Colic consists of recurrent paroxysms of apparent abdominal pain starting at about the second to the sixth week of life and usually ending by four months. These cycles last from three hours a day to 12 to 15 hours a day in severe cases. The child becomes hypertonic, sometimes alternating body posture from contracting into a little ball (thighs flexed up against the abdomen and arms drawn tightly inward), while beet red in coloration, to suddenly stretching out and stiffening almost spastically.
Infants cry, it is their means of vocal expression. There is, however, a group of infants who are healthy but show irritability, crying, and signs of discomfort to a greater extent than others. These infants have colic. This is a common problem arising in the first three months. Babies with colic are prone to lengthy bouts of crying which may or may not stop when the baby is picked up.
Relationship To Milk
No one knows what colic is, but a mother knows when her child has it. There are many proposed causes, but none have been proven. Commonly cited culprits are cow's milk and soy protein. In a breast-fed baby with colic, the mother's milk consumption has been cited as the cause.
Colic is just as likely in babies fed human milk as it is in those fed formula – about 20 percent. There is a higher incidence in babies given non-iron fortified formula. It is speculated that this occurs because both parents and doctors often switch colicky babies to these formulas thinking the iron is part of the problem.
Studies looking for intestinal damage in infants with colic found none. If the signs and symptoms of colic were from malabsorption of milk proteins, some damage would occur. If a milk-fed infant develops signs of a true milk allergy, such as wheezing, rash, chronic runny nose, etc., then they may benefit from elimination of milk from their diet.
Abdominal distention is common, as are flatus (gas or air in the intestines) and borborygmus (movement of air and fluid in the intestines). Frequently, greenish mucoid stools are passed. The infant sucks with vigor, gulping formula and air; transient relief is achieved, then suddenly the infant is grasped by another episode of apparent gastrocolic cramping and pain, and begins to cry out again. The infant is commonly fretful and inconsolable, and makes piercing cries that wrench parents into despair.
Some infants have spasmodic attacks that last only a few minutes; others appear to be in pain all day. The most common expression of colic, however, is evening fussiness after feeding. Infants with colic may have some gastroesophageal reflux but do not have vomiting, diarrhea, persistent abdominal distention or poor growth. The presence of these symptoms should prompt a search for a diagnosis other than colic.
Nothing wears away at a parent's nerves like a baby's crying spells. Other harsh noises are merely annoying, but a baby's wailing is downright distressing, because it makes you feel so helpless, so frustrated, and so inadequate as a parent.
That feeling is universal. All babies cry; it is natural, normal, and even healthy – at least for the baby. The toll it takes on your mental health is another matter. The guide that follows will help you understand why your baby cries, what you may be able to do about it, and how to hold on to what remains of your sanity when it seems as if the shrieking will never stop.
Calming tactics that sometimes quiet colicky babies include:
- rhythmic motion. Rock your child in a cradle or in your lap in a rocking chair; put them into a soft baby carrier that holds them close to your chest and "wear" them around the house; take them for a ride in an elevator or in an auto (in their car seat).
- swaddling. Wrap your baby snugly in a lightweight blanket. This will not only make them feel secure but will also inhibit the Moro reflex, their habit of flinging their arms out and bringing them back when they are startled. This involuntary movement can itself upset a colicky baby and make them cry.
- baby massage. In this traditional Indian practice, the baby is stroked in a continuous, flowing movement from head to foot, using light stroking and deeper massage.
- lambskin. A cuddly cushion of wool can make a crib, car seat, or stroller cozier and help your baby fall asleep more easily.
- mirrors. Unbreakable reflective surfaces such as those that appear on many baby toys can often capture and hold a fussy infant's attention.
- a baby carrier. This bears another mention, because it seems to succeed for two reasons. Even if the proximity to your body fails to quiet baby, the carrier frees your arms and lets you go anywhere without feeling that you're neglecting your fussy child.
- the Sleep Tight. The Sleep Tight Infant Soother consists of a vibration unit that mounts under the crib and a sound unit that attaches to the crib rail. Your pediatrician can tell you whether the Sleep Tight would be appropriate and useful in your baby's case. (This device is not promoted directly to consumers).
- singing and/or dancing. A musical interlude can work wonders. Partner your baby by holding them up close or propped on your arm. Look into their eyes as you glide around the floor to the sound of your own vocal accompaniment or to recorded music.
- comfort sucking. Babies have strong sucking needs unrelated to their need for food; they simply find it comforting to hold something in their mouth. Offer the breast, a finger, or a pacifier.