The medical definition of colic is a baby that is crying for more than three hours, three days a week, for a three week period, but is otherwise healthy. In real terms, colic is a sweeping diagnosis given to a baby that is excessively crying. It is important to understand that colic is not a condition itself, rather a collection of symptoms. In order to be able to help your baby conquer their version of colic, it is imperative to understand what is the root cause. Here, we explore the 8 causes of colic.

Trapped air and gas

This is probably one of the most well-known causes of colic. It occurs when your baby is struggling to pass wind and suffers with trapped air bubbles and a build-up of gas. A newborn baby’s digestion is immature at birth and it can take up to 4 months for a baby’s digestion to adequately mature so that your baby is noticeably less fussy.

Burping your baby well after feeds will help your baby dislodge wind. Baby massage is very effective for helping baby to eliminate the air bubbles, it releases natural pain-killing hormones and it is also great for helping your baby’s digestion mature.

The fourth trimester

This occurs during the first 3 months of your baby’s infancy. The fourth trimester is the transition period when your baby adjusts from the womb to the world. It becomes overwhelming for such little babies.

Going from the dark, cosy womb to the big bright and cold world can be a huge sensory overload. This often results in a fussy baby who just wants to be held and will struggle when sleeping without contact. It is completely normal and again a it is developmental issue. Although it is incredibly tiring for parents and often results in sleep deprivation. It takes time for your baby to adjust and actions that emulate the womb such as white noise, rocking and swaddling can help. Your baby should begin to noticeably seem happier by 3 to 4 months old once they have passed through this transitional period.

Overstimulation

A baby becomes overtired/overstimulated very easily, especially the younger they are. This often results in the ‘witching hour’ which many parents are familiar with. The endless crying, at around dinner time up to around bedtime, can become unbearable for parents and you are often left wondering what you can do to help your baby.

Watching out for your baby’s cues will really help limit your baby’s stimulation. Simple tired cues such as not engaging in eye contact or averting her gaze is often the first sign of overstimulation but it often missed. Ensuring baby has sufficient naps throughout the day is also important to ensure that she does not enter into a state of overtiredness.
Once you notice your baby is overstimulated, take away the stimulation, dim the lights and gently soothe your baby. Holds such as ‘Tiger in the Tree’ are very effective for an overstimulated baby.

Reflux

Reflux is when your baby is being sick after each feed. The milk washes back up the oesophagus, from the stomach. It often leaves babies feeling uncomfortable, especially when he is laid down flat and can often result in babies arching the backs, grunting and excessively crying.

Physical reflux is a common issue for babies, with up to 50% of babies regurgitating some feed at some point during their infancy. It often becomes better, the older the baby gets as they are more upright .

To help your reflux baby, small, frequent feeds are recommended. Keep your baby as upright as possible for at least 30 minutes after each feed.

Silent reflux

Similar to physical reflux, there is backwash of stomach contents up the oesophagus but the baby is not usually sick. You can often hear babies gulping back down the backwash. It can be difficult to diagnose a baby with silent reflux due to the baby not being as frequently sick as a baby with physical reflux but they are usually very uncomfortable, often arching his back, flailing arms and miserable throughout the day. Silent reflux babies are often poor sleepers too due to the uncomfortable sensation when being laid flat.

Keeping baby upright can help with his discomfort as gravity does its job of keeping everything down in the stomach. There are also medications available on prescription that reduces the acidity of the stomach, which may bring relief to babies.

Again, silent reflux seems to get better as babies get older. Although, the reflux seems to peak around 3 to 4 months old.

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Cows’ milk protein allergy

A cows milk protein allergy (CMPA) is a reaction in the gut to the milk, usually either the whey or casein. A baby usually suffering with an allergy is very miserable, all day long, especially after a feed. Other symptoms include vomiting, eczema or a skin rash, mucus or blood in stools.

Babies who suffer with an allergy will not get better until they are on a dairy-free diet. Breastfeeding mothers can eliminate dairy from their own diet. Formula for special medical purposes are available for formula-fed babies.

Delayed sensitivity to cows milk

This is when your baby does not have an allergy and an immediate reaction to milk but often struggles with a bloated tummy, trapped gas, very fussy and can often be constipated. This is because there is not an IgE reaction but when the digestive system is just not mature enough to efficiently digest the milk. Often these babies are classed as ‘colicky’ and told that they would grow out of it.

If you are a breastfeeding mummy, then eliminating or at least restricting dairy in your diet would be beneficial for your baby. If your baby is formula fed, then comfort milks are readily available. These milks can help as the proteins in the milk are partially hydrolysed which means they are broken down so that baby’s digestive system does not have to work so hard.

A tongue-tie

A tongue-tie can cause colic and reflux in a baby because they often have a poor latch and take in too much air whilst feeding. This extra air sits in the tummy causing bloating, tummy ache and wind. It can also contribute to reflux too as the extra wind pushes up the stomach contents.

If the tongue-tie is diagnosed and revised it can have a positive effect so that babies can obtain a good latch either on the breast or the bottle.

If division is not recommended (which can be dependent upon the type of tie and the severity) then parents can be given strategies on how to help their baby to improve tongue function through massage and exercises. Feeding advice from a lactation consultant should also be sought when a baby has a tongue-tie to manage symptoms.

There are a wide variety of causes for colic and not all are related to digestion. Once you have been able to determine the root cause, deciding on the right treatment path becomes much more simple.

Article by Rebecca Palmer, Colicsos.

Becky is the founder of Colic SOS. She is a colic expert with many years of experience with working with families with colicky babies. She has a wealth of knowledge about colic, the causes and how to support both babies and their families during this difficult period. She is a mum on a mission to simplify colic and create happier, calmer families.

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