Between 5–25% of newborns could show signs of colic. Here’s how to know if it’s really colic along with some gentle ways to soothe your baby and take care of yourself.
Ideally, having a baby is a joyous experience – but it can also be a very challenging one, especially if your baby has colic. No one can prepare you for the challenges and the impact colic can have on you, your partner and family. Colicky babies tend to cry a lot more than others. Those peaceful rest times just don’t seem to come often enough.
Between 5 – 25% of newborns could show signs of infantile colic*, so there are many parents feeling just the way you do! It’s important to remember that, as a parent (even first time around), you possess an innate knowing about when things are ‘not OK’ with your little one.
All babies cry on and off and, as your confidence grows, you’ll become better able to interpret your baby’s different cries and to grasp what your little one is shouting about.
Until you get into a natural rhythm with your baby, it’s normal to feel an array of different thoughts and feelings, including feeling that you’re being a sub-par mom or dad. Remember to be gentle and kind with yourself during this challenging time.
What is baby colic?
Colic affects the stomach and the small and large intestines, causing abdominal pain and discomfort, spasms, inflammation and bloating. It can feel like having a ‘stitch’. Discomfort from the pain can radiate through the whole body, especially around the lower back area.
If your baby…
- is generally restless and fretful
- cries frequently and inconsolably, or screaming, with sudden ear-piercing shrieks
- shows whole body tension
- draws the knees up towards the tummy
- frequently arches his back
- is bloated around the abdominal area most of the time
- frequently passes wind or strains (often accompanied by a reddened face)
- doesn’t establish a good feeding pattern
- clenches her fists
- sleeps poorly
Possible Causes of Colic
It could be possible that if you’re breastfeeding, your baby could be reacting to some of the foods you’re eating. If your baby is particularly disturbed one day, try to remember what you have eaten in the past twenty-four hours. What you eat could be affecting the taste, the level of milk you’re producing or could be some intestinal gas. If a particular food seems suspect, remove it from your diet for a while and see how your baby responds. Likewise if you’re bottle-feeding it could be possible that your baby is reacting to the formula because of a possible lactose intolerance.
Hiccups resulting in milk being brought up after a feed (or at other times) is known as reflux, which can sometimes be confused with colic. If your baby is spitting up a lot it could be a sign of reflux, which occurs when stomach acid regurgitates into the esophagus, causing irritation and pain – it’s a bit like heartburn. Reflux can be a less obvious cause of apparently colicky symptoms or waking during the night.
The Vagus Nerve
The vagus nerve starts at the brain stem and travels through the neck into the chest and then into the abdomen. Emotions and state of mind are closely linked to the digestive system and this connection is largely due to the vagus nerve. Your baby’s emotional wellbeing can affect their digestive system, so calming and comforting techniques do more than just soothe your baby – they also help to settle the tummy.
Some stress is good – at the beginning of labor, it actually helps to stimulate the creation of massive numbers of neurons in the brain, so your baby’s brain is primed for new learning once it is born. If, however, there’s a difficult birth or post-birth trauma, stress hormones could continue to stay high after the birth, which could affect your baby adversely. It may lead to your baby’s withdrawing into long periods of sleep, or being unsettled, irritable and colicky.
Spinal Misalignment or Impingement on the Nerves
This might be due to the position the baby was in during the later stages of pregnancy or the birthing experience, some birth trauma or may be due to general tightness and tension being held in the spine and abdomen.
Tightness in the Psoas Muscle
This muscle flexes the hips and brings the legs up towards the chest. In the latter part of pregnancy your baby has been in a tight ball in the womb; this can shorten the psoas muscles, which impedes the abdomen from fully expanding to accommodate a feed.
Some Colic Soothing Suggestions
It’s important to remember that baby colic is self-limiting; the symptoms usually begin to subside at around the age of four to six months as the digestive system matures and begins to work more efficiently.
The good thing is that there are many ways to help soothe colic naturally. As long as you have checked with a GP or health visitor that there isn’t a more serious underlying problem, then your baby can only benefit from the following gentle soothing suggestions.
Create a Calming Feeding Time
Try making feeding time as peaceful as possible for both of you. Find a quiet spot and enjoy the peace of nursing, it will do wonders for your nerves and your baby’s digestion. Turn off the TV, play some soothing music, dim the lights and let your energy level slow down and become peaceful. A drop of lavender essential oil in the hollow of your throat will help you de-stress and soothe your baby, too. Just sitting, breathing and inhaling the scent will relieve the jangled nerves.
Adjust Your Diet
If you’re breastfeeding, you have the blessing of being able to be able to treat your baby’s colic by adjusting what you’re eating. Everything you eat goes to your baby through breast milk so avoid foods that can cause gas and cramping. Good examples are broccoli, kale, cauliflower, chocolate, dairy foods, spicy foods, anything high in sugar and caffeine. Try adding probiotics to your diet as well such as yogurt, kefir or acidophilus. They will go to your baby’s digestive tract as well.
For herbal assistance, the go to herb for treating colic is fennel. Try drinking 2 or 3 cups of fennel tea every day to get enough your baby through your breast milk. If you are bottle feeding, a baby only needs about 1 tablespoon of fennel tea and while you probably can’t get a baby to drink fennel tea, you can easily hide the taste of 1 tablespoon in an 8 oz. bottle. If you still can’t your baby to drink it, add about 1 tablespoon of apple juice to the bottle as well to sweeten it.
If you don’t enjoy the taste of fennel tea, try chamomile, catnip, or lemon balm tea instead. These are soothing to your baby’s digestive tract and your raw nerves, too. Rosemary Gladstar offers this excellent recipe for Slippery Elm Tea.
Slippery Elm Tea for Colic
- 1 part marshmallow root, powdered
- 1 part slippery elm bark, powdered
- 1/8 part cinnamon, powdered
- 1/8 part fennel seed, powdered
- Purified water
- Maple syrup
Mix these herbs together and store them in an airtight container and use them as needed. Since these herbs are all in powdered form, there is no need to strain the tea before drinking it.
Take 1 tablespoon of the herb mixture per cup of water. Bring your water to a boil and stir in the herb mixture. Cover and simmer over low heat for 10 to 15 minutes. Sweeten to taste with maple syrup. You can store any unused tea in the refrigerator for up to 48 hours.
To serve, warm the tea and add to your baby’s juice or cereal. An infant can drink as much of this tea as desired. If your baby is nursing, you should drink 3 or 4 cups a day.
A Warm Bath
Being in warm water can be very soothing, and the warmth can help to relax tight muscles and reduce pain. Why not follow a bath with a soothing massage, some gentle baby yoga movements or just a long loving cuddle?
Loving touch is a universal way of expressing love. It helps us to feel nurtured and nourished in our lives; in addition to helping us to feel better, it can promote healing. Touch is a baby’s most powerful sense, so massage is like food for them – they need it! Try doing some gentle massage to the tummy (preferably in a clockwise direction); gentle strokes on the back and feet are lovely too. Why not see if you can join a baby massage class or find a trained baby massage instructor to help you?
Without the restrictions of a diaper your baby can kick and move more freely. This enables them to stretch out tight muscles and allows any trapped wind to move through the colon more freely.
Small gentle movements can help trapped, painful wind to move through the colon and encourage tight and painful muscles to relax. Baby yoga movements may be accompanied by simple songs (Row, Row, Row Your Boat is a favorite!) and can really help to distract and uplift your troubled baby.
Some babies find comfort in movement. You might experiment with:
- using a sling
- taking them out in the stroller
- giving them a ride in the car
- dancing and moving with your baby
Sound / Music
Some babies settle when exposed to repetitive sound. The sound of the car, the vacuum cleaner or even the rhythm of the washing machine can gently distract them and help them to relax. It’s amazing how powerful music can be to distract, relax and uplift your baby. Try putting on some relaxing music or sing some baby songs.
CranioSacral Therapy is a gentle hands-on treatment that could help your baby’s body to naturally unwind, realign and release pent-up emotional trauma.
Look After Yourself
Take regular deep, relaxing breaths, do some shoulder and neck stretches to release built-up tension, take valuable time out when you can to rest, recharge and have some fun. If you’re breastfeeding, try a soothing cup of Slippery Elm Tea (recipe above) to help you relax and treat bay’s colic symptoms. Your baby will benefit from you looking after yourself.
*(Kilgour T, Wade S. Infantile Colic. Clinical Evidence 2005)