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Understanding Baby Colic: Causes, Symptoms, and Strategies for Parents

Welcoming a new baby into the family is a special time. Potentially one that has been long awaited for. However, for some parents, the early months can be challenging, especially if their infant experiences colic. Colic is a condition characterised by excessive, inconsolable crying in otherwise healthy babies. In this blog, we'll delve into what colic is, its potential causes, symptoms, and offer strategies to help parents navigate this difficult period.

What is Colic in Babies?

Colic is defined as episodes of crying in an otherwise healthy and well-fed baby. It is lasts for more than three-fours hours a day, for a few weeks or longer. These episodes often occur in the late afternoon or evening and can be distressing for both the baby and those in their primary parenting unit. Colic typically begins within the first few weeks of life and peaks around weeks 6-8. It does typically settle by around three to four months of age.

Possible Causes of Colic:

I am always careful with the word 'cause'. In academic research we would never draw lines of causation especially with something like colic where there could be a number of underlying associations. Currently colic remains largely unknown in terms of such variables and this can add to a parents distress and frustration. Some factors may be associated including:

  1. Gastrointestinal Discomfort: Research into understanding gastrointestinal discomfort, is still limited - and even less is recognised by health professionals.  A babies GI tract takes two years to fully mature and looking at variables that could impact a babies gut microbiome can help - however you cannot do this on your own especially when so sleep deprived! For example, how a baby was born (C-Section vs vaginal delivery, use of antibiotics, if a mother has challenges breastfeeding like mastitis), or a premature birth. 

  2. Developing Nervous System: It's possible that an immature nervous system contributes to a baby's inability to self-regulate and soothe themselves, leading to excessive crying.

  3. Sensory Overload: Newborns are highly sensitive to their environment, and stimuli such as light, noise, or changes in routine can overwhelm them, triggering episodes of colic. There is emerging research on highly-sensitive personality traits in children to recognise this - again challenging to understand when you are just trying to figure out your little human - but being aware of how much stimuli a baby receives can help. This includes sleeping on people out in bright light, being passed around a lot or being in loud environments such as busy malls, cafes and family functions - which are often places we "think we should" be able to take a baby. 

  4. Overlapping Conditions: Colic in babies can sometimes coexist with other conditions such as reflux or a CMPA (cow's milk protein allergy) - the later is in formula only babies who have had cow's milk proteins directly (not through breastmilk). Getting help to dissect underlying conditions can help here - watch just taking things out of your (mum's) diet without advice first.

Common Symptoms of Colic:

Recognising the signs of colic can help parents distinguish it from other causes of infant distress. Common symptoms of colic include:

  1. Intense, high-pitched crying that is difficult to soothe.
  2. Crying episodes that occur at the same time each day, often in the late afternoon or evening.
  3. Clenched fists, tense abdomen, and flushed face during crying episodes.
  4. Difficulty feeding or nursing due to excessive fussiness.

Strategies for Parents:

While colic can be distressing, there are strategies parents can employ to help - remember this is not just a mothers job - everyone in the primary parenting unit and wider support can help. Many mothers feel like it's all them or they are doing something wrong.

  1. Gentle Motion: Rocking, swaying, or carrying your baby in a sling can provide soothing motion that may help calm them during crying episodes.

  2. White Noise: Background noise, such as a fan, vacuum cleaner, or white noise machine, can create a calming environment and help drown out other stimuli - plus it will copy that of what was in your womb.

  3. Comfort Measures: A gentle massage, or warm bath to provide comfort and relaxation.

  4. Probiotics: There is a lot of research to support the benefits of probiotics for helping the gut microbiome. In breastfeed babies a good quality probiotic powder can be given via a syringe. 

  5. Starting Solids: Depending on the age of your baby, starting solids earlier may help. Generally I would recommend waiting until closer to six months, however starting solids (with good wholefoods) can help to settle the GI tract especially when both reflux and colic have happened. I would highly recommend getting some advice first before doing this (and you are in the right place for this!). 

  6. Professional help: Remember that you're not alone. You might feel that way and you might feel like no one is listening - there are people (like myself!) who do care - it's ok to get some support and guidance during this challenging time.

Last Note:

Baby colic can be a stressful and exhausting experience for parents. I know it feels like it will never end. It does start to improve from around three-four months.  By understanding the potential underlying factors, recognising the symptoms, and trying some of these strategies you can navigate this challenging period. Above all, remember to take care of yourself and seek support when needed. Parenthood is a journey filled with ups and downs, and you're doing the best you can for your little one.

P.S Thanks to the AM Show for having me on to talk about this topic! 

xx Dr Julie


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