Nothing to Cry About: Help for Colic is Here

Parents have been crying to me for help in dealing with their infants' problems with colic.  Well I don’t want to make this topic painful for anyone, so let me offer some helpful information:

Colic is a term that is used to define excessive crying and irritability in a baby, occurring in up to 40% of infants. It is defined as crying for more than three hours a day, for more than three days a week, beginning from about three weeks to three months of age, often occurring in the late afternoon.   Anything less than this is considered normal, even if it is quite frustrating to a parent.

What causes colic?  We don’t know, but it may reflect many different reasons including hunger, overstimulation, a dirty diaper, gas pains, and/or being overtired.  The good news about colic is that it is not a life-threatening medical problem, and babies will outgrow it over a few months.

Until it does go away, parents should try some supportive measures to reduce the severity and duration of the crying.  For example start by figuring out why your baby is crying.  Does he or she want to be fed, held, stimulated, or put to sleep?  If this fails then consider wrapping the baby snugly and handling the baby gently to minimize overstimulation.

Burping your baby frequently and allowing at least two hours between feeds to allow the stomach to empty can help.  Changing formula is rarely if ever the answer – nor do we want breastfeeding moms to stop breastfeeding.  

Reducing noise and light levels and using steady smooth vibrations such as a swing, rocking chair, or even a ride in a car can often quiet a colicky infant.  Some parents find that putting baby on a running clothes washer or dryer will soothe them, but never leave them unattended on any of these devices.

No medication has been found to treat colic, and in fact many of them are quite dangerous with some life-threatening side effects.  The ones that contain simethicone will not hurt, but have not been proven to help either.

Never, never attempt to shake a baby who is crying to try to quiet them down.  This is one of the most common situations that can cause physical abuse and unintended brain damage to a baby.

Finally remember that colic has nothing to do with bad parenting so please don’t blame yourself.  If your baby continues to cry and you don’t know why, and you feel you are losing control, call your child’s doctor for further help, but also call a friend or family member to give you a break so you can collect yourself and avoid the exhaustion that will only frustrate your baby even more.

Hopefully tips like this will quiet any concerns you have the next time you are concerned about your baby having colic.

Lewis First, M.D., is chief of Pediatrics at Vermont Children's Hospital at Fletcher Allen Health Care and chair of the Department of Pediatrics at the University of Vermont College of Medicine. You can also catch "First with Kids" weekly on WOKO 98.9FM and WPTZ Channel 5, or visit the First with Kids video archives at http://www.FletcherAllen.org/firstwithkids