Dr. Sarah Mitchell
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Dealing with Colic: Tips for Soothing Your Fussy Baby

Having a new baby is one of life's greatest joys. But it can also be quite challenging, especially when your otherwise healthy baby cries or fusses for long periods of time without any obvious reason. This excessive, inconsolable crying in young babies is known as colic.

Colic is a common condition that affects up to 25% of babies in the first few months of life. While the exact cause of colic is unknown, it is not due to poor parenting. Colic is no one's fault and does not indicate any long-term problems or health conditions. The good news is that colic eventually resolves on its own as your baby grows older.

In this blog post, we will go over what colic is, its symptoms, potential causes, and most importantly - tips to soothe a colicky baby and cope as a parent.

What is Colic?

Colic is defined as intense, frequent crying in an otherwise healthy baby that:

  1. Starts around 2-3 weeks of age
  2. Lasts for more than 3 hours a day, for 3 or more days a week
  3. Stops by 3-4 months of age

The crying often happens in the late afternoon or evening hours and is described as high-pitched and inconsolable. Your baby may scream, draw their legs up, clench their fists, pass gas, or turn red in the face during colic episodes.

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, a colicky baby cries for more than 3 hours a day, more than 3 days a week, for more than 3 weeks in an otherwise healthy and well-fed infant between 2 weeks and 4 months of age.

What Are the Symptoms of Colic?

The main symptom of colic is excessive crying in a healthy baby. Crying often starts and stops without any obvious reason. Other colic symptoms may include:

  1. Clenched fists
  2. Flushed face
  3. Tense stomach
  4. Excessive gas or burping
  5. Trouble sleeping
  6. Difficulty soothing or comforting the baby

Some Key Points on Colic:

  1. Colic episodes start when a baby is a few weeks old and often go away by 3 to 4 months of age. 
  2. The crying starts around 6 weeks of age and tends to peak around 8-10 weeks. Most babies outgrow colic by 3-4 months of age.
  3. It is defined by prolonged crying in an otherwise healthy infant who is well-fed and not in need of changing.
  4. Crying episodes can last from a few hours up to the entire day.
  5. The crying often happens at the same time each day, most commonly in the late afternoon or evening hours.
  6. Leg pulling, clenching fists, and passing gas are common during colic episodes.
  7. The exact cause of colic is unknown but may relate to digestion issues, immature nervous system, or food sensitivities.

If your baby cries for more than 3 hours a day for more than 3 days a week, it may be colic. But contact your pediatrician to rule out any medical reasons for the crying such as illness, acid reflux, food allergies, or a gastrointestinal problem.

What Causes Colic?

The exact cause of colic is unknown. A number of theories have been proposed as to why some babies develop colic:

Immature nervous system - A baby's nervous system is still developing, which may make them oversensitive to stimuli like sounds, touch, and gas in the intestines. This may cause excessive crying.

Tummy trouble - Colic may be related to indigestion, gas, or gastrointestinal issues. Things like gulping down too much air while breastfeeding or feeding intolerance can cause pain.

Food sensitivity - Some babies may have an intolerance to something in the breastfeeding mother's diet or baby formula. The most common offenders are cow's milk, soy, wheat, eggs, or nuts.

Family history - Colic may have a genetic component and tend to cluster in families. If the parents had colic as babies, their child is more likely to have it too.

While these factors may play a role, there is no clear medical cause of colic in most babies. It simply seems to be a phase that healthy babies go through as their bodies develop. The good news is that it resolves on its own without any long-term effects.

Tips to Soothe a Colicky Baby

Coping with a crying, colicky baby can be stressful and exhausting for parents. Here are some tips to help soothe your colicky baby and get through this challenging time:

  1. Check for hunger or wet diaper - Often the simple solution of feeding or changing the baby can help. Crying can be the first sign your baby is hungry.
  2. Hold baby close - Skin-to-skin contact and infant massage comforts babies. This can help regulate their nervous system.
  3. White noise - A loud shushing sound or white noise from a vacuum cleaner, fan, or white noise machine can distract and soothe a colicky baby.
  4. Go for a ride - Motion is calming for babies. Bring your colicky baby for a ride in the car, stroller, or baby swing. The vibration and movement can have a soothing effect.
  5. Warm bath - Give your baby a warm bath each night before bedtime. It can have a relaxing, sleep-inducing effect. Keep the water temperature between 98-100°F.
  6. Swaddle snugly - Wrapping your baby up tightly in a swaddle blanket gives them a sense of security. But make sure it's not too tight.
  7. Give pacifier - Sucking is another way to soothe and calm a fussy baby. Offer a pacifier when your baby needs comforting.
  8. Limit stimulation - Keep activities low-key and minimize loud noises, bright lights, and too much activity which can overwhelm a colicky baby.
  9. Baby massage - Try gently massaging your baby's tummy, feet, back, and head. This hands-on touch can provide comfort.
  10. Ask for help - Having a colicky baby is exhausting. Don't be afraid to ask family, friends, or postpartum doulas for extra support.  Helping Babies Sleep offers coaching packages to help you. 
  11. Take deep breaths - Caring for a crying baby for hours on end is stressful. Take breaks when you need to, put your baby in a safe place, and do deep breathing.
  12. Switch formula - If bottle feeding, try a hypoallergenic or sensitive baby formula designed for gassy babies. The proteins are partially broken down, making it easier to digest.
  13. Adjust breastfeeding mom's diet - What mothers eat can affect baby. Avoid gassy foods like cabbage, broccoli, beans, dairy, etc. Probiotics and reducing allergenic foods may also help.
  14. Try gripe water - Available over-the-counter, gripe water contains herbs like fennel, ginger, and chamomile to potentially ease gas. But always check with your pediatrician before using.
  15. Colic hold - Dr. Karp, pediatrician and author of The Happiest Baby on the Block, suggests a "colic hold." Hold your baby face down along your forearm, with their head on your hand and straddle their legs around your elbow - almost in a sitting position. Then rock vigorously as you shush in their ear.
  16. Get fresh air - Bring your baby outside for a change of environment. A stroll around the block in a front baby carrier may offer some relief.

Evidence to Support Holding Close:

Here is some evidence that holding newborns upright and close helps regulate their nervous systems:

A 2017 study published in Infant Behavior and Development found that carrying infants vertically (upright) during the first 3 months of life increased vagal tone, which is a measure of nervous system regulation. Higher vagal tone is associated with better self-soothing and emotion regulation abilities.

Another study in Frontiers in Psychology (2016) showed that infants carried in upright carriers like wraps or slings cried 43% less overall during the day compared to pram/stroller babies. The upright position provides constant vestibular stimulation through the caregiver's movements which helps regulate the infant.

Researchers suggest the calming effects stem from how vertical carrying duplicates the contained, flexed posture the infant experienced in the womb. This facilitates digestion, breathing, and feelings of safety and comfort. 

Skin-to-skin contact further helps regulate newborns. A meta-analysis in Pediatrics (2015) found that skin-to-skin care reduced crying by 43% at 1 hour and 51% at 2 hours compared to normal incubator care. It also increased autonomic stability. 

When to Call the Doctor About Colic

While excessive crying is part of normal colic, contact your pediatrician if:

  1. Crying lasts for more than 3-4 hours at a stretch
  2. Your baby seems ill - has fever, vomiting, diarrhea, etc.
  3. Crying begins after 6 months of age
  4. You notice loss of appetite, sleeping difficulties, or poor weight gain
  5. You see any signs of dehydration - no wet diapers, dry lips/mouth, sunken soft spot on head
  6. There is significant straining, pain, or discomfort when pooping
  7. Your baby starts having fewer wet diapers or bowel movements than usual

Any change in a baby’s usual pattern could indicate an underlying medical issue that requires evaluation. It’s always best to have a doctor examine your baby and rule out other potential causes of excessive crying.

We have MUCH more to teach you - check out our blog post on "Baby Won't Sleep Unless Held."

Coping Tips for Parents of Colicky Babies

Having a baby with colic can be utterly exhausting and distressing for parents. Here are some tips to take care of yourself while coping with a colicky baby:

  1. Sleep when baby sleeps. Rest is important, even if it’s just catnaps here and there.
  2. Take breaks when possible. Trade off with your partner or call in reinforcements - have a family member or friend watch the baby for even just an hour so you can recharge.
  3. Wear noise-canceling headphones if the crying feels overstimulating. Take deep breaths; the headphones allow you to stay calm and keep your sanity.
  4. Ask your pediatrician about using earplugs for short periods if the crying becomes overwhelming and you've tried everything.
  5. Join an online support group to connect with other parents going through the same struggles. You are not alone!  Inquire about Helping Babies Sleep's Coaching Packages
  6. Take a breather outside when possible - fresh air and nature can rejuvenate.
  7. Do relaxing activities during calm periods: read, take a bath, Facetime friends, listen to music.
  8. Don’t feel guilty about using TV or screens to distract older children for brief periods if you need to tend to the baby.
  9. Let go of unnecessary tasks.

Is Colic Avoidable?

There is no definitive way to prevent colic completely, since the exact causes are still unknown. However, there are some things parents can do that may help reduce the chances of colic:

  1. Burp frequently during feedings - Making sure to burp the baby often when bottle feeding or nursing can reduce swallowed air, which can contribute to gas and colic symptoms. Get access to our free burping tutorial here: Finesse Over Force Video Tutorial.
  2. Consult with Dr. Sarah at Helping Babies Sleep to get your feeding and sleeping optimized for your challenging baby. 
  3. Hold baby upright after feeding - Keeping the baby in a vertical position for 10-15 minutes after feeding allows gravity to help food digest and gas pass more easily.
  4. Use slower-flow bottles/nipples - Fast flows can cause the baby to take in excessive air, so using slow-flow nipples can help.
  5. Limit overstimulation - Creating a calm environment without too much noise or activity can prevent overly stimulating the baby's developing nervous system.
  6. Gentle bouncing/rocking - Rhythmic motions can have a soothing effect on babies prone to colic.
  7. Massage baby's tummy - Light abdominal massage in a clockwise motion can help relieve gas.
  8. Avoid tobacco smoke - Secondhand smoke exposure has been associated with increased colic risk.
  9. Identify/avoid dietary irritants - For breastfed babies, eliminating common gas-producing foods like dairy, soy, etc. from mom's diet may help. Switch formulas if needed.
  10. Use probiotics - Some studies have shown drops containing probiotics like Lactobacillus reuteri may reduce crying time. Always consult your pediatrician first.
  11. Maintain routine - Sticking to consistent naptimes, feeding times, and bedtimes can promote healthy digestion in babies.

Evidence to Support Probiotic Use:

A double-blind, placebo controlled randomized trial published in JAMA Pediatrics in 2018 found that the probiotic Lactobacillus reuteri DSM 17938 significantly decreased crying time in breastfed infants with colic.

The study had nearly 150 breastfed colicky infants either receive probiotic drops or placebo for 28 days. Infants who received the probiotic cried on average 74 minutes less per day compared to placebo. Crying time was reduced by a median of 39% with probiotic treatment.

The researchers concluded that Lactobacillus reuteri probiotic supplements reduced crying from colic in exclusively breastfed infants and led to improved infant sleep and quality of life for families. However, they note larger studies are needed to confirm effects.

While these measures may help, colic is still very common in babies. Staying calm, taking breaks, and remembering it resolves by 4 months are key for coping.  At Helping Babies Sleep we frequently work with fussy babies, babies who will only sleep in arms and on people.  Consider consulting with us.  Learn more here.

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