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What is colic? Soothing a 'colicky' baby

Dad holding crying colic baby
Credit: iStock.com/Anchiy

It all started in the 1950s when American paediatrician, Morris Wessel, declared that a baby who cried for more than three hours a day, more than three days a week, more than three weeks in a row suffered from colic.

The term, originally intended to describe a spasm in the gut, is now a label for healthy babies who are unsettled, fussy and crying … all the time (or, at least, that’s what it feels like).

“There are lots of theories on what causes newborns, that are generally healthy, to be fussy, from maternal diet to maternal medications and prematurity,” explains Dr Sarah Gleeson, GP Obstetrician and co-founder of Family HQ,

“There are some theories that their uncontrolled crying might be directly related to some sort of intestinal origin, and they are in some physical discomfort or pain.”

However, Dr Gleeson highlights the first 12 weeks of a baby’s life as a period of substantial neurological development.

“They are going through some significant developmental changes, and this is going to be part of the reason why some babies are very fussy in those first three months,” she says.

Dr Gleeson points to Dutch researchers, Dr Franx X. Plooij and Dr Hety van de Rijt, who authored The Wonder Weeks.

In 1992, they discovered that, in the first 20 months of life, babies and infants go through a series of mental developments known as leaps.

They describe that while babies go through a leap (which can last a few days to a number of weeks), they are fussy, irritable, clingy and cry more than normal. Once the leap is over, the baby will have achieved a new skill.

Within the first 12 weeks, the researchers identify three leaps – no wonder they can seem unsettled.

“Another thing to consider when we talk about fussy babies is the way we raise and nurture babies in the Western world,” adds Dr Gleeson.

Traditional Western babies cry more.

“If you compare Western and non-Western societies, non-Western babies are routinely held more, they are more generously breastfed and they are responded to more promptly.

“This is probably a result of the last 100 years of parenting education that says we should put our babies to sleep in a dark, quiet room by themselves.

“They’re probably crying because they are just cranky, lonely or hungry.”

Sometimes unsettled babies can be diagnosed as having reflux, but there are only a very small number of babies who have gastro-oesophageal reflux disease which requires medications
Dr Sarah Gleeson

How to survive those first few months

According to the Murdoch Research Institute, one in five families have babies with colic, and the burden is associated with maternal depression, child abuse such as Shaken Baby Syndrome and early breastfeeding cessation.

“It can be a stressful time, it can be an exhausting time and it can be very upsetting for parents having to care for a cranky and crying baby,” says Dr Gleeson.

She recommends that if parents are at all worried, their first step should be to contact their health professional, whether that is their GP or Child Health Nurse.

“Sometimes unsettled babies can be diagnosed as having reflux, but there are only a very small number of babies who have gastro-oesophageal reflux disease which requires medications,” she says.

“The whole mother-baby unit is very complex, especially when breastfeeding.

“There are a whole lot of things that need to work in harmony and symphony for everything to go well, so a really thorough mother and baby check and breastfeeding check, is the first thing I recommend before going down the path of adjusting cots or considering reflux medication which carries a risk of harm.”

Dr Gleeson also notes that there are some babies who have a true cow’s milk protein allergy but advises mothers to only trial a dairy free diet in consultation with their GP or Child Health nurse to ensure both mother and baby’s nutritional needs are being met.  

She warns parents against over-the-counter medication promising relief from colic.

“There is no evidence that any of them work, and I recommend to thoroughly check the ingredients with your GP, pharmacist or Child Health nurse as some ingredients can be harmful.”

Dr Gleeson says parents shouldn’t be afraid to ask for support from family and friends.

“Those weeks with an unsettled baby are exhausting, and parents need to make sure they are looking after themselves.

“If you can, take some time away from your baby to give yourself a break and look after your mental health.

“Also, don’t be afraid to hold and cuddle your baby, sometimes this is what they need and you can’t spoil them with love and cuddles.

“Finally, know that this time will pass, and babies tend to settle down once they pass three months.”

Dr Gleeson’s strategies for surviving the first 12 weeks:

  1. Read The Discontented Little Baby Book by Dr Pamela Douglas.
  2. If you’re breastfeeding, seek support early from an expert.
  3. Practice baby wearing – carrying your baby close in a sling or wrap.
  4. Get outside for some fresh air and gentle exercise every day for both your physical and mental health.
  5. Stay connected with friends and family – don’t skip the coffee catch ups and invest in a Bluetooth earpiece so you can be handsfree while chatting on the phone.
  6. Stay off your phone during night feeds (the blue light switches your brain on) and at the start of a feed (instead connect with your baby to release those bonding hormones).