For the first three months of his life, my son cried for three hours every single evening. His cries would start off as low whimpers and then increase in volume and intensity. Exhausted and helpless, I’d pace up and down with my swaddled baby in my arms, trying to soothe his wails. Just as I was ready to scream with frustration, my husband began his ‘shift’. After another lengthy hour passed, my mom took over until finally, my baby would cry himself to sleep. So it went on for 12 weeks.
When baby seems to cry for no reason, even after changing, feeding, burping and sleeping, and nothing can calm her down, it might be colic.
Baby colic is defined as episodes of crying for more than three hours a day, for more than three days a week, for three weeks in an otherwise healthy baby. An estimated five to 40 per cent of infants experience colic, beginning as early as two weeks of age, and ending at about three or four months.
There is no clear cause of colic but some experts feel it is caused by gas, digestion problems and abdominal pain, says Dr. Natasha Saunders, a physician at the Hospital for Sick Children and co-author of Baby Care Basics (with Dr. Jeremy Friedman and Dr. Norman Saunders).
“Others feel it is a result of immaturity of the nervous system and difficulty regulating sensory information from the environment and within the body. Other experts suggest it may be an early manifestation of individual temperament or personality. None of these theories have been proven and without knowing a cause, it is difficult for us, as pediatricians, to explain why some have it and others don’t.”
New research from the Motherisk Program at The Hospital for Sick Children reports that probiotics can significantly reduce colic. The study assessed the effectiveness of probiotics in treating infantile colic in exclusively breastfed Canadian babies. Ask your doctor if probiotics are right for you.
Some experts suggest breast milk can cause digestive upset depending on mom’s diet. But that doesn’t mean breastfeeding moms should start adjusting their diet. “That has not been shown to improve colic,” says Dr. Saunders. “I would be hesitant to encourage this without careful counselling as it can lead to restrictive diets and lots of frustration with a new mom trying to figure out what she is doing/eating wrong that is causing her baby to be upset.”
Instead, ask a family member or a friend to take over rocking baby for an hour while you give yourself a break. Remember, you’re not the reason your baby is crying and this challenging time will pass.
Tips for colicky babies
Let baby suck
The need to suck is very strong in some newborns, and it can help baby settle down. Nursing baby skin against skin may be soothing enough to help ease her cries, or if she’s full, offer a pacifier or a clean finger.
Try swaddling baby with the legs flexed and holding the baby on their side or stomach. Gently swinging baby side to side or back and forth while supporting her head can also help.
Keep calm and move on
Walking up and down the halls of the house or rocking or swinging your baby while making a shushing sound can soothe baby. In Baby Care Basics, Dr. Saunders offers a host of calming suggestions:
- Turn down the lights.
- Reduce noise.
- Move to a room alone with your baby.
- Play calming music.
- Sing, hum, or dance with your baby.
- Create white noise by turning on a clothes dryer, vacuum cleaner, fan, faucet, or white noise machine.
- Take baby for a ride in the car, or go for a walk with your baby in the stroller.
- Gently rub baby’s back or tummy with massage oils.
Originally published in ParentsCanada magazine, April/May 2016.