We use the term ‘colic’ to describe what’s going on when babies cry or fuss a lot and can’t be settled. This is one of the most puzzling and difficult problems of infancy. It’s equally common in breastfed and bottle-fed babies.
There’s been lots of research into colic over the years, but we still don’t know much about what causes it. Some people think it’s caused by medical conditions in the baby. Others think it’s to do with mums and dads being anxious (understandably, if they’ve got a baby who won’t settle!). Some recent research confirms what some authors have been saying for many years – there’s no such thing as colic.
We do know that the vast majority of ‘colicky’ babies have no obvious cause for their difficult behaviour.
People might tell you the crying is because of:
- feeding techniques – too little or too much milk, or milk given in the wrong way
- emotional problems in the mother
- a difficult temperament in the baby
- too much wind, although this has never been proven to cause crying. It’s more likely that ‘wind’ is the result rather than the cause of crying – crying causes the baby to swallow air.
Some of the medical reasons given for fussing and crying include:
- gastrointestinal problems (gastroesophageal reflux, excess gas)
- infections (ear or urinary tract)
hernias (inguinal, umbilical)
- nerves (irritable nervous system, neurological immaturity)
allergy (mother’s diet, cow’s milk given to baby)
- nappy rash and other sources of irritation.
It’s likely that a small number of babies who diagnosed with colic suffer from a clear medical problem. But there’s not a lot of evidence that too much wind or milk allergy are real conditions in most babies, even though many parents are told that this is what’s causing their baby’s colic.
In fact, repeated studies suggest that infant crying and fussing is a normal part of development and that it gets better with time, whatever you do. Younger babies cry because of their temperament, sleeping cycles, and feeding patterns. Later, the crying and fussing is more likely to be about something in their environment, or a way of communicating with their carer.
If you feel stressed or anxious, you won’t cause crying and fussing in your baby, although it can make crying worse. But it’s perfectly natural for you to worry about your baby’s crying. You might learn to cope with it better if you understand that this is a phase, that it will soon pass, and that you’re not alone.
Crying is natural in babies. It has little or nothing to do with how good you are at parenting. The most confident and calm parents also have babies who cry all the time.
If you have a baby, you probably know the symptoms of colic – crying and fussing. At some stage after your baby arrives home – it might be a few days, or sometimes a few weeks – the crying starts.
Your baby is restless and irritable, and doesn’t seem to settle into a predictable routine of sleeping and feeding. It’s the unpredictability that many parents find so difficult to cope with.
Your baby might feed hungrily, but soon after a feed seems to be hungry again. Or your baby might not feed well, often fighting the breast or bottle. You might find that your baby spends long periods fussing or grizzling, but might also scream loudly. During this crying period, your baby might draw her legs up, as if in pain. It’s very difficult to settle or comfort your baby when she’s in this state.
The crying and fussing might seem to go on for hours, and it’s often worse in the evening.
Research shows that the normal baby cries and fusses on average for almost three hours a day (and some for a good deal longer than this). The crying reaches a peak at about six weeks of age, and then gradually lessens as the baby gets older. Most of this crying and fussing seems to take place in the late afternoon and evening, although there’s considerable variation from day to day.
As your baby gets older and her crying becomes more about communicating with you, it’s more likely to be spread throughout the day.
Video Crying baby checklist
When your baby’s constantly crying, it can be hard to keep a level head. One thing that can help is to go through the things that might be causing the crying.
This short video outlines a checklist of common reasons for crying. If you can work out what’s upsetting your baby, you might be able to pick the right strategy for settling.