Dr. Sarah Mitchell
About Author
May 2, 2022

Colic in Babies: Baby Massage and Other Tactics for Quick Relief

Colic by definition is more than three hours of crying per day, for more than three days a week, for more than three weeks. And if that's you, gosh! That's a real, real burden on your family. It's a lot of crying. 

What Causes Colic?   

Researchers actually don't have a definitive root answer for what causes colic, however there are many working theories.  

Immature Digestive System 

One theory is that the baby's digestive system isn't really developed very well yet. Which is why they say that colic will eventually on its own disappear somewhere around three months, and for sure by six months once a baby develops more.

Imbalance of Bacteria 

There's another theory that it's imbalance of the bacteria that's living in the gut. The bad bacteria is outweighing the good bacteria. 

Food Sensitivities

It could also be food sensitivities, not necessarily a true allergy, but some sort of sensitivity that's irritating the gut and making the baby uncomfortable.  

Cow’s Milk Protein Allergy 

There’s some research to show that cows milk protein allergy is one of the causes that can mimic colic.

Overfeeding or Underfeeding Baby 

Then there's a theory that either over feeding your kiddos or maybe even under feeding them can cause all of this crying, as it is a cry for help: "I'm uncomfortable," or "I'm hungry." 

Dysregulated Nervous System 

The other theory is that it's a dysregulated nervous system, that maybe you had some sort of birth trauma during delivery that has left them a little bit dysregulated. 

Possibly Being Overtired? 

The other thing very few people talk about is the fact that being over tired can sometimes mimic colic. I mention this because I had a student in my Helping Babies Sleep School who took my newborn class, who said afterwards "You know, I'm so grateful for the class and she's sleeping great now, and I actually realized looking back that I thought my first had colic but now I realized she was probably overtired because I just kept her up so much, I didn't realize that I was supposed to be kind of watching the clock and knowing when to get them down."

More Than One Factor 

All of these things can be in combination.  If you have a really uncomfortable child who's having trouble sleeping, she will eventually get overtired and then you have that compounding the entire effect.

Accompanying Symptoms of Colic Can Include:

  • Passing a lot of gas 
  • Burping a lot 
  • Bright red faces
  • Clenched fists 
  • Curling legs up to chest 
  • Rigid abdomen

Some possible symptoms that can go along with the crying include passing a lot of gas, or burping a lot, but this can actually be a chicken or the egg situation. Is your child colicky because they have GI issues, or are they crying so much that they're actually swallowing air which is  creating the need to burp and the digestive issues.  It can be hard to say.  Some of our kiddos also present with very bright red faces, almost like they're trying to bear down and push something out of their gut, essentially. They may have clenched fists, because they're uncomfortable. They may also curl their legs up over their belly to try and protect themselves, almost like that fetal position, to try and ease the discomfort. Many kids actually present with what we call a tight belly, so pushing on their abdomen is very rigid you can't really get in there to massage it.

What Can You Do To Help Your Baby with Colic? 

Most kids who are uncomfortable whether that's reflux, whether it's an injury, an illness, in general, will want to sleep on people. They seek the comfort and the soothing ability of a parent. They want to be close to you.

If this is you, now is not the time to be working on gentle newborn sleep shaping, it's really a time to be helping them get through this discomfort. 

Distraction - Singing, Walking, Car Ride

One tactic that you can use to help your little person at this stage is distraction. Can you distract them from what's distracting them? Can you put them in a baby swing, not to sleep but to hang out and be distracted by the world going by. This could be helpful for you too, to get them out of your arms and a few tasks accomplished.  Can you sing to your baby? Can you rock your baby? Can you walk around the house and look at different things? Keep thinking, how can I distract them from what's distracting them? Can I go for a car ride? All those things can help them. 

Ease Discomfort 

Try to identify the root issue.  If you are you're breastfeeding, is your latch letting extra air in that might be causing some discomfort? Is there a potential food sensitivity? Looking at your breastfeeding diet, do you have a lot of dairy? There could be other foods too, but those tend to be kind of one of the main ones that can be associated with. If you are formula feeding, is there a lot of dairy in that?

Positioning to Ease Discomfort 

Can you help them by lying them on their stomach, either on you or on your legs, facing out and rubbing their back? In general, kids with GI issues will want to sleep on their stomach. Think about yourself when you have a sore tummy, you tend to go into that fetal position.  Can you help your little one with that?  Can you give them a warm bath? Because often when my stomach is upset, I want a heating pad or something on that. So can you offer that in in addition? 

Manual Techniques to Ease Discomfort 

Heat can be helpful.  There’s a product called Dr. Brown’s Gripebelt.  It’s basically a heating pad that you can put on your LOs abdomen.  This is not safe sleep approved but this might help you be able to put your little one down in a supervised chair.  One of the ways you know heat is working because often I'll see kids and they're kind of fidgety. Fidgety means usually uncomfortable, or a dysregulated nervous system. Often we either burp them, or do some tummy massage so we can get the gas out and then you can see their body language relax. It's the same with this heating pad, you notice that you see some relaxation when you apply it, then it’s working. 

A mother is holding a colic baby who is crying

The Finesse Over Force Burping Technique 

The purpose of burping to release an air bubble that got ingested with feeding or crying.  You want to think about PATTING to dislodge the bubble and SQUEEZING to help the bubble come up and exit the esophagus or food tube.  

For a full explanation of the Finesse Over Force Burping Technique you can watch this 3 min tutorial and grab a sheet sheet. 

Burping Technique Blog Link

The Finesse Over Force Key Points:

  • You want counter pressure on the stomach/esophageal junction
  • Achieve this with hip flexion and positioning your hand on their chest/abdomen
  • Pat to dislodge the bubble, and squeeze and stroke the bubble up the esophagus
  • Slight extension in the back and neck can be helpful to give the bubble a clear path out 
  • Don’t underestimate the power of changing burping positions
  • Don’t underestimate the need to burp away from feeding times 

The Lower Left Quadrant Tummy Massage

Imagine that their GI tract is an upside down U like this, and it's exiting on the left hand side here.  Starting on the lower right side, gently massage with two fingers up to baby’s lower ribs, then move from right to left across the body to the other lower ribs, then massage down to the left lower side.  The purpose of this is to dislodge a bubble that is trapped and causing discomfort. 

The important part is here left lower quadrant. Using two fingers, you are going to roll off the hip bone that sticks out there, and there's a little spot in there. It's a trigger point kind of a holding tank, and you will flex the hip because this will not work if your child's abdomen is rigid.  

Using two fingers gently massage in one spot while pressing down.  This is where the large intestine is going deeper and becoming the rectum which holds the gas and poop.  

You will do a little bit of trigger point work there. Trying to get the gas out. Move the bubble around. Then there's something called the Windi, which is a little tube that you actually insert into the rectum to help elicit the ejection reflex to get the body to get rid of that gas. So you prime the pump by doing all these things and you can use the Windi to help get rid of that gas completely.

In summary, colic by definition is  three hours of crying a day or more, more than three days a week for more than three weeks. It could be some sort of GI issue but doctors are not 100% certain.  It can also be mimicking with over tiredness, which could be compounding the problem. You can use manual techniques like burping and tummy massage to help alleviate those things, If you're looking for more sleep tips, we have a simple six question sleep quiz that you can take for babies from four weeks to two years.

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