Colic in Babies - what it is, why it happen?

The happy laughter of our babies is music to the ears. It gives us a feeling of joy and contentment. When the situation is reversed and they cry it tears at our hearts. The natural response is to soothe whatever ails them. We do know and understand that crying for a baby is a natural auto response for most of their early communications. They lack the ability to speak and articulate their wants and needs, so they cry. The cry maybe for a diaper change request, a feeding demand, a cuddling need or a cry of discomfort. One of the main reason for the latter is sometimes attributed to ‘colic’. Colic has been attributed to most of the crying episodes of babies who may cry for long periods. This cry we wish not to hear as the fix is not always in our powers.

Colic is often misunderstood, therefore, the first thing is recognising what it is. This blog post will look at clarifying what colic is and how it may be treated.

The information contained in this blog post is for informational purposes only. It should not be taken as medical advice. If you suspect your baby suffers from colic it is best to seek medical assistance.

Colic, what is it?

Colic, what is it? The basic definition is an otherwise healthy baby who cries inconsolably for no known reason. The actual medical definition of colic is the occurrence of bouts of crying that is defined as:

  1. occurring in the first 3 months of life;
  2. lasts more than 3 hours a day;
  3. happens more than 3 days per week; and
  4. occurs each week for at least 3 weeks.

If a baby is fed, dry and well rested and their cries are not due to any of these or an illness then the cry may be labelled ‘colicky’. However, if a baby does not meet the four definitions medically classed as ‘having colic’ the cry may be related to other causes like wind pain. Note that the definition excludes babies who have a defined illness or medical condition. If a cause for the crying can be identified, then the baby is no longer classed as having colic.

How common is colic and what are the possible causes?

It is believed that colic affects about 5-28% of babies in the first few months of life. What are the causes of it?

Studies have not  yet answered the question of ‘what causes colic’, but they do have theories as to the possible causes for colic:

  • food intolerance or allergy - potentially due to cow’s milk or soy protein
  • an immature digestive system
  • an underdeveloped central nervous system
  • ‘difficult infant temperament’
  • a baby’s inability to clearly communicate its needs
  • transference of a caregiver’s anxiety to the baby

Thus, the causes remain undetermined with the best defence being knowing your baby and also what triggers the colicky episodes.  

What can be done to help babies with colic?

The subject has not been fully researched to provide a definitive answer as to what causes the symptoms this does not mean that there is no help. In 2000 a pair of researchers conducted  A Systematic Review of Treatments for Infant Colic  looking specifically at the treatment options. The following was highlighted:

  • Pharmaceutical —there are pharmaceutical remedies that some parents use.  However, they don't state that they are a definitive cure and the disadvantages of these outweigh the benefits making them inappropriate for the treatment of colic.
  • Dietary modification —babies developing digestive system can be susceptible to what their mothers eat and also the formula they consume. A low allergen diet may help to reduce the symptoms. Different field studies have been done on what a mother consumes like egg, wheat, nuts and milk as opposed to babies fed with milk-based formula. The results from these studies were mixed. It was found that some babies had shorter colic spells when fed soy-based formula.

A recommended course of action for a breastfeeding mother is to pay close attention to the colic episodes of her baby and also what her dietary intake was. Keeping a record of this will help both the mother and doctor with determining the treatment course to take. The same principle applies to formula fed babies; a pattern of symptoms can be traced to what the baby consumes.

  • Behavioural treatment —the only behavioural treatment for colic that is supported by science is decreased stimulation. The evidence is severely limited but if you have a colicky baby, it may be worth a shot.
  • Naturopathic treatment —while herbal tea and sugar seem to offer some relief to babies with colic, there are health concerns associated with both treatments. If you are interested in trialling such a treatment, it would be best to consult your doctor before doing so. Treatments with probiotics or fennel appear to be effective, but again you should consult your doctor before attempting to treat your child with either remedy.
  • Bottle teat shape - makes a difference to how a baby consumes the milk.  Using Minbie's bottle teats helps babies to pace the feed for themselves.

What should you do if you suspect your baby has colic?

The first step in coming to a diagnosis of colic is to rule out what is not colic. So, if your baby cries a lot the checklist is:

✅ Bub is clean and dry

✅ Tummy is full and well burped

✅ Well rested and occupied with some form of entertainment or interactive play

✅  No discomfort from pain or teething, illness or constipation

If all these can be ruled out and Bub still cries enough to meet the criteria for colic, then it is time to move to the next step. Keep a symptom diary for Bub and a food diary for Mom (if Bub is breastfed) and for Bub (if Bub is formula fed). It would also be good to keep track of parental mental health to see if any bouts of anxiety or depression coincide with increased crying in Bub.

Once you’ve gathered all your information, speak with your doctor. You can then discuss possible treatments such as dietary modification if the food diary indicates that might help. You might also discuss possible naturopathic treatments, especially if you haven’t been able to identify any patterns.

Share your experience

Have you found a treatment that helped your baby with colic? What did you do? Share it in the comments, it might just help another family in a similar situation.