Colic – What is it, why does it happen, and how can I stop it?

What is colic?

It’s probably one of the biggest fears of soon-to-be parents. Colic is a condition described as excessive, persistent crying in seemingly healthy babies that lasts for more than 3 hours a day, 3 days a week, for 3 weeks. It can effect around 20% of babies and is one of the more stressful things a new parent can go through. Generally its effects are more prevalent between months 1 and 4, after which the length of crying trends less and less until eventually stopping.

Why does colic occur?

Well it’s a question that a lot of researchers have tried to answer, but one that very few have a decisive answer to. Most likely, through various research, it is caused by gastrointestinal dysfunction such as gut immaturity, spastic colon, and everyone’s likely culprit, wind. Although Mattheson (1995) showed that wind is likely caused by excessive crying rather than the cause of colic. It may also be due to milk intolerance or other allergic responses that can cause more problems in the early months after birth. Even tobacco exposure can increase the likelihood of colic by up to 50%.  Others have arguedthat it can be brought on more through parenting styles and environmental factors, and even be a result of our evolution.

Barr (1991) views colic as an evolutionary trait that is brought on at a babies neediest time to help ensure survival. Looking at this approach, it does make sense. Frequent crying from a baby would lead to frequent comfort and most likely frequent feeding. This would then ensure a reliable food source and protection. Constant, on demand feeding would also help prevent the mother from having any more babies any time soon and therefore less competition for food and protection. Proof for this approach can be found in hunter gather societies such as the !Kung San of Africa, where cases of colic are non existent. Their parenting styles are that of total on demand feeding and constant contact, always carrying their infants, either in their arms or a sling, and having them sleep next to them during the nights enabling them to feed when they wanted.

This is often a stark contrast to our more western norms of placing babies in cribs alone, in strollers, bouncers and all other things we’ve developed to separate the baby from the parent. Of course, there can still be physical reasons behind colic, but our evolution should still be largely taken into account.

What can I do to prevent it?

Now that we’ve looked at some of the possible causes of colic, we can now explore possible remedies to help treat, limit, or even prevent, the condition. Many people tend to get told that you can’t actually do much about colic once it has been brought on, and it’s something that will simply pass. But that’s not strictly true. There are two avenues that you can go down in order to try to reduce colic. One is environmental, and the other is physiological. First, let’s look at the environmental.

Earlier this year a study was published that showed higher levels of maternal support reduced the amount of colic experienced by the baby. Also, the happier the relationship between the couple, the lower the amount of colic experienced. This would certainly help to indicate that colic can be a survival mechanism and shows that a more hostile environment could lead to colic as the baby is seeking protection. This is also supported by the research on hunter gathers, as they live in a supportive community with constant contact with the baby, hence the fact that colic doesn’t occur.

So that’s the potential environmental factors that can help prevent colic, but what about the physiological side.

Firstly, there’s all the things you’ve probably heard before. Making sure you burp your baby after feeds, ensuring they drain the one boob before moving on to the next with breastfeeding, finding a teat with a flow that suits them (maybe it’s too fast), rocking them or creating movement to help relax and calm them. Some babies even have a milk intolerance early on, so cutting out cows milk from your diet could be an easy cure.

Then there’s also research that suggests that breastfed babies are less likely to get colic. Around 43% of the formula fed ones had colic against that of 16% of breastfed. However, the breastfed ones did spend an additional 40 minutes per day crying when they did have colic, and also spent 80 minutes less per day sleeping. This may be partly due to the composition of the breast milk that often leads to babies requiring more feeding than those on the bottle. The additional crying may also be down to the fact that breastfeeding is still being established.

There’s also been research that indicates that supplementing babies with probiotics can significantly reduce the effects of colic. Admittedly this study was done on exclusively breastfed babies, but did show a 50% reduction in colic. Products can be bought online that contain the lactobacillus used in the study to reduce colic. There are ones available as supplements for breastfeeding and ones as drops to be added to formula milk. More research is needed into the benefits of probiotics, but it is certainly something that adults should be consuming more of, and it only makes sense that it can help infants too.

An important thing to also remember when dealing with a colicky baby is to look after yourself. Research shows, much to no ones surprise, that the more colicky the baby, the more at risk you are to elevated stress levels and certainly to postnatal depression. Don’t be afraid to ask for support, we were never supposed to do this alone. And don’t be afraid to put the baby down in the cot and give yourself a time out. If you need any support, there are people, like Cry-Sis, that you can contact for support. We need other people during these stressful times, it’s literally in our DNA to be surrounded and supported by others.

In general, more research needs to be done into the possible cures and preventions of colic. But as shown here, there are some things that can help reduce its effects. If any new research comes up that I feel is relevant, it will be talked about either on the website, or my social media sites.

Like this on Facebook to keep up to date with more research, or even to give your experiences with colic and what worked for you.

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