Infant distress is one of the most common problems presented to GPs, hospitals and specialist centres in the UK, costing the NHS millions a year to treat.
Parents may become very distressed, worried that their baby has a serious illness or they blame their own parenting skills for not being able to make their baby happy – when neither are true. As a result, mothers can develop depression and give up breastfeeding early. Its effects can be devastating.
Doctors do not understand what causes colic and so there’s no cure for it. Theories on possible causes include a stomach cramp, indigestion, trapped wind and sensitivity to protein in milk.
Other possible explanations put forward include maternal anxiety or depression, or a difficult temperament in the baby.
Earlier research suggested that babies with colic had an imbalance(?) of gut bacteria and there have been a flurry of studies investigating whether probiotic supplements could change this.
Scientists in the US have suggested that babies with colic may be suffering from early types of migraine, an intense throbbing type of headache.
Symptoms are reported to peak when babies are between three and six weeks old and normally go away by the age of four months.
These include periods of crying or fussing for three hours a day or more, for three days a week, in infants aged less than three months. They often develop a pattern of crying at the same time of day, usually late afternoon or early evening and are hard to console.
Babies sometimes have a red face, arch their back, curl up their legs, clench their fists or tense up their tummy muscles.
Your doctor will be able to diagnose colic by a description of their symptoms. Sometimes they may want to rule out another condition, such as eczema, a common dry skin condition in babies which can cause pain and itching, or gastro-oesophageal reflux disease (GORD) where stomach acid and milk escapes back up into the gullet causing projectile vomiting.
Cow’s milk allergy is another possible explanation for excessive crying in babies and is one of the most common food allergies in children, though often goes under diagnosed. Apart from crying, the symptoms can include also weight loss, eczema, blood in the stools and a change in bowel habit.
Who gets colic?
Colic affects around 20 per cent of all babies and there doesn’t seem to be a pattern as to who gets it, although there are some interesting theories.
Preliminary research presented to the American Society of Neurology found that women who suffer migraines, are twice as likely to have a baby who suffers from colic.
Comforting a baby with colic is trial and error. Experts recommend rocking and cuddling your baby to soothe them; feeding them upright to avoid them swallowing too much air; burping bottle-fed babies on your shoulder straight after a feed; calming them in a warm bath; and using baby massage techniques on their tummy. Using simeticone (also known as simethicone) drops to relieve wind and griping pains before feeding is sometimes recommended, but there isn’t much evidence that they work.
If cow’s milk allergy is identified as the cause, your baby can be switched to a hypoallergenic formula milk. If reflux is the cause of their distress, parents can be given advice on feeding techniques and in rare cases, medication and surgery may be given to the baby.
Parents need reassurance from medical professionals that colic is a common, unexplained problem and not their fault and whilst it’s difficult to live with, it will go away by the time their baby is around four months old.
Always get medical help if you feel your baby is crying because they are unwell. Signs to look out for include: a cry that doesn’t sound like their normal cry; dry nappies; a high temperature but cold feet and hands; rasping breathing noises; and a spotty purple/red rash anywhere on the body.