If you’ve ever been through it, you have true sympathy for others. Trying to soothe a colicky baby is one of the greatest initial trials of parenthood. One day your baby starts to cry—and he keeps on crying. For weeks. And then...it stops as mysteriously as it began.
Parents of colicky babies know something’s wrong. Yet even physicians can’t say for sure what it is. “Colic is a common word with no specific definition,” says Dr. Kirstin Lee, a pediatric hospitalist with Missouri Baptist Medical Center. “Most pediatricians will consider a child to have colic if they have more than three hours of crying, at least three days a week, for at least three weeks. Nothing you try to do will make it stop. It is currently thought to be a neurologic condition or a variant of normal development.”
Babies who develop colic have no apparent illnesses or health problems. They just cry. And nothing seems to soothe them. Concerned parents turn to their pediatricians or family physicians for help, yet there is little to be done except wait. Colic typically disappears by 4 months of age.
“Colic is a clinical diagnosis, meaning there is no test to confirm it,” Lee says. “Your physician will ask lots of questions about the pattern of crying and other aspects of the baby’s life and feeding. It is important for the baby to be examined to assure that they are growing properly and don’t have another obvious cause for pain or crying.”
One condition that may share some symptoms of colic is reflux, a pattern of frequent regurgitation that can irritate the esophagus. “Reflux can be very painful to infants—they can cry and arch with feedings, and usually can be very spitty,” explains Dr. Sandra McKay, a Mercy Clinic pediatrician with Mercy Children’s Hospital. “Reflux is treated with a variety of feeding techniques and precautions (keeping baby upright after feeds, etc.), and sometimes is treated with medications. Both have a lot of crying, but reflux tends to have more of a painful cry, increased pain associated with feeds, and often emesis (spitting up) with feeds.”
Although it can be frustrating and difficult, parents should remember that colic is not caused by anything they are doing wrong and that it will go away eventually. In the meantime, “the main thing parents can do for a baby is try to soothe them,” says Dr. Mary Meyer of Washington University Clinical Associates, Forest Park Pediatrics.
She cites The Happiest Baby on the Block by Dr. Harvey Karp as a good resource. Karp recommends swaddling the baby, offering a pacifier, making soothing sounds, such as “shhh,” swinging the baby gently, and holding the baby on his or her side.
“Basically, you are trying to simulate what it was like in utero,” Meyer says. “Some advocate for white noise machines, car rides, gentle massage—especially of the child’s abdomen. If the child is breast fed, it is sometimes recommended that the mother eliminate dairy from her diet in case the child has a sensitivity to lactose. It’s also recommended by many for the mom to avoid caffeine. The only thing that would make my two children stop crying—both had colic— was sitting on a medicine ball with them in my arms and bouncing.”
Symptoms not related to typical colic include fever (temperature more than 100.4 degrees Fahrenheit) in a child younger than 2 months, vomiting that is yellow, green, black, bloody or happening more than five times per day, blood in the stool, lethargy, or poor weight gain. These symptoms should be evaluated by the baby’s physician. “Parents should trust their intuition. There is no such thing as a silly call to the doctor when it is related to a very fussy baby,” Meyer adds.
Parents dealing with a colicky baby should ask for help so they can get breaks from the stressful environment colic can cause. “It is important to have a strong support network and to continue to realize that the baby is well and will get through this just fine,” McKay says. She speaks from personal experience. “My child is now 9 years old, super bright—maybe too bright for her own good—and is just a real upbeat and happy, free-spirited child.”