The reality is, all babies cry: It’s the best (and only) way for them to communicate their needs at this tender age. And as parents, we’re biologically programmed to respond so those needs get met. But in babies with colic, the crying starts suddenly for no apparent reason and has no apparent cure.
Colic is not a disease or diagnosis but a combination of baffling behaviors. It’s really just a catch-all term for problem crying in otherwise healthy babies the problem being, there’s no solution to it besides the passing of time. And it’s common, occurring in one in five infants. Episodes can go on for hours at a time, sometimes late into the night. Worst of all, try as you might and try you will it’s extremely difficult to calm a colicky baby, which only compounds your own frustration, worry and exhaustion.
Doctors usually diagnose colic based on the “rules of three.” Your baby’s crying:
Lasts at least three hours at a stretch
Occurs at least three days a week
Persists for at least three weeks in a row
Of course, some babies are colic overachievers, wailing for far more hours, days and even weeks at a time.
The good news is that colic doesn’t last. Most bouts peak at around 6 weeks and then typically start to taper off by 10 to 12 weeks. By 3 months (typically a little later in preterm babies), most colicky infants seems to be miraculously cured. The colic may stop suddenly or end gradually, with some good and some bad days, until they are all good.
In the meantime, a little knowledge and a lot of patience will help you survive until the storm subsides.
SYMPTOMS AND SIGNS OF COLIC IN YOUR BABY
How do you know for sure if your baby’s colicky? In addition to the rules of three, here are a few further colic signs and symptoms:
Crying occurs at the same time every day (usually in the late afternoon or early evening, but it can vary).
Crying seems to occur for no reason (not because baby has a dirty diaper or is hungry or tired).
Baby may pull up his legs, clench his fists and generally move his legs and arms more.
He also often will close his eyes or open them very wide, furrow his brow, even hold his breath briefly.
Bowel activity may increase, and he may pass gas or spit up.
Eating and sleeping are disrupted by the crying — baby frantically seeks a nipple only to reject it once sucking has begun, or dozes for a few moments only to wake up screaming.
WHAT’S THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN COLIC AND ORDINARY CRYING?
There isn’t a clear definition of exactly what colic is or how (and if) it differs from other types of crying. But doctors typically agree that the difference between colic and ordinary crying in that baby seems inconsolable, crying turns to screaming, and the ordeal lasts for at least three hours and sometimes much longer (occasionally nearly around the clock, much to the tired and fraught parents’ dismay). Most often, colicky periods recur daily, though some babies take an occasional night off.
WHAT CAUSES COLIC?
While the exact cause of colic is a mystery, experts do know it’s not the result of genetics or anything that happened during pregnancy or childbirth. Nor is it any reflection on parenting skills (or lack of them, in case you’re wondering). And it’s also not anyone’s fault.
That said, here are some theories on what’s behind colicky crying:
Overstimulated senses. One possible explanation: Newborns have a built-in mechanism for tuning out sights and sounds around them, which allows them to sleep and eat without being disturbed by their environment. Near the end of the first month, however, this mechanism disappears — leaving babies more sensitive to the stimuli in their surroundings. With so many new sensations coming at them, some infants become overwhelmed, often at the end of the day. To release that stress, they cry (and cry and cry). Colic ends, the theory goes, when baby learns how to filter out some environmental stimuli and, in doing so, avoids a sensory overload.
An immature digestive system. Digesting food is a big task for a baby’s brand new gastrointestinal system. As a result, food may pass through too quickly and not break down completely, resulting in pain from gas in the intestines.
Infant acid re-flux. Research has found that infant GERD (gastroesophageal reflux disease) is sometimes a colic trigger. Infant GERD is often the result of an underdeveloped lower esophageal sphincter, the muscle that keeps stomach acid from flowing back up into the throat and mouth, which can irritate the esophagus. Symptoms include frequent spitting up, poor eating and irritability during and after feedings. The good news is, most babies outgrow GERD by age 1 (and colic usually goes away long before then).
Food allergies or sensitivity. Some experts believe that colic is the result of an allergy to milk protein (or lactose intolerance) in formula-fed babies. More rarely, colic may be a reaction to specific foods in Mom’s diet in breastfed babies. Either way, these allergies or sensitivity can cause tummy pain that may set off colicky behavior.
Tobacco exposure. Several studies show that moms who smoke during or after pregnancy are more likely to have babies with colic; secondhand smoke may also be a culprit. Though the link exists, it’s unclear how cigarette smoke might be related to colic. The bottom line for many more significant health reasons: Don’t smoke or let anyone else smoke around your baby.
In addition to frustration and exhaustion, you may experience feelings of inadequacy and guilt as you try in vain to soothe your baby. So while staying calm is easier said than done, these soothing strategies may help ease the strain until colic passes. Just give each a fair shot before you switch to another (and don’t pull out too many tricks at one time, or you’ll overload baby’s circuits and step up the crying you’re trying to stop).
If you suspect over-stimulation:
Crying is a baby’s only way of communicating her needs. But it’s also her only way of wielding any control at all over a vast and bewildering new environment: She cries, you come running to her side powerful stuff when you’re otherwise completely powerless. In fact, studies show that responding promptly to your baby’s cries will reduce her crying in the long run.
Excise excitement. Limit visitors and exposing your baby to new experiences in stimulating environments, particularly in the late afternoon and early evening. Watch how your baby responds to certain stimuli and steer clear of any that seem to offend.
Create calm. Trying to make her environment peaceful might help her relax. Dim the lights, speak or sing in soothing tones (or don’t speak at all) and keep other noise and distractions to a minimum.