Your baby cries. That’s normal, of course. But what if your baby really cries? A lot. And you begin to hear repeatedly — when in the presence of grandmothers, opinionated observers and even your pediatrician — the word “colic.”
The Mayo Clinic defines colic as predicable periods of distress in an otherwise healthy, well-fed infant.
Secondary dictionary definitions name sharp stomach pain, with the origin of the word pertaining to the colon.
From these two common descriptions, it’s easy to see why many assume that a colicky baby is a gassy baby. The truth — much to the frustration of parents struggling nightly with this exhausting affliction — is that colic is still somewhat of a mystery.
We’re not entirely sure what causes it.
Here’s what we do know
Babies cry. Crying — even frequent crying — is not colic.
A diagnosis of colic is generally given to a baby who cries for at least three hours per day, three days per week, for three weeks or longer.
The crying starts seemingly out of nowhere and ends abruptly.
The baby seems inconsolable. Nothing the parent does seems to help.
Physical symptoms include curling of legs, clenching of fists and tightening of the abdomen.
Colic usually happens at the same time every day, most commonly late afternoon or early evening.
It usually starts within a week or two after birth and improves drastically at 3 months.
The mystery lies in both cause and cure. Is it a stomach issue? If so, is it gas?
Does the gas come from extra air taken in during crying jags? Or does the crying come from stomach pain? Is this an emotional issue? Neurological? Is something else wrong? What, if anything, helps?
Dr. Alexandra Hall — a family practitioner and mother of two from Menomonie, Wis. — found what she understood as a physician went out the window when her own son fell into an intense and harrowing period of colic.
Combining both her professional and personal experiences, Hall had this to say: “Personally, I think it is somehow gastrointestinal. But I also think it’s neurologic — having to do with the brain control of the gut. Why? Because it starts out of nowhere and then all of a sudden stops.”
Babies suffering from colic seem emotionally distressed, and there’s anecdotal evidence to suggest that parental anxiety contributes to the intensity and duration of colic.
Parents — already worried, exhausted, hormonal and raw — can’t imagine being blamed for their child’s inconsolable crying. And yet, the bond between parent and child is so strong, it’s natural for a baby to respond to her parent’s emotions — and vice versa.
Here we have another chicken-egg situation, much like the question of cause and effect between crying and gas. Is the parent anxious because of the colic? Or is the baby colicky because her parent is anxious? It is, perhaps, a catch-22.
A 2011 study at the University of San Francisco Pediatrics Clinic done by Dr. Amy Gelfand found a link between migraine and colic.
Recurring migraine headaches are known to be hereditary. In Dr. Gelfand’s study, mothers with a history of migraines were two and a half times more likely to have a baby with colic.
Are episodes of colic an infant’s first migraine? Interestingly, stomach upset is a common symptom of migraine, too. The study circles back to Hall’s suspicion that colic is both neurological and gastrointestinal.
One possible takeaway from all of this inconclusive information is that colic almost always involves the gut.
Take a break, work in shifts.
And there’s definitely an emotional aspect to consider, too. That piece may very well come from the pure nature of the beast: Colic can be catastrophically hard on a family.
Said Dr. Hall, “I’ve been through a lot of harrowing experiences in my life, most of them during medical training … 36-hour shifts, patients coding. Nothing came close to the trauma of an infant with colic.
“To have this tiny being that you love with all your heart spend hours a day in terrible suffering, with you yourself powerless to ease it, is incredibly distressing, notwithstanding that you are sleep-deprived and hormonally chaotic.
“Truthfully, it was a huge part of our decision to not have another child.”
According to both Dr. Hall and the Mayo Clinic, the only serious complication of colic — and it’s a big one — is the possibility of Shaken Baby Syndrome. Ever wonder if and how that actually happens? This is it.
Parents and caregivers don’t want to hurt the baby — they basically snap after hours, days and weeks of trying everything, on very little sleep.
This is why the most important practice in dealing with colic is taking a break.
Parents must work in shifts, call in the grandmothers, hire a trusted and experienced doula or nanny. Walks around the block in the fresh air, a short drive listening to happy music or a cup of coffee at the local cafe can go a long way in terms of resetting the patience button and refreshing the weary spirit.
The parent alone with their baby during an episode of colic is better off putting their child down in a safe place and walking away for a minute or two rather than continuing on as frustration and anxiety become intolerable.
What can you do for your baby?
Is there really no cure for colic?
Some mothers swear by various forms of so-called gripe water, liquid herbal remedies delivered by dropper. (But if those remedies worked for everyone, wouldn’t colic be curable?)
Doctors may recommend a change in a breastfeeding mother’s diet or a change to a gentler (and much pricier) formula, though these are last resorts more indicative of a struggle with allergy or acid reflux.
Probiotics are known to ease the gastrointestinal trauma associated with colic. They come in a powdered form for infants, which can be placed right on the breast, given by finger or added to a bottle.
The success rate of probiotics — bacteria and yeasts that are beneficial to health — again points to the neurologic-gastrointestinal connection: Simply put, humans develop at different rates and the stomach of a colicky infant might not be mature enough yet to self-regulate.
Hall finally saw improvement with her child when she turned to Dr. Harvey Karp’s now-classic book The Happiest Baby on the Block. His soothing techniques, the co-called five Ss, include swaddling, swinging, sucking, shushing sounds and side-or-stomach positioning for digestion (but not for sleep). Though hardly revolutionary, his book helps parents because it presents a definitive plan.
Warm compresses to the belly or a nice bath with Mom can relieve the baby’s tension, as can a walk in the fresh air. Some babies calm quickly when extraneous stimuli are removed — dim the lights, turn off the TV, retreat from the crowd.
Talk to a homeopath
Another avenue parents can explore is homeopathy, a form of alternative medicine that involves highly diluted substances, given mainly in tablet form, with the aim of triggering the body’s natural system of healing.
Tana Harahan, a homeopathic practitioner specializing in pediatrics at HippHealth Center for Holistic Healing in Minneapolis, describes colic as a cramping of the intestines caused by underlying emotional upset.
Harahan says, “This can be something as simple as not having needs understood and met immediately and range to a traumatic event that occurred to the baby or to mom while in utero.
“Babies’ nervous systems easily become oversensitive, which will affect their digestion.”
Harahan says there are many homeopathic remedies for colic, such as a chamomilla supplement, made from chamomile and pulsatilla, another supplement, also derived from herbaceous plants.
She uses a wide variety of treatments based on the whole-health picture of the mom and baby, also taking into account the characteristics of the particular case of colic.
Keep yourself calm
As for that parental anxiety, here’s the catch-22: If baby screams at 5:30 every night, the parent will start to tense up at 5:15, and the baby will experience that tension. While not the reason for colic, this may prolong the agony and contribute to the cyclical pattern.
Though challenging, it’s best for the parent to try to remain calm and to see each day as new and different. Yoga, meditation, a cup of tea or a catnap just before that 5 o’clock witching hour can help, but the most important need of the parent is that brief intermission.
Take a break, reset and try again.
This, too, shall pass.