Any parent will tell you that colic is one of the most demanding, worrying, and exhausting experiences of early parenthood. ‘Colic’ is the word used to describe when babies cry excessively over long periods of time. It was once assumed that babies were crying due to stomach pain or discomfort, but doctors are no longer sure that wind causes colic. Rather, multiple factors are likely at play.
Newborns cry for many reasons, and some more than others. All babies respond differently to their new environment outside the womb. This doesn’t necessarily mean there is something wrong with them. Crying is their way of communicating that they’re uncomfortable or distressed, which is a normal part of development.
Newborns have to adjust to a whole range of new sensations that they didn’t experience inside the womb. Before being born, they didn’t know about hunger, cold, hot, thirst, fear, tiredness, discomfort, wind, or loneliness. Some babies are more sensitive or easily frightened than others to these huge changes in their physical and emotional world.
Colic is formally defined as an infant crying for more than three hours a day for more than three days a week, for at least three weeks. It’s a term that describes an otherwise healthy and well-fed baby. Many parents find that the crying episodes happen in the late afternoon and early evening. It’s most commonly seen in babies between two weeks and four months of age.
Working out what could be causing the crying and how to make a difference is difficult. In most cases, no medical cause can be found but it’s always helpful to rule it out first. It’s difficult to soothe a crying baby if you’re worried about their health. If you suspect there is a medical reason that your baby is crying (such as an earache or food intolerance) it might give you peace of mind to seek advice from your GP or maternal and child health nurse. Don’t just assume it’s colic.
Colic can affect a parent’s confidence in their ability to handle their baby. If you’re worried that your baby’s crying is because of something you’re doing (or not doing) to soothe your baby, then rest assured there is support available and some things you can do to settle them.
Treatment options for colic vary, and what works for one baby may not work for another. The following ten strategies may help if your baby has colic:
1. Stay calm
Easier said than done! It’s only natural for mothers to get stressed when little babies cry until they are red in the face. But babies are very sensitive to stress and a mother whose nerves are frayed cannot calm a distressed baby. If you need to, safely place your baby in their cot for a few minutes while you take some deep breaths.
2. Feed on demand
For breastfeeding mums, the evening hours see a decline in production of milk, so feed your baby often during these hours to ensure an abundant supply of milk. Read more about cluster feeding here. For bottle-fed babies, offering milk during the colicky hours might settle your baby. Speak to your maternal and child health nurse about feeding and the amount of milk your baby needs to avoid overfeeding.
3. Offer a dummy
Sucking often settles a baby. Read our tips on offering dummies here.
4. Adopt a ‘baby-centred’ approach
The newborn period is also known as the fourth trimester, so try to see it from your baby’s perspective.
5. Give them a warm bath
A warm bath, followed by a gentle baby massage with a safe nut-free oil can calm and soothe babies (and you at the same time!). It might also help to relieve any painful trapped wind.
6. Play soft music
Taking your baby into a dimly lit room, and playing either soft music, white noise, or singing to them can calm an overstimulated baby.
7. Keep them close
Gently rock or hold your baby in your arms, sling, or baby carrier. Small babies need a lot of warmth and security. Swaddling your baby in warm clothes and holding them against the steady soothing rhythm of a parent’s heartbeat can sometimes soothe the baby’s discomfort or distress.
8. Get moving
Walking, rocking, and repetitive movements also have a calming effect. Take your baby for a walk in the pram, the car, or the baby carrier.
9. Relieve tummy discomfort
Applying gentle pressure on the abdomen will help relieve stomach discomfort. You could try the position known as the ‘colic hold’, by positioning your baby so that his stomach rests on your forearm, and his head is supported in the crook of your arm or the palm of your hand.
10. Try to plan around it
The ‘witching hour’ can be incredibly challenging, so try to plan for it by firstly reducing stimulation during this time. Cook dinner earlier in the day when your baby is more settled, and eat it early if possible. If you can, try to get in an afternoon nap so that you’re not as tired during the hardest part of the day.
Finally, remember that colic is a normal stage in the development of your baby. It can be physically and emotionally exhausting, but it’s temporary.