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Coping with colic

Coping with colic

If your baby cries inconsolably for hours on end he may have colic. This always used to be blamed on a digestive problem ??a form of baby indigestion - but now doctors disagree. Whatever the cause, there is little more distressing than a baby with colic. The inconsolable crying pierces your heart, shreds your nerves, destroys your patience and may leave you as tearful as your baby. Be reassured that your baby WILL grow out of this, and there is much you can do to console him in the meantime.

What is colic?

The official definition of colic is unsoothable crying lasting for at least three hours on more than three days a week. But crying expert Professor Ian St James-Roberts of London University's Institute of Education says that definition is too strict. He says colic is simply 'bouts of unexplained crying in young babies in the first three or four months of age'. It is very common indeed. The professor says half of all babies suffer.

Traditionally, colic has been associated with digestive problems, specifically trapped wind (the word colic comes from the Greek for intestine). But Professor St James-Roberts believes most cases of colic are due to "normal developmental changes?夷n how the nervous system regulates behaviour". Specifically, he says, "The ability to inhibit crying is believed to be temporarily diminished as crying changes from a reflex to a voluntary behaviour, resulting in prolonged unsoothable bouts."

The symptoms

The main symptom is crying, which you are unable to calm, no matter what you try. It often happens at the same time of day ??typically the evening ??when you may be at your lowest ebb after a busy day. Some babies also seem to have pain, pulling their legs up to their stomach or arching their back.

Colic usually starts at about three weeks of age, and as a rule disappears by three or four months.


Reflux (also called GERD or GORD ??gastro-oesophageal reflux disease) happens when the sphincter muscle at the top of your baby's stomach isn't strong enough to keep partially digested (and acidic) milk down. The result is a baby who brings up milk after a feed and who sometimes cries and appears to be in discomfort.

In fact, according to baby gurus Arlene Eisenberg, Heidi Murkoff and Sandee Hathaway, who have written several books including What To Expect: The First Year, 'Doctors believe that many babies who were labelled colicky in the past were actually suffering from GERD.'
They advise:

  • avoid over-feeding
  • keep feeding time very calm
  • burp your baby frequently
  • keep your baby upright as you feed him

Luckily, although about half of babies are affected, most simply grow out of it. However, if your baby brings up his feed several times a day, have a word with your health visitor or GP, who may be able to prescribe something to help.

Soothing strategies

First, talk to your health visitor or GP to check there is nothing wrong with your baby. Make a note of how, when and for how long he cries, and any other symptoms, to help your doctor identify the problem. Once you are reassured there's nothing serious amiss, try a few soothing tactics.

Comforting the crying

Take your baby out in the pram or sling. The rocking motion may help him sleep, and the fresh air and exercise will stop you feeling the walls are closing in.

  • Keep lights low and avoid over-stimulation (no TV, not too many faces, not too much noise).
  • Change you baby's environment ??try a warm bath or take him to a different room.
  • Play soothing music and dance rhythmically with him.
  • Try 'white noise' ??the hum of a hairdryer or drone of a Hoover can be very calming.

If you think it's wind

  • Join a baby massage class to learn special techniques believed to help with colic. For example, gently lay your baby on his back, lift his feet and hold them sole-to-sole so his knees are on his tummy, then circle them in a clockwise direction so his legs massage his tummy. But always go gently and be guided by your baby if he or she is not in the mood ??stop and try at another time.
  • Always wash your hands before you start to massage your baby and make sure they are warm to touch before starting the routine. NB Baby Massage teachers generally say no to any essential oils ??even one drop especially if baby is very young.
  • Try homoeopathic anti-colic granules such as Weleda Chamomilla 3X Granules.
  • Try cranial osteopathy ??but remember it's not a cheap option, and although some mums swear by it, others say it does nothing.

Soothing yourself

Sometimes you simply have to focus on giving yourself a break. No one can be expected to care all alone for an inconsolable baby.

  • First, don't blame yourself. Colicky crying has nothing to do with your mothering skills and is certainly not your fault.
  • Arrange to have a friend or relative with you at times when colic often strikes, so you can hand over the baby.
  • If you're on your own and reaching crisis point, put your baby in his cot, make sure he is safe and comfortable, and give yourself 10 minutes in another room.
  • Get as much rest as you can.
  • Don't skip meals ??you'll feel weaker and less able to cope. If the crying happens in the evenings, eat a proper meal at lunchtime and stock up with simple healthy snack food ??dips, rice cakes, fruit ??so you have something to grab in the evening if a meal proves impossible. Otherwise eat in shifts with your partner.
  • Join a postnatal group ??chances are other mums are going through the same thing.
  • Remember that colic WILL pass.