What is colic?
Colic is crying and fussing that happens a lot, or lasts for a long time. It usually starts when babies are a few days or a few weeks old.
Babies with colic spend long periods unsettled or grizzling, but they might also cry very loudly, especially in the evening. They might draw their legs up, squirm, strain, and turn red or purple. They might look like they’re in pain, but this kind of crying isn’t caused by pain. It’s very difficult or even impossible to settle or comfort babies when they’re in this state.
Experts don’t know much about what causes colic. But it can be very upsetting for you when your baby is crying and can’t be comforted. It’s often frustrating for other carers, doctors and nurses as well.
When you think your baby has colic: what to do
There are many things you can do to soothe a crying baby. But if it’s very hard or even impossible to comfort your baby, it’s a very good idea to get help from your GP or paediatrician, or your child and family health nurse.
Have a check-up with your GP or paediatrician
Most ‘colicky’ babies have no obvious physical or medical cause for their crying, and your GP or paediatrician can rule out any medical causes, including:
- gastro-oesophageal reflux disease – a rare but possible cause of crying
- infection – for example, ear infections or urinary tract infections
- hernia – for example, inguinal or umbilical hernias
- allergy – for example, to cow or soy milk protein, which can be in breastmilk or some baby formulas
- nappy rash or other source of irritation.
You should definitely see the GP if your baby:
- seems listless or pale
- isn’t feeding well or gaining much weight
- has a fever
- has persistent vomiting or diarrhoea.
You should also see the GP if you’re afraid you might hurt your baby or worried for any other reason.
Get advice from your child and family health nurse
Your child and family health nurse can help you by:
- checking your feeding technique and letting you know whether there’s anything you might be able to adjust
- letting you know about settling programs and early parenting centres in your area.
Talk to a health professional about probiotic supplements for breastfed babies
If your breastfed baby has colic, it might help to start using drops containing the probiotic Lactobacillus reuteri. Note that only the Lactobacillus reuteri probiotic has been shown to help breastfeeding babies cry less.
It’s a good idea to talk with your GP, a lactation consultant or your child and family health nurse if you’d like to try these drops.
Looking after yourself
If your baby has colic, it’s very important to look after yourself. Even just five minutes reading a book, walking around the block or doing some meditation can give you a break if you’re feeling stressed, anxious or angry. Or sometimes it might help to have another person take over for a while. If you can, ask your partner or a friend or relative to help out.
Seeking support is an important part of looking after yourself. It’s good for you and it’s good for your family. If you need support, you can phone your GP or child and family health nurse. They might offer phone consultations. You could also call Lifeline on 131 114, or Beyond Blue on 1300 224 636.
You should also see your GP or nurse if you or your partner experiences the signs of postnatal depression in women or postnatal depression in men. Symptoms of postnatal depression include feeling sad and crying for no obvious reason, feeling irritable, having difficulty coping and feeling very anxious.
Never shake a baby. It can cause bleeding inside the brain and likely permanent brain damage. If you feel like you can’t cope, put your baby in a safe place like a cot. Try going to another room to breathe deeply, or calling your state or territory parenting helpline for help.
Things that probably won’t work with colic
Medications and mixtures
Over-the-counter colic mixtures from pharmacies have no scientific basis. These mixtures aren’t recommended as a way to deal with colic because they don’t work and/or haven’t been thoroughly tested in young babies.
And although many babies who have colic also have reflux symptoms, there’s no evidence that reflux medication reduces crying and fussing.
Doctors don’t recommend naturopathic or homeopathic medications to treat colic, because there’s no evidence to say they work or are safe for young babies.
Chiropractic treatment doesn’t help with colic, and spinal manipulation can be dangerous for young babies.
Changes to mother’s diet
If you’re a breastfeeding mother, changing your diet is unlikely to reduce crying unless your baby is diagnosed with an allergy to something in your diet – for example, cow’s milk, egg and soy.
If allergy is the cause of your baby’s excessive crying or colic, your baby will usually have other ‘red flags’ in addition to colic. These red flags include:
- diarrhoea, especially with mucus or blood
- poor weight gain
- screaming and crying mostly around feeding
- vomiting (more than just a small amount)
- strong family history of food allergy
- other signs of allergy like hives or eczema.
If your GP or paediatrician does diagnose your baby with food allergy, you’ll need to manage your diet carefully. If you’re breastfeeding and you eliminate foods from your diet, you might need to take supplements.
Change of infant formula
True milk allergy is uncommon in bottle-feeding babies. If your baby has it, you’d expect to see some of the red flags listed above. If your baby doesn’t have these red flags and doesn’t have a diagnosis of milk allergy, changing formula probably won’t help with colic. Changes of formula can also be expensive.
If your baby has colic, it’s best to try to make baby comfortable and help baby settle. This won’t always be possible, but it’s likely to be more effective and less harmful than giving medicine to your baby.
Tests for colic
Investigations like blood tests or X-rays rarely find any problems in babies with colic.
Your baby might need tests only if the doctor thinks your baby has an illness or infection that’s making your baby cry.