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Colic in babies

colic; wind; gas; pain; babies; baby; reflux; lactose; intolerance; crying; screaming; evening; rocking; diet; breastfeeding; cow; milk; dairy; breast feeding; Lactobacillus; Acidophilus; settling; bacteria; probiotics ;

Many young babies cry a lot in the late afternoon and evening – sometimes for a couple of hours. This crying is often called 'colic'. The crying usually is at its worst around 6 weeks and gets better between 3 and 4 months, but it can be a very difficult time for babies and their parents and caregivers for many weeks.

The cause of this crying is not known. The babies are healthy and growing well, and usually calm or easily settled at other times of the day.

If a baby starts crying more than usual or seems to be crying because she or he is unwell she or he needs to be seen by a doctor.

Contents


What causes the crying?

  • 'Colic' means painful tightening of muscles (spasms). It may be that muscle spasms in the bowel of the baby are causing pain – and the babies certainly look as though they are in pain – but the bowel of babies with colic appears healthy and normal. Sometimes a baby seems to become calmer when he passes wind or does a poo which suggests that gas in the bowel might be part of the reason for crying, but babies don't cry like this before passing wind or doing a poo at other times of the day.
  •  It may be that a lot has happened during the day – it takes time for very young babies to adjust to their world.

The pattern of crying

The common pattern of colic is:

  • The baby cries or screams for a long time, often at the end of the day.
  • The baby is hard to comfort. Doing things that help her become calmer earlier in the day no longer help.
  • The distress comes in waves - the baby seems to calm then suddenly starts screaming again.
  • The baby may arch backwards and either draw her knees up or stretch her legs out stiffly.

If a baby is miserable at other times of the day, she may have other problems such as reflux or lactose intolerance, but many babies with these problems also have a period of evening crying which seems like 'colic'. Have a look at the topics 'Reflux' and 'Lactose Intolerance in babies'.

What parents can do

  • Check with your doctor to be sure your baby is well.
  • Prepare for the difficult end of the day - for example, by getting the evening meal ready early.
  • Look for ideas in the topic 'Crying Baby'. Write out a list of things that sometimes work for your baby, and put it in a place you can see easily. Try these one by one.
  • Get some support. Share caring for your baby with someone else if you can. It is good for the baby and good for you.
  • If everything has been tried and your baby still cries, try to just hold him. He will sense that you are offering comfort, even if the crying goes on. A rocking chair can be good for this.
  • Sometimes the crying may really get to you.
    • If this happens it is important to give your baby to someone else or put him down somewhere safe and take a break.
    • Do something that relaxes you, have a cup of coffee or tea, play some music, read a bit.
    • Then you will have fresh energy to go back to your baby.
    • Remember that other people will find a crying baby, so only leave your baby with another person for the time that this person is able to manage.
  • Sometimes going outside helps - for example, take your baby for a walk in the pram.
  • Call a parent helpline (1300 364 100 in South Australia).

This can be a tough time for both parents and for other children in the family. Try to spend time together when your baby is not crying.

Medicines

It is not clear how useful medicines for colic are.

  • The crying gets better by itself, often quite suddenly, whether you use any medicines or not.
  • If you want to use them, talk to your doctor or pharmacist before buying any of them. You should follow carefully the directions on the pack about how much to give and the age of the baby to use them for. .
  • Many medicines used for colic have a warning on the packet that they should only be used for babies under 6 months if you have medical advice. Always talk with your doctor before using them.
  • Most colic medicines have not been shown by research to be a risk for babies, but most have also not been shown to help them either.
  • Sometimes herbal remedies such as chamomile tea are suggested. These are not always safe for babies. Talk with a pharmacist.

Feeding

Breastfeeding

Stopping breastfeeding does not cause the crying to stop.

Sometimes the mother's diet is blamed if she is breastfeeding but it is unusual for a change in diet to 'fix' the crying.

  • Occasionally babies seem calmer if their mother removes cow's milk and other dairy products from her diet. This should only be done with the help of a doctor.
  • It may be useful to reduce the amount of caffeine a mother is having through coffee, tea, cola or other drinks and foods.
  • Breastfeeding mothers often try to avoid foods they think upset their babies, such as spicy foods and vegetables such as cabbage, but this does not seem to make much difference. You could record what you eat and see whether some foods seem to change the pattern of crying – but generally babies do not seem to be affected by their mother's diet.

Bottle feeding

Often when babies are having infant formula, parents try changing the formula. This also does not change the pattern of crying. If the baby cries less it is most likely this is because the baby's pattern of crying was changing as she got older.

Probiotics

In recent years there has been a lot of interest in the type of bacteria that grow in the bowel and the benefits of having a correct balance of 'good' bacteria (such as Lactobacillus acidophilus) versus 'bad' bacteria. 

There have been some claims that  some probiotics may lessen the amount of crying for babies with colic. Evidence for this is not strong.

  • Babies, especially it they are breastfed, are likely to have plenty of Lactobacillus acidophilus.
  • There is no evidence that giving acidophilus powder to breastfed or bottle fed babies helps them be more settled.
    • We do not recommend its use, but if parents are keen to try it, it is not likely to be harmful.
    • It is important to only give the recommended amount for young babies, mixed with cooled boiled water.

Resources

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The information on this site should not be used as an alternative to professional care. If you have a particular problem, see a doctor, or ring the Parent Helpline on 1300 364 100 (local call cost from anywhere in South Australia).

This topic may use 'he' and 'she' in turn - please change to suit your child's sex.

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