There are fussy babies, cranky babies, and wake-up-at-4 a.m.-just-for-grins-and-giggles babies. And then there are the most challenging babies of all: colicky ones. Generally, doctors classify a baby as colicky if, starting within the first three weeks of life, he cries seemingly out of the blue at least three hours a day, for at least three days a week — and is inconsolable. As many as 25 percent of all babies fall into this category, so if yours is among them, don’t think you’re alone. (Fortunately, colic usually disappears by three months.)
There are no surefire remedies, but luckily there are ways to lessen the stress. Read on to learn more about colic, as well as ways to cope until the crisis passes.
What causes colic?
No one culprit is responsible for every case. But two common causes are:
Gastroesophageal reflux (GER). If your baby often spits up soon after feeding, makes frequent and sour burps, wakes up restless and in pain at night, or seems uncomfortable when he’s lying flat (and happier upright), you might have a case of GER on your hands. This condition makes your baby regurgitate the contents of his stomach — including ouchy digestive acids — into his esophagus, irritating its sensitive lining and giving him a nasty case of heartburn. It happens because the valvelike band of muscle that joins the stomach to the esophagus is still immature, allowing backflow of fluids. Until that muscle tones up, try smaller, more frequent feedings, and keep your baby’s head slightly elevated after he’s finished. Your pediatrician may also prescribe medication, such as a prescription antacid.
Allergies. It could be that your baby is allergic to something in your breast milk (or formula, if she’s bottlefed), and it’s giving her an abdominal ache. She’ll show the same symptoms as a baby with GER (see above), but will probably also have diarrhea and a raised rash, primarily on her face and trunk. If you’re breastfeeding, eliminate cow’s milk from your diet, since it’s the most common infant allergen. Other typical allergens: soy, wheat, eggs, and nuts. If your baby drinks formula, ask the doctor about switching to a hypoallergenic one (which contains modified proteins that are less irritating), and offer smaller, more frequent feedings.
Regardless of what may be making your baby colicky, there are ways to help ease symptoms:
Keep him close. Wear him in a soft infant carrier — the contact will be comforting.
Rub her the right way. There’s nothing your baby loves more than your touch, so treat her to a massage:
* Rub a bit of oil (stick with edible ones, like coconut, olive, or almond) between your palms and start with her feet. Hold one foot with one hand while using your other hand to stroke the length of her leg in a gentle, squeezing motion. Then switch legs.
* Use the same stroke on her arms.
* Once you get to her back and tummy, begin with both hands at the center, then push out lightly, as if you were smoothing a crumpled piece of paper.
Use some helpful holds. Try the two that Parenting contributing editor William Sears, M.D., (a dad of eight!) swears by:
The football hold
Drape your baby tummy-down along your forearm, and place his head in the crook of your elbow, with his legs straddling your hand. Grasp the diaper area as you press your wrist along his tensed abdomen.
The neck nestle
Snuggle your baby’s head into the crook of your neck and drape your chin against the top of his head.
Tune in. Play a soft, calming CD, or croon a few favorite lullabies. Get Dad in on the act: The male voice is deeper and vibrates more, and thus acts as a natural baby calmer.
Do some fancy footwork. Gently dance around the room with your baby in your arms; the rocking and swaying can be lulling.
Give her a good view. Place a baby-safe mirror up to her face, or alongside her if she’s lying down, and let her be surprised. It will usually distract her so thoroughly, she’ll stop fussing! (This trick won’t work on newborns, since they can’t see clearly.)
Give him gripe water. This old English remedy is an infusion of dill, fennel or caraway that some say can relax a baby’s stomach and intestinal tract. Gripe water is available online or at many stores where you buy vitamins. You can also make your own colic-soothing tea from any of these herbs, and add a touch of calming chamomile. For babies under a year, limit tea (cooled) to no more than four ounces a day. If you’re nursing, sip the tea throughout the day, and the active ingredients will come through your breast milk.
Try a little Lactobacillus powder. The bacteria, available at health-food stores, adds beneficial flora in your baby’s digestive tract, helping his digestive system to work efficiently and lessening the chance of tummy-ache-related colic. An eighth of a teaspoon of it added into breast milk or formula, twice a day, could help. Just ask your doctor before giving it to your baby.
Coping tips for you
With a colicky baby, it can feel like the crying will never end. So it’s important to find ways to make yourself feel better, too.
* Ask your partner, a grandparent, or a friend to relieve you before the situation becomes overwhelming. If there’s no help available, put your baby down in her crib for ten minutes and leave the room. It’s better to let her cry alone safely for a few minutes than to risk your losing control. Or try wearing earplugs: You’ll still hear her, but the sound will be muffled.
* Try not to feel responsible: If she keeps crying despite your best efforts, there’s only so much you can do.
* While your baby sleeps, forget the chores and take advantage of the quiet. Relax by taking a bath, chatting on the phone with a friend, napping, or doing something you enjoy. Anything that gives you a change of pace will recharge your batteries, and also help put your frustration in perspective.
When to see the doctor
Don’t hesitate to talk to your pediatrician about your baby’s colic — either at one of her frequent newborn checkups or soon after the onset of symptoms. While the causes can be elusive to pinpoint, it’s still worth investigating — if you can fix the trigger, you may just fix the colic, too.
Colic usually disappears as mysteriously as it first began — often after a period of three months or less. You’ll emerge tired, but possibly stronger, too!