Colic used to be put down to tummy problems, but research has shed more light on the causes of this condition. By Kate Sidley
Colic is defined as inconsolable, excessive crying in an otherwise healthy baby. The strict medical definition says it entails crying for more than three hours a day for more than three days a week, for more than three weeks.
What causes colic?
- Although an estimated 10-20% of babies suffer from colic, it’s still not well understood.
- Colic has long been assumed to be linked to gastrointestinal problems, probably gas. A generation of moms gave up milk and cabbage, chopped and changed formulas, and frantically burped and winded their babies – usually to no avail. Some colicky babies do have symptoms that would point to gastrointestinal discomfort – they pass wind, or have noisy tummies, or cry after feeding – but many don’t. The gastrointestinal link has never been conclusively proven and a number of studies have found that giving colicky babies medication for gas or reflex doesn’t seem to help.
- It’s now suggested that there are probably a variety of causes, of which gastrointestinal distress may be one. Megan Faure, author of Baby Sense, is one of a growing number of experts who believe there’s often a neurological element. She says: “Although the research isn’t there to fully support it, my view is that the baby’s sensory world plays a big role in colic. I think that in the first two weeks, the baby is still in a very calm, sleepy state, thanks to the highly regulating environment of the womb. But at two weeks old, she comes out of that calm state. Physically, she uncurls. Her own reflexes are very overwhelming. She hasn’t learnt to regulate her sleep cycles and is overexposed to sensory overload.”
Colic linked to migraines
A study released in 2012 found that babies whose mothers suffered from migraines had more than twice the usual rate of colic, leading to speculation that colic could be some early precursor to migraines. Amy Gelfand, MD, a child neurologist with the Headache Center at University of California San Fransisco suggests that like migraine sufferers, colicky babies are unusually sensitive to stimuli. The bright, busy, noisy world they are born into is too much to cope with.
Meg Faure offers this plan of action to help you cope with your colicky baby:
Step 1. Ensure your baby is getting enough sleep. She should be awake no longer than an hour at a time during the day. You don’t need a rigid schedule, but a regular routine will help.
To get your baby to sleep better, try to re-enact the sensory environment of the womb and inhibit external sensory input:
- Play a white noise CD to block out the noise of the world around her.
- Swaddle her.
- Wear a baby sling to keep her close.
Step 2. If this plan doesn’t seem to calm your baby, take her to the doctor for a check-up. In about 5% of cases, there is a physical cause of discomfort, usually reflux.
Step 3. You can try alternative options, such as massage or chiropractic manipulation. While research doesn’t support these as ‘cures’, they are not harmful and some moms report that they are helpful.
A baby who is crying inconsolably may be ill or in real pain. Seek medical attention quickly for these potentially serious symptoms:
Look after yourself
Having a colicky baby is very hard on parents. It’s common to blame yourself and to wonder what you’re doing wrong.
- Be partners. Support each other and take turns.
- Understand it’s not your fault. Tell yourself you’re doing your best in difficult circumstances.
- Recognise when you can’t cope. Colic babies are at risk of Shaken Baby Syndrome. If you feel you are at risk of losing your cool, give your baby to your partner or even just put her in her cot, and take some time to calm down.
- Know that this will pass.
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