Baby colic – all you need to know

What is colic? We help you identify the symptoms and signs and why your baby may be crying

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Lots of new babies have colic – but what exactly is it? The medical definition is a healthy baby crying for no obvious reason for intense periods for more than 3 hours a day, on more than 3 days a week for more than 3 weeks.

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However, some doctors and medical experts feel this is too limited and may identify colic as sudden, unexplained, intense crying lasting less than 3 hours a day.

Either way, if your baby suddenly starts crying for long periods and you know she’s not hungry or needs a nappy change but you just don’t seem able to soothe her – this is likely to be colic.

What signs to look out for

There are some clear symptoms which suggest your baby has colic rather than she’s just crying a lot…

  • Excessive crying tends to start in the late afternoon/early evening – often between 5pm and 9pm
  • Your baby may draw up her knees, arch her back and/or clench her fists
  • Her face is likely to be red and flushed, and crying will be intense
  • You may find it difficult to soothe her

How long does it last?

Colic often appears in the first 2-4 weeks of your baby’s life (just when you’re feeling over tired, emotional and in awe of this little bundle or joy and tears). But thank heavens, it won’t last for ever (even if it feels like it at the time). Most colicky babies stop showing symptoms within 3-4 months, and certainly by 6 months.

How serious is colic?

The simple answer is, it isn’t. Your baby may look uncomfortable and unhappy, and it may seem she will never settle long enough to have a good sleep, but she will sleep (and so will you at some point!), and the next morning she’s likely to be happy, content and act as if the night before never happened.

It’s a condition that some babies experience but has no lasting effect on digestion, happiness or health.

It can be very hard work, however, for parents. An unconsolable baby who cries for hours and hours is difficult at the best times, particularly if you’re sleep deprived.

If you have a partner, try and share the load between you. Take it in turns to do the soothing. Make sure you both get an evening meal, even if you have to eat at separate times. And remember, it goes away.

Of course, a crying baby can signify a number of things – not just colic. If you’re worried, always check with your GP or health visitor. See our guide to what else crying may mean.

What causes colic?

As yet, scientists don’t have the answers. There are a number of theories, although there’s little evidence currently to back them up. The main suggestions are…

1. Indigestion and wind

It’s thought that trapped wind may give your new baby an uncomfy tummy, causing her to bring her knees up towards her chest. It’s worth making sure that you are winding your baby after each feed.

2. Immature gut

Some researchers believe that babies who get colic have immature digestive systems. This means that they can be extra sensitive to elements found in breastmilk or formula.

3. Your diet

If you’re breastfeeding, it’s worth having a look at your own diet. If you’re having caffeinated drinks or lots of spicy food, it’s claimed this may cause digestion and tummy problems for your new baby. Try cutting out one-by-one anything in your diet you may suspect, so you can see if there’s any difference.

4. Smoking

There’s evidence of a link between smoking during pregnancy and an increased chance of having a colicky baby.

Does breastfeeding or bottle feeding make a difference with colic?

No, there’s no scientific evidence that either makes a difference. Both breastfed and bottle fed babies get colic, so don’t feel tempted to switch from the breast to the bottle thinking it could cure your baby’s colic.

If it’s not colic, what else could it be?

Babies cry, let’s face it. And some cry more than others. But what we’re talking about here is a healthy, happy baby suddenly crying for long periods with no clear reason.

While colic is one possibility, it’s not the only one…

  • Illness – check to see if your baby has a fever or a rash. If this is the case, call your doctor
  • Constipation – young babies can sometimes get constipated, whether breastfed or bottlefed. Keep a diary of your baby’s poos to check whether they’ve become less frequent or more compact. If you suspect constipation, talk to your GP
  • Acid reflux – some babies suffer from reflux

Can you prevent colic?

Since it’s not clear what causes colic, it’s hard to prevent it. But there are ways to try to reduce the effects…

  • Try reducing the stress in the situation. Babies can pick up when you’re tense (for example from the tone of your voice and how you’re holding them) and this tension can be passed to your baby. You know how difficult it is to get to relax or get to sleep when you’re tense, think how it must be for a newborn.
  • Swaddling – some babies find the sensation of being snugly swaddled very reassuring and soothing.
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If your first baby had colic, will all your babies have it?

The reassuring answer to this is No – hurrah! There is no evidence of a genetic link. You can have one baby with colic, the next without and a third who has it, even if you feel you’re doing the same things with each of them. Try to do your best to soothe the symptoms, and take a look at our mums’ tips on how they solved their babies’ colic.

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