Colic is inconsolable crying in a healthy newborn baby with bouts of fussiness and irritability. The condition has no known cause but is harmless, although it can be very distressing for parents or carers. It is very common, affecting up to two out of every 10 babies.
Colic is uncontrollable crying in a baby. It is not known what causes colic.
Symptoms of colic
Colic usually affects babies in the first few weeks of their lives but generally goes after about four months. Crying can be intense and furious and it may last for several hours a day over a few weeks. Although crying can occur at any time, it usually gets worse in the late afternoon and evening, and can affect your babys sleep.
Although colic isn't thought to be due to pain, your baby may look uncomfortable or appear to be in pain. Babies may arch their backs, draw up their legs to their tummy, become red in the face and pass wind.
Colic isn't a serious condition. Research shows that babies with colic continue to eat and gain weight, despite the crying. If your baby doesn't do this, see your health visitor or GP.
The main problem with the condition is the stress and anxiety it creates at home, especially if it is your first child. You may find being unable to comfort your new baby stressful, as well as finding it difficult to cope with the constant crying, so it is important for you to have support and to take a break if things get on top of you.
Causes of colic
The cause of colic is not known. Painful wind may contribute to colic, but there is little evidence to prove that its linked to digestive problems.
Another theory is that while their digestive systems are maturing, some babies are intolerant to certain substances such as lactose (sugar found in milk) passed on through breastfeeding and formula milk. However, evidence to support this is limited.
Another possible cause may be your baby's temperament. This may make your baby highly sensitive to the environment, and he or she may react to stimulation or changes by crying.
If you smoke during pregnancy, your baby is twice as likely to get colic.
Gastro-oesophageal reflux disease (GORD) is also associated with excessive crying in some babies. However, GORD symptoms include vomiting and difficulty sucking, and these aren't usual symptoms in babies with colic.
Diagnosis of colic
You may be worried about your babys crying and want to get advice from your GP or health visitor to make sure there is not a serious problem.
Before visiting your GP, think about what other things may be causing your baby to cry. These could include:
- winding - sit a bottle-fed baby upright when feeding to reduce his or her air intake (ask your health visitor for advice on how to do this properly)
- drinking milk too quickly in a bottle-fed baby - you may find it helpful to try different teat sizes
- hunger or thirst
- lack of contact - some babies want to be cuddled all the time
- temperature - your baby may be too hot or too cold
- itchiness - itchy clothes or labels, or eczema
- pain - there may be an identifiable source of pain, such as nappy rash
If none of these are causing your baby to cry, you may decide to see your GP. He or she will examine your baby and ask you about his or her behaviour. By describing when your baby cries, eats, sleeps and his or her pattern of bowel movements, it may be possible to determine the cause of the crying.
Treatment of colic
There is no single medicine or proven cure for colic, but there are measures you can try that may help. Different babies are comforted in different ways, and you may need to try a few methods to see what works.
You may find the following techniques helpful in trying to soothe your baby.
- Hold your baby and walk or dance around with him or her. Babies need lots of contact and like the movement
- Carry your baby in a front sling or backpack
- Try using a baby swing
- Sing softly and talk to your baby
- You may want to change your babys position by propping him or her up, so he or she can look around more
- Try to soothe your baby with continuous noise or vibrations from household appliances like the dishwasher, vacuum cleaner or washing machine
- Take your baby for a car ride or a walk in the buggy
- Give your baby a dummy to suck on
- Bathe your baby - the warm water may be comforting
There are some dietary changes you may wish to try. These may help some babies but none are proven to treat colic.
If your baby has formula milk, your health visitor may suggest switching the brand you use. It is thought that some babies may not be able to digest lactose very well, but this improves as they get older. If you put breast milk into a bottle or use formula feed containing cows milk, you may wish to try adding lactase to it before feeds. Lactase breaks down lactose in the body and can improve symptoms in some babies. You can buy lactase from a pharmacy - always read the patient information leaflet and if you have any questions, ask your pharmacist for advice.
There is limited evidence to suggest that a hypoallergenic diet (free of milk, eggs, wheat and nuts) or hypoallergenic formula if youre bottle-feeding, can ease symptoms of colic. If youre breastfeeding, you could try eliminating dairy products from your diet to see if this eases symptoms. Its best to consult your GP before cutting out further foods such as wheat and nuts. If symptoms improve, talk to your GP about being referred to a specialist as, although it is rare, your child may have lactose intolerance.
GPs do not recommend using soya-based formula milk because it contains a substance called phytoeostrogen. This mimics the action of a hormone (chemical in your body) called oestrogen and this may mean your child's long-term reproductive health is at risk. Always speak to your GP or health visitor before using soya-based formulas as they should only be used in exceptional circumstances.
There is limited evidence that simeticone may improve symptoms of colic. This treatment is used to relieve trapped wind. You may also consider trying colic drops or gripe water, which are available without a prescription. Try these remedies for one week to see if there is any improvement.
Chiropractic spinal manipulation therapy or cranial osteopathy may relieve symptoms. However, there is limited evidence that these treatments are effective.
Aromatherapy and tummy massage using lavender oil may help relieve the symptoms of colic. Always ask the advice of a qualified practitioner as some herbal remedies and complementary therapies can be harmful to babies.
Help and support
Caring for a baby with colic can be very stressful, frustrating and challenging for any parent or carer, particularly if it is your first child. If you're feeling frustrated and upset because you cant comfort your baby, leave him or her somewhere safe, such as a cot, for a few minutes and go into another room to calm down. Taking a short break can stop you from getting more upset.
If you feel overwhelmed, ask a partner, family member or friend to take over for a while, even for just an hour or two, so you can have a proper break from your babys crying.
It is good to get out and meet other parents with babies of a similar age.
This information was published by Bupa's health information team and is based on reputable sources of medical evidence. It has been peer reviewed by Bupa doctors. The content is intended for general information only and does not replace the need for personal advice from a qualified health professional.
1. Does colic run in families?
It may do. Some of the possible causes of colic may have a small risk of being inherited.
Problems with the digestive system causing abdominal (tummy) pain and intolerance to lactose are possible reasons why your baby may develop colic. It's rare, but sometimes lactose intolerance can run in families. Therefore, if you or your partner is intolerant to lactose there is a very small chance your baby may be too.
Another possible cause of colic is because of your baby's temperament. However, although your baby does inherit personality characteristics from you and your partner, it's unlikely that this has any influence on whether or not your baby gets colic.
2. Can feeding your baby the wrong way cause colic?
Yes. It's possible that if your baby isn't properly attached to the mother's breast or if he/she doesn't get enough of the different types of breast milk, this may lead to colic.
Breast milk consists of foremilk and hindmilk. Foremilk is the first milk your baby gets when he or she starts breastfeeding and is more watery and contains less fat and more carbohydrate and lactose. Hindmilk is the milk that your baby drinks after feeding for a while and is thicker and higher in fat. Your baby needs this kind of breast milk as it provides energy for longer. It may also be more soothing.
If your baby isn't properly attached to the mother's breast when feeding, the breast won't empty properly and he or she won't get enough of the hindmilk. Your baby will feel hungry again sooner and so will have another low-fat feed of foremilk. This means there is more lactose for your baby to digest and this may make colic more likely.
If you change the breast that your baby is feeding from halfway through a feed, this also means your baby won't get enough hindmilk. It's important to let your baby finish feeding completely from one breast and only move onto the next if he or she still appears hungry.
3. I'm breastfeeding - could my diet be causing my baby's colic?
If you're breastfeeding, there is a small chance that certain foods that you eat may cause your baby to develop the symptoms of colic. However, it's important not to cut out lots of foods from your diet as this may mean you aren't getting enough of certain nutrients.
There is limited evidence that in some babies colic may be caused by lactose intolerance. If you're breastfeeding, you could try to remove cows' milk (which contains lactose) from your diet to see if it improves your baby's symptoms.
You may wish to try adding lactase drops to breast milk in a bottle. If you're bottle-feeding your baby, you can add lactase drops to formula milk. Lactase breaks down lactose in the body and can improve symptoms in some babies. You can buy lactase from a pharmacy - always read the patient information leaflet and if you have any questions, ask your pharmacist for advice.
It's possible that if you're breastfeeding, cutting out milk, eggs, wheat and nuts from your diet may help your baby's symptoms. If you're bottle-feeding, you could try using a hypoallergenic formula. However, there is only limited evidence to show that this is effective. Don't cut out cows' milk or any other food group from your diet or your baby's without speaking to your GP or health visitor first.
Some mothers suggest that eating less of foods such as broccoli, onions and cabbage, which produce a lot of gas, may improve colic. It's possible that eating less spicy food and drinking less caffeine may help. However, there is no scientific evidence to show that these have any benefit.
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