No matter how cute and cuddly they are, all babies cry. Parents accept this and understand that crying is the way their baby lets them know they’re hungry, wet, scared or tired. If your baby has colic, though, the crying can seem to come out of nowhere with no apparent cause and can feel like it goes on forever. When this happens, many parents come to us at Westchester Health wanting answers, advice, and most of all, solutions. At times like these, we want you to know that not only are we partners with you in raising your child, but we’re parents too, and we’re here to help.
Is it colic or just normal fussiness? How to tell the difference
Colic, as opposed to a baby’s normal crying due to hunger, tiredness or a wet or dirty diaper, is defined as inconsolable crying for more than 3 hours a day, more than 3 days a week, starting in the second week of life and lasting until about 3 months of age. Colic can occur at any time, although it often becomes worse in the early evening. The good news: colic usually ends at around 3-4 months of age.
(Interesting fact: A pediatrician named Dr. Morris Wessel defined a colicky infant as a child who cried for more than 3 hours a day, for more than 3 days a week, for over 3 weeks. This is often referred to as the “Rule of 3’s” or the Wessel Criteria, which is now used in most current studies of babies with colic.)
Before concluding that your baby has colic, we strongly suggest that you check with your pediatrician to make sure the crying is not related to a medical condition that might require treatment.
Typical symptoms of colic
- crying inconsolably
- cannot be soothed
- extending or pulling up the legs
- clenching fists
- passing gas
- enlarged stomach, distended with gas
What causes colic?
After the thousands of babies we have treated in our practice over the years, you would think we would have a definite answer as to what causes colic, or why some babies suffer from it and others do not. Sadly, we don’t. That’s partially because many different factors can bring on colic, and also because some babies can “self-console” when something upsets them, while others react with prolonged crying. To help better parents understand what can bring on colic, we find the following information from whattoexpect.com to be very helpful:
- Overstimulation. With a world of new sensations coming at them every day, some infants become overwhelmed, often at the end of the day. Many react to this sensory overload by crying (and crying and crying). Colic goes away, some theories suggest, when a baby learns how to filter out some of the stimuli, thereby avoiding a sensory meltdown.
- An immature digestive system which causes gas. Digesting food is a big task for a baby’s gastrointestinal system. As a result, food may pass through their digestive tract too quickly and not break down completely, resulting in pain from gas in the intestines.
- Infant acid reflux. Research has found that infant GERD (gastroesophageal reflux disease) sometimes triggers colic. Infant GERD is often the result of an underdeveloped lower esophageal sphincter (the muscle that keeps stomach acid from flowing back up into the throat and mouth). Symptoms include frequent vomiting, poor eating and irritability during and after feedings. The good news: most babies outgrow GERD by their first birthday, and colic usually has ended by then.
- Food allergies or sensitivity. Some experts believe that colic is the result of an allergy to milk protein (lactose intolerance) in formula-fed babies. This can cause tummy pain that then sets off a colicky reaction.
- Tobacco exposure. Several studies show that mothers who smoke during and/or after pregnancy are more likely to have babies with colic. At Westchester Health, we strongly urge our pregnant mothers not to smoke and to not let anyone around their baby smoke.
7 ways to help soothe a colicky baby
Although it might feel like your baby’s colic will never end, trust us, it will. In the meantime, here are some very good suggestions from Healthline.com that have helped countless parents cope with the crying:
1) Do not overfeed your baby. This can make little tummies uncomfortable, even painful. In general, try to wait at least 2½ hours from the start of one feeding to the start of the next.
3) Walk with your baby in front of you on your chest in a baby carrier. The motion and body contact will sooth and reassure your infant and hopefully help him/her endure the tummy pain.
4) Use soothing sounds to comfort and soothe. Try running the vacuum, the clothes dryer, a fan or a white-noise machine. Steady rhythmic motion and a calming sound may help your infant relax and fall asleep. Some parents find that going for a ride in the car also helps. NOTE: Never place your child on top of the washer/dryer, as they can possibly fall off.
5) Try a pacifier. While some breastfed babies will not take a pacifier, for many infants it gives instant relief.
6) Lay your baby tummy-down across your knees and gently rub his/her back. The pressure against your baby’s belly may help comfort and quiet him/her.
7) Swaddle your baby in a large, thin blanket. This will help make your infant feel secure and warm, which often helps stop the crying. To learn the proper way to swaddle, read our blog on swaddling here.
8) Take a break. It’s very easy to become tense, frustrated and exhausted with a colicky baby. When you feel like you’re at the end of your rope, it’s important to time a time out. Have your partner, another family member or a friend look after the baby so you can take a breather, preferably out of the house. Even an hour or two away will help you get perspective and maintain your sanity.
VERY IMPORTANT: Get the support you need while coping with colic
Dealing with a colicky baby can be overwhelming, and tests even the most patient of parents. You’re going to need lots of support, encouragement and help. With extended family often spread out over large geographical areas, it’s not always easy to figure out where a support network is going to come from, but at Westchester Health, we believe that support is critical for parents.
To try and make this very difficult phase a little easier, Care.com offers these suggestions:
- Don’t be afraid to call on close family and friends or anyone in your inner circle
- Connect with fellow colic parents through a new parent group, a local breastfeeding support group or social media (like the Fussy Baby Site)
- Remember that there is a wide array of professionals you can access, including pediatricians and obstetricians, mental health counselors, child development experts, feeding consultants and sleep specialists. Don’t be afraid to call on them.
8 simple ways your helpers can pitch in
These also come from Care.com:
- Watch the baby while you run an errand, take a shower or go for a jog
- Bring a meal
- Clean your kitchen…better yet, your whole house
- Do the laundry
- Grocery shop
- Take your older children for a playdate or to a park
- Babysit while you go to dinner or a movie
- Hold the baby while you take a nap
EVEN IF YOU FEEL LIKE YOU’RE AT THE END OF YOUR ROPE, NEVER SHAKE YOUR BABY
No matter how frustrated or angry you become because of colic or any other issue, a baby should never be shaken. This can cause blindness, brain damage and even death. If your baby won’t stop crying, place him/her in a safe place, go in another room for a few minutes, take deep breaths, count to 10, maybe get something to eat.
If you are still feeling overwhelmed, please get help from a counseling center or mental health professional. Colic can be very, very draining but trust us, it will eventually get better. Below, we list some websites you can contact for help.
- Fussy Baby Site
- Care.com: Parents of colicky babies
- Clinical Advisor: Counseling parents with colicky babies
- Managing colic in babies
You’ve got questions, we’ve got answers.
At any age, count on the pediatricians of Westchester Health and Northwell Physician Partners for vital information to help you raise happy, healthy kids. Whether you have teenagers, adolescents, toddlers or newborns, we’ve got years of experience helping parents take care of their children and we’re here to help you with yours. Please call us at (914) 232-1919.
Want more advice for a colicky baby? Come see us
Dealing with a colicky baby is hard. We get it, we’re parents too. For information, guidance and support, or just a listening ear, please call (914) 232-1919 to make an appointment with Westchester Health to see one of our pediatricians. We’ll share our years of experience with you, take as much time as needed to answer your questions, and work with you to try and find solutions. Most of all, we want to help you raise a happy, healthy child and feel confident as a parent. Whenever, wherever you need us, we’re here for you.
By Lauren Adler, MD, FAAP, Lead Pediatric Physician with Westchester Health, member of Northwell Health Physician Partners