How to Help a Colicky Baby

It’s important to remember that while you are probably frustrated and sleep-deprived, your baby is suffering even more due to physical discomfort and emotional frustration from being unable to get relief. 

Colic or Heartburn

Occasionally, colic is due to gastroesophageal reflux, the same condition adults experience as heartburn. Reflux occurs when stomach contents, including stomach acids, back up into the lower esophagus and irritate the tissue there. Most babies outgrow reflux by their first birthday, and breastfed infants may not even show symptoms. Symptoms include one or more of the following: frequent spitting up or non-projectile vomiting, frequent burping or hiccupping, night waking, poor weight gain, difficulty swallowing, sudden or inconsolable crying, arching during feeding, constant nursing, or disinterest in nursing.

Since testing for reflux is invasive, it is rarely indicated for infants under a year old unless there is serious reason to do so. So, how do you know? You may be dealing with colic if:

  • Your baby cries continuously, stopping only when completely exhausted.
  • Your baby appears to be in great pain, yet there is no sign of injury or sickness.
  • Your baby’s knees are pulled up to their abdomen or their legs our held rigidly out. The stomach may be head to the touch.
  • Your baby cannot be quieted with a feeding or change of diapers.
  • Despite the incessant crying, your baby feeds well and is gaining weight.

What Causes Colic?

Colic is an acute pain in the stomach or bowels; a cramping, gripping kind of abdominal pain that used to be called “the gripes”. Infant colic is not new. It was recorded as early as the 6th century. Unfortunately, we still don’t know what causes it. Research suggests that one or more of the following can contribute to the development of colic.

  • Immature gastrointestinal system, causing spasms and painful abdominal gas. Burping the baby frequently when feeding, and giving the baby more time between feedings to digest their food may help.
  • Overstimulation of an immature central nervous system.
  • Dairy sensitivity. The inability to digest milk sugar lactose produces symptoms of gas, cramps, and bloating. Some babies are even sensitive to foods their mothers pass through breast milk.
  • Infant temperament; some babies are simply fussier than others. If your infant is older than three months and still acting colicky, behavioral problems or illness may be the cause.
  • Babies pick up on tension or anxiety. Even stress experienced during pregnancy has been found to be associated with colic once the baby was born.

Soothing Your Little One’s Pain

It is always best to consult a doctor to rule out any other medical issues that may be causing similar symptoms. Once colic is determined to be the culprit, here are a few tips to help you help your little one:

  • Be generous and gentle with your touch. Swaddle, cuddle, rock, stroke, pat, and massage can help but do so with gentle movements so as not to upset the stomach. Many parents recommend an automatic swing to give the arms a rest.
  • Apply heat to your baby’s tummy using warm water. A typical water bottle is too heavy so you can purchase a smaller one usually used for hands, a heating pad set on low, or a heated washcloth by dipping it in warm water and wringing it out.
  • Do the “Colic Carry”: extend your forearm, palm up, and place the baby’s chest down on your arm with the head resting in your palm and legs straddling either side of your elbow. Use your other hand to support the baby and walk around until the fussing stops.
  • This is a strange one but it seems to work for a lot of parents. Vacuum the house! For some unknown reason, the sound of a vacuum cleaner seems to be soothing to colicky babies.