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Colic

  • Colic can be described as inconsolable crying in an otherwise healthy baby.
  • Both breast-fed and bottle-fed babies can have colic and it affects boys and girls equally.
  • Colic usually gets better by itself and babies ‘grow out of it’ within a few months.

Colic is inconsolable crying in an otherwise healthy newborn baby. A baby with colic cries more often and for longer than other babies. Colic usually gets better on its own and most babies ‘grow out of it’ by the age of six months.

About colic

Colic is a common condition in babies. Between one and three out of 10 babies have colic; it affects boys and girls, babies who are breastfed and those who are bottle-fed equally.

Colic usually starts when your baby is a few weeks old. Most babies ‘grow out of it’ by the age of three or four months, or six months at the latest.

It’s not known exactly what causes colic, but it usually gets better on its own. However, as a parent or carer, it can be very upsetting.

Symptoms of colic

Your baby may cry for several hours a day and you might find it hard to soothe or comfort him or her. A baby with colic can cry at any time of the day, but you may find that it’s worse in the late afternoon or evening. Although colic isn't thought to be harmful to your baby’s health in the long term, he or she can look uncomfortable. Your baby may:

  • arch his or her back
  • draw up the legs to his or her abdomen (tummy)
  • become stiff
  • pass wind
  • clench his or her fists

If your baby has colic, he or she should still feed well and gain weight. If your baby doesn't do this, see your health visitor or GP.

You may find the symptoms of colic very stressful to manage. It can be difficult to cope with the constant crying, or to comfort your baby, so it’s important to look after yourself, get support and to take a break if things get on top of you.

Causes of colic

The exact reasons why your baby may develop colic aren't fully understood at present. However, there are a number of possible causes. The main ones are listed below.

  • If you smoke during or after your pregnancy, your baby may be more likely to get colic.
  • Your baby may have painful indigestion or wind. It could be that your baby is taking in too much air when feeding, which puts pressure on their stomach.
  • Your baby may have a temporary intolerance to lactose in breast milk or to cow’s milk protein in formula milk.
  • If you’re breastfeeding, some foods and drinks such as cow’s milk, eggs, wheat, nuts and caffeinated drinks may result in colic.
  • Your baby may be more sensitive than other babies. This can mean that he or she is more sensitive to their environment or to being over-stimulated.

Diagnosis of colic

If you’re worried about your baby’s crying, see your GP or health visitor to make sure there isn’t a more serious health problem. If your baby starts to cry suddenly or you’re concerned, seek medical advice – it may be that your baby has another condition.

Before you see your GP, think about anything else that may be causing your baby to cry. Some of the main causes of crying are listed below.

  • Wind. If you’re bottle-feeding your baby, sit him or her upright when feeding. This cuts down the amount of air your baby takes in during feeds and may help to prevent wind. Your health visitor will be able to show you how to do this. Burping your baby will also help to get rid of wind.
  • Hunger or thirst. Talk to your health visitor about whether your baby is feeding enough.
  • Temperature. Check whether your baby is too hot or too cold. Keep the room temperature at 18°C if possible.
  • Itchiness. Itchy clothes, labels or eczema can irritate your baby.
  • Pain, for example, caused by nappy rash.

If your baby continues to cry, see your GP or health visitor. He or she will examine your baby and ask you about your baby’s behaviour. This will help to rule out other illnesses or causes of crying.

Doctors usually make a diagnosis of colic if your baby cries for more than three hours a day on more than three days a week, for a period of more than three weeks, and there is no other cause.

Treatment of colic

There is no single treatment for colic that works for every baby. Different babies are comforted in different ways, and you may need to try a few methods to see which works best. In time, colic will stop and your baby’s crying will get better after a few months.

Self-help

Although there isn’t any clear proof that the techniques below definitely help to reduce colic, you may find the following techniques helpful to soothe your baby.

  • Hold your baby and walk or dance around with him or her. Babies need lots of contact and like the movement.
  • Carry your baby in a front sling or backpack.
  • Try using a baby swing.
  • Sing softly, play music and talk to your baby.
  • You may want to change your baby’s position by propping him or her up, so he or she can look around more.
  • Try to soothe your baby with continuous noise or vibrations, for example the noise from a vacuum cleaner or washing machine, or from running water.
  • Take your baby for a drive in the car or a walk in the buggy.
  • Give your baby a dummy to suck on.
  • Bathe your baby – the warm water may be comforting

It’s important, however, not to over-stimulate your baby.

Your GP or health visitor may also suggest changing your diet or your baby’s diet. This may help if your baby is sensitive to lactose or to cow’s milk protein.

If you’re breastfeeding your baby, try cutting out caffeinated drinks or cow’s milk and dairy foods for a week to see whether your baby’s symptoms get better.

If you’re bottle-feeding your baby, your GP or health visitor may suggest changing the size of the hole in the teat, as too small a teat can cause your baby to swallow air. If your baby’s colic is severe, your GP or health visitor may also recommend changing to a different formula, called a hypoallergenic formula, for one week. This may be recommended particularly if there is a family history of eczema, asthma or hay fever, or your baby has symptoms of these conditions. If your baby’s symptoms don’t get better, you can go back to your usual formula milk.

You can also try adding lactase drops to milk during feeds. Lactase breaks down lactose and may help to improve your baby’s symptoms. You can add lactase drops to bottle feeds of formula or breast milk. If you’re breastfeeding, add the drops to a small amount of expressed milk and give it to your baby using a sterilised teaspoon at the end of your baby’s feed. Try this for one week to see if the symptoms get better. You can buy lactase from a pharmacy. Always read the patient information leaflet and if you have any questions, ask your pharmacist for advice.

Don't cut out any foods from yours or your baby’s diet without speaking to your GP or health visitor first.

Medicines

A medicine called simeticone may help to improve the symptoms of colic, but doctors don’t know how well it works. Simeticone is given as a liquid, which you add to milk. It’s used to relieve trapped wind.

Try simeticone for one week to see if there is any improvement in your baby’s symptoms.

Complementary therapies

Some people believe that chiropractic spinal manipulation therapy or cranial osteopathy can help to relieve the symptoms of colic. However, there is not enough evidence to say how effective these treatments are and more research is needed.

Some research also suggests that aromatherapy and abdominal massage using lavender oil may be effective treatments for colic. However, there is also little evidence that these treatments work. Always ask the advice of a qualified practitioner as some aromatherapy, massage oils and complementary therapies can be harmful to babies.

Help and support

Caring for a baby with colic can be very upsetting, frustrating and challenging for any parent or carer. If you're feeling frustrated and upset, leave him or her somewhere safe for a few minutes and go into another room to calm down. Taking a short break can stop you from getting more upset.

If you feel overwhelmed, ask your partner, a family member or friend to take over for a while. It may be for just an hour or two so that you can have a proper break from your baby's crying.

It's good to get out and meet other parents with babies of a similar age, so ask your health visitor for information about playgroups.

 

Produced by Natalie Heaton, Bupa Health Information Team, May 2013.

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  • This information was published by Bupa's Health Information Team and is based on reputable sources of medical evidence. It has been reviewed by appropriate medical or clinical professionals. Photos are only for illustrative purposes and do not reflect every presentation of a condition. The content is intended only for general information and does not replace the need for personal advice from a qualified health professional. For more details on how we produce our content and its sources, visit the about our health information page.

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