If there’s one thing almost guaranteed to rattle a parent, it’s a baby with colic.
“The definition of colic is: ‘an otherwise healthy baby who has more than three hours of intense crying in a day, for more than three days a week, and lasts more than three weeks,'” says Dr. Lisa Stern, MD, a senior partner at Tenth Street Pediatrics and Gut Council Member for Jetson. “From personal experience, it’s an insane amount of crying and it can undermine the confidence of even the most seasoned parents. At about 2-3 weeks of life, the incessant crying starts and doesn’t seem to stop.”
There is a running debate about what colic actually is, but there are some things we do know. “It happens to healthy, full term babies that are otherwise thriving,” says Dr. Stern. “It appears unrelated to sex, birth order or whether a baby is breastfed or bottle fed. So what are the possible causes? Gas and an immature gut? Sensory overload? Reflux? All are feasible triggers and, what does colic actually look like? Imagine a beautiful, perfect baby with a scrunched up face and clenched fists who is crying so hard her face and body are bright red. Do you have a good visual?”
Turning on white noise, doing a baby massage, wearing baby, taking a car ride, doing Dr. Harvey Karp’s 5s, switching formula and speaking to your doctor about using something like Boiron ColicComfort (pictured below) can all be helpful – but not always.
“My theory about colic is that it’s a combination of an immature gut and an immature nervous system,” says Dr. Stern. “In utero, babies are growing in a warm dark environment, they are fed from the placenta via the umbilical cord. The intestines are filled with a substance called meconium, which is composed of cells, mucous and amniotic fluid. In most cases, the first meconium stool is passed soon after the birth. Within minutes of entering our world, babies are exposed to harsh light and sounds, have to breath and suckle at the same time and the gut, which has been quiescent for months, begins emptying itself of meconium. There’s a lot going on.
Human babies are relatively more immature at birth compared to other species. If babies had the opportunity to spend another two months in the womb there would be less colic. Unfortunately, another two months in utero would mean their growing heads wouldn’t fit through the birth canal and therein lies the issue. At least 30% of all newborns experience at least a few weeks of extreme fussiness starting at 2-3 weeks of age and peaking at 5-7 weeks of life. There is so much expected of freshly birthed little humans!”
So, how should we approach the challenge of colic?
First, Dr. Stern suggests thinking about re-creating a womb experience. “Imagine a warm place where there is no light, there is constant rhythmic movement every time the mother takes a breath and the sounds are from the whooshing of blood flowing through the mother’s aorta (you’ve probably heard this sound if you’ve had a prenatal ultrasound). These are the ‘Five S’s’ popularized by Dr. Harvey Karp in his book ‘The Happiest Baby on the Block’ and they really work to calm a newborn.”
Next up is for a breast-feeding mother to look at her diet. “I try NOT to restrict a breastfeeding woman’s diet too much, but sometimes a small tweak, like removing dairy, will improve colic and definitely has been shown to improve reflux symptoms,” says Dr. Stern. “Formula-fed babies may benefit from switching to one of the many ‘easier to digest’ brands available but this would be a discussion with your pediatrician. No single formula is the magic cure-all for colic.”
Gas-relieving measures might also help. Dr. Stern recommends bicycling your baby’s legs and applying gentle pressure to the lower left side of the abdomen to expel unwanted gas or using FridaBaby’s Windi, a soft, hollow tube that is sold as a gas-passer adjunct. “Probiotics are an exciting new option that doctors are more recently starting to recommend. I am a believer in the gut-brain connection and the usefulness of this class of supplements. Evivo is the only probiotic that I can comfortably prescribe for newborn colic, but I am starting to recommend other brands for older babies. Some of the most interesting are multi-strain brands like Nordic Naturals and Jettie Kids.”
Bottom line: The most important thing to know about colic is that it does pass with time. “I’m a glass half full type of person (and doctor) and one thing I have learned about colicky babies is that they grow to be sensitive and creative children (and adults). It’s the silver-lining of those challenging early months.”