Bouts of persistent crying occur in all newborns from time to time, and for a variety of reasons. Babies who have regular bouts of intense crying, however, may be diagnosed with colic. Colic is defined as continual or persistent crying without any apparent reason, typically lasting between 2 and 4 hours a day for at least 5 days a week. It usually begins at around 2 or 3 weeks of age, and subsides on its own by 12 weeks. Colic is not uncommon - it's estimated that as many as 1 in 5 babies have this condition.
What are the symptoms of colic?
Babies with colic have prolonged bouts of intense, high-pitched crying. Some infants draw their legs up and clench their fists, as if in pain. Spells of crying tend to occur at around the same time each day, often in the early evening. Babies with colic may be inconsolable; nothing their parents do seems to soothe them. In spite of persistent crying, these babies do not have any apparent symptoms of illness.
If bouts of crying are accompanied by vomiting, abdominal bloating, fever, or other signs of unwellness, it should be reported to a doctor immediately.
Is colic a serious condition?
Parents of a colicky baby may be relieved to find out that, however alarming the bouts of crying are, colic itself is not a serious condition. Though they may appear to be in distress, babies with colic are usually in good health. Their growth and development tends to thrive much the same as other healthy babies. It should be certain, however, that the child does not suffer from any other medical conditions which could be producing colic-like symptoms. A baby who has regular bouts of persistent crying should be examined by a pediatrician to rule out any possible medical problems, and to confirm that the baby's health and development are normal.
Although colic is not a serious medical problem, it can cause a great deal of stress and anxiety within the family. Excessive crying can wear on everybody's nerves, and can lead to feelings of parental inadequacy and constant worrying about the child's health. This kind of anxiety isn't good for either the parents or the baby. Colic is neither the parents' nor the baby's fault. Parents who are feeling stressed or burned out should seek relief for themselves whenever possible. They should leave the baby in the hands of a competent babysitter, and take time out for a movie, a dinner out, or just a few hours of quiet relaxation. Taking frequent breaks can go a long way towards helping parents cope with their baby's colic with patience, perseverance, and a sense of humor.
Is there a cure for colic?
There is no cure for colic at the present. Fortunately colic disappears on its own, usually by about 3 months of age. However, there are ways in which you may be able to minimize bouts of colic - for tips on how to comfort and calm a crying baby, see How to Calm a Fussy Baby
What causes colic?
The exact underlying cause of colic is not fully understood. One theory is that colicky babies cry because of discomfort caused by abdominal gas. Burping your baby during and after feedings may help relieve gas, and minimize bouts of colic. As well, using baby bottles designed to reduce air intake may be helpful for bottle-fed babies. Breastfeeding mothers may find it helps to avoid foods such as broccoli and cauliflower if they seem to cause gas in their babies. Any change in a breastfeeding mother's diet should be discussed with a doctor beforehand.
Another theory is that colic is caused by an immature central nervous system. Because their nervous systems aren't fully developed, some babies may be hypersensitive to stimuli (such as noise, light, etc.) that older children and adults are able to tune out. At the end of the day, these babies may be more prone to feeling wound up and stressed out, which results in long periods of crying. Keeping a calm environment may help minimize colic in some babies.
Parental anxiety may also contribute to colic. Babies can sense a parent's stress and may become anxious themselves, resulting in crying jags. It's important for both the parents' and the baby's sake that stress is kept to a minimum, as much as possible.
In rare instances, colic in bottle-fed babies may be caused by an allergy to cow's milk protein which is found in formulas. Though most colicky babies are not allergic to cow's milk protein, sometimes symptoms improve or even disappear when milk-based formulas are removed from a baby's diet. If your doctor decides that your colicky child may benefit by switching formulas, you can be confident that your baby will be properly nourished from alternative non-milk-based commercial formulas. Be sure to always consult your doctor before making any changes to your baby's diet.