,” he adds, “and we’ve had good results with it,” he says, adding that he’s still experimenting with dosages.

Some babies suffer from reflux, which is akin to heartburn. This could be the source of your baby’s screaming if she suckles a little, then pulls away from the breast and yells. She might also vomit up a lot. (However, the majority of babies that spit up do not have reflux.) Anti-reflux medicine eased symptoms in two weeks, according to an Israeli study. Pre-digested formula, in which the protein is broken down into its amino acids, could be the answer for bottle-fed babies. However, this is a last choice because the formula is costly and has bad taste.

Iron-fortified formulas are healthier for colicky babies, according to Kathi Kemper, director of the Center for Holistic Pediatric Education and Research at Boston’s Children’s Hospital. While bottle-feeding parents may have some success switching formulas, Friedman claims there are no benefits to transitioning from breast to bottle. “Colic affects just as many bottle-fed babies.” However, you may be able to use some nursing strategies to help with colic (see “Nursing Notes”).

What can you do to assist a colicky baby?

Rice cereal, a rocking chair, or voodoo may have helped your mother, next-door neighbor, or hairdresser heal their baby’s colic. Many remedies work for a short period of time, and everything appears to work by three or four months when colic normally goes away. Even so, there are several things parents can attempt that have a good possibility of helping their child’s symptoms.

It has been proven that carrying your infant as much as possible reduces crying. Before colic sets in, doctor William Sears recommends that parents hold their baby about or begin a soothing routine. Your infant will become increasingly difficult to calm as she becomes more agitated. He recommends carrying the infant in a sling or carrier. A heated hot water bottle on the baby’s abdomen, music, steady rhythmic rocking, and running a vacuum cleaner or hairdryer for relaxing “white noise” are all traditional colic therapies. Some parents have tried placing their infants in a car seat on top of a cool, running dryer. (If you try this, make sure you don’t leave the infant alone for more than a few seconds.)

Some babies respond nicely to being swaddled in a soft blanket. Swings, crib vibrators, and other gadgets that purport to relax newborns cost a lot of money, but there’s no assurance they’ll work. Some babies, as Friedman points out, respond to less stimulation rather than more. If nothing else appears to help, try putting your baby in a dark room for a few minutes and listening to see if he’s crying slows down.

Friedman recommends keeping a diary of your sobbing times and the various strategies you employ. This will not only assist you in determining what works and what does not, but it may also provide you with some hope. “Sometimes parents are unaware that their children are crying less until they start keeping track.”

Take a look at some of the different colic treatments available.

Herbal helpers

According to Kemper, a 1993 study indicated that three to four ounces of herbal tea including chamomile, fennel, vervain, licorice, and balm-mint were much more efficient than a placebo in reducing newborn colic. “It’s unclear which of the tea’s plants is the active ingredient,” she continues, “but chamomile is a traditional tummy fixer in many parts of the world.” In a cup, place two chamomile tea bags. Pour boiling water over the tea and steep for 10 to 20 minutes, or until the tea has cooled. Two to four times a day, give your baby one tablespoon to one ounce in a bottle or on a spoon. “You will notice results in a day or two if it is going to work for your baby,” Kemper says.

Gripe water (dill, caraway, fruit sugar, and water) is a safe and popular (albeit unproven) treatment. Some products contain a small quantity of alcohol, but if you follow the recommendations, you won’t be in any danger. If you want to try herbs, don’t offer more than four ounces of tea each day, and make sure you get it from a reputable source.

Baby massage

“There are no scientific studies that show massage cures colic, but some parents claim it does,” says Friedman. Lay the baby on the floor and softly walk your fingers clockwise, producing concentric circles outward, starting at her belly button. This should be done 20 to 30 minutes after a feeding.

Chiropractic and cranio-sacral therapy

Chiropractic spinal manipulation has been shown in some studies to be an effective colic treatment, but these studies did not compare the subjects to a control group of babies who were not treated. In addition, the therapy began around the time that most colics was at its worst and lasted for two weeks when it would normally begin to improve. It’s worth noting that the Canadian Paediatric Society released a statement in February stating that “there is no scientific evidence to support the safety and effectiveness of chiropractic in the treatment of non-musculoskeletal diseases in children.” Cranio-sacral therapy involves a professional massage therapist gently palpating the bones of the skull. Make sure you go to someone who is not only a registered massage therapist but also an Upledger Institute-trained massage therapist. There have been no scientific trials to indicate that it is an effective treatment for colic, however, some parents swear it is.


Similarly, there is no conclusive evidence that homeopathy can aid colicky babies. Homeopathic treatments, on the other hand, are deemed safe and are typically inexpensive, according to Kemper. If you decide to pursue an alternative remedy, look for a practitioner who has experience with infants and inform your primary care physician. According to Kemper, most homeopaths and naturopaths have no formal pediatric training, and fewer than half would refer a two-week-old with a fever to emergency care. This shows they may not notice a potentially catastrophic disease.


The pharmacological approach to colic is not popular among most doctors. Dicyclomine hydrochloride (Bentylol) is a medicine that is not suggested for babies under the age of six months since it can cause breathing difficulties. Only a few doctors continue to prescribe it, but given the hazards, this is unwise. Some parents find that an antispasmodic like simethicone (Oval) is effective, however, there is no evidence to support this. It is, nevertheless, completely safe.

Finally, do not try to heal colic by giving early solids. Feeding baby meals before four months, such as rice cereal or pureed foods, is a risk factor for food sensitivities.

Regrettably, you could attempt every trick in the book and still come up empty-handed. Even though it’s difficult to envision when you’re going through it, your baby will be a happy, playful six-month-old in no time. After your kid — and you — outgrow colic, those hard early days will vanish from memory.

Survivors are prepared

Donya Leonard of Lethbridge, Alberta, remembers a moment when her daughter Ryleigh was crying so loudly that she and her husband were stumped. She recalls, “We were weary.” “We finally collapsed in bed after putting her in the crib. She was quite asleep when we awoke. I couldn’t tell you how long she’d been sleeping.”

You would never leave a baby to scream it out in an ideal world. If your nerves are frayed and you’re sleep-deprived, and you’re afraid you’ll lose patience with your baby, hand her over to someone else or put her in a safe area, such as a crib, take a deep breath, and leave the room. It’s important to remember that shaking a newborn can cause serious brain damage, which can be fatal. Put someone else in control, even if it’s only for ten minutes, so you may pour yourself a cup of tea, read a magazine, meditate, or find another way to unwind.

Jeremy Friedman of Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children adds, “Parents need a lot of assistance to get through this phase.” “It’s a good idea for them to organize family resources if they can so they can take a break.”

Notes on Nursing

Colic is commonly found in babies whose moms produce a lot of milk. What is the cause of the baby’s crying? If a baby receives predominantly the lower-fat milk that comes out earlier in the feed, he or she may become colicky. (Hindmilk is the higher-fat, richer milk that the baby receives later.) Keep in mind that the fat level of milk fluctuates over time, not all at once.)

When there is too much foremilk, the infant gets a lot of lactose all at once. Because the protein that digests lactose in the small intestine can only take so much at once, the baby may have flatulence and even blood streaks in the stool. There’s no need to switch to formula because these babies aren’t lactose intolerant. The solution: Finish the first breast before moving on to the second, ensuring that the infant receives hindmilk each time. “Make sure the infant is well latched on and drinking at the breast,” says Jack Newman of the University of Toronto. How do you know?

Newman describes it this way: “Imagine your thumb is a straw, and you’re sucking up a thick liquid like a milkshake.” “Your chin stays down while you suck inward on your thumb. When his mouth is full of milk, the infant does the same thing. He’s not getting much if he doesn’t have a pause in his chin. When the baby is compressed, he or she is more likely to drink.” (See Newman’s fact page for an explanation of how to squeeze the breast.)

Newman maintains that there are no hard and fast rules when it comes to nursing, although he does recommend offering the second side only after the infant has stopped drinking from the first. You can even give each breast many feedings.

In a breastfed baby, an overactive milk letdown can cause colic because she becomes unhappy and agitated if too much milk arrives too rapidly. You can also try feeding the infant one breast at a time. Gravity reduces the rate of milk flow, therefore lying down to the nurse can help. To slow the flow, express an ounce or two of milk before feeding the baby if you have time.

Joan Fisher, a lactation consultant in Ottawa, has seen frantic parents of colicky kids forsake breastfeeding and then try a variety of formulas with little success. Some people eventually succeeded in lactating again, but it’s a challenging process that doesn’t always work.

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