Does my baby have colic?

Colic is very common, affecting about one in five babies.
Colic is very common, affecting about one in five babies.  

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When Melbourne mum Sarah Hankinson's second son Pip was diagnosed with colic, at first she felt relieved.

"He was crying a lot, had lots of gas and was pulling his legs up," she says.

"When the GP checked him out and said it was colic, I left the doctor's surgery thinking that now that I knew what it was, I could start looking into treatments."

But as Hankinson started investigating colic, she discovered that it's far from a simple diagnosis.

Colic is defined as crying and fussing that happens a lot or lasts for a long time. Colicky babies often clench their fists and draw their legs up like they are in pain and can be incredibly difficult to settle.

"A newborn can cry up to two hours a day but when it comes to colic, it's in excess of that – we're talking persistent crying or uncontrollable crying for more than three days a week," says Julyanne Tesoriero, a parenting expert from Birth and Beyond parent resource centre.

"Quite often with colic, it starts around the two-week mark then disappears at approximately the 12-week mark."


While colicky babies were once thought to be suffering from tummy troubles, Tesoriero says there are now a number of additional theories behind the excessive tears.

"One theory is that babies are still developing their digestive system, so there could be some problems around digestion causing wind or gas pain," she says.

"There's also a theory that it could be related to maternal anxiety because if babies are perceiving their mum is anxious, it could cause them to be a little unsettled as well."

Some experts suggest that it's a sign that a baby is struggling to adapt to the outside world in the "fourth trimester". Paediatrician Dr Harvey Karp has outlined the idea that babies are snug and warm in utero but once born desperately seek that calming reflex from the womb.

The theory, Tesoriero says, is around temperament: "There's a theory that if a baby is more of a sensitive soul, it could induce colic or fussiness."

The one commonality is that most babies stop crying, almost overnight.

In the case of Hankinson's baby Pip, by four-and-a-half months he'd settled down and is now a happy nine-month-old.

"I saw an osteo who did some manipulation, which might have helped, but it might have just been time," Sarah says.

"It was so hard when we were going through it, but the way I coped was to remind myself that it was bad for Pip too – he was obviously going through something that we didn't know about."


What can you do?

A colic diagnosis may not lead to a specific treatment plan, but Tesoriero says there are things you can do to settle your baby.

Your first step is to simulate the womb's environment for your little one to quell any tears relating to the outside world.

"Make sure your baby is swaddled, use white noise, shush your baby and swing them so they're nice and calm," she suggests.

"We also try to make sure the mum and dad are as supported as possible in that period because if they are feeling distressed, we know that can impact on the baby as well."

Always try to wind your baby after every feed to reduce the amount of gas in their digestive system, too.

"Generally if a baby needs burping, their face will go quite red and they might start to scrunch up their face and show signs of feeling uncomfortable," Tesoriero says.

"Once you pick them up and pop them over your shoulder or sit them upright and give them a gentle pat, that can release the wind. I encourage all parents to burp the baby [after every feed] so you've ruled out anything that could be building up in their stomach."

It may also help to experiment with feed times and if your baby is formula-fed, often trialling different formulas such as lactose free and prebiotic enriched can help with colic. 


Why else do babies cry?

If your baby cries excessively, it's a good idea to check in with your GP or maternal health nurse to confirm that your baby is healthy and well.

According to the Breastfeeding Association, babies can also be unsettled if their mum has a low milk supply, if they suffer reflux or they're suffering from a lactose overload from too much breast milk.

Food allergies and intolerances can cause babies to be unsettled, so some breastfeeding mothers find that eliminating certain foods from their diet, under the guidance of a dietitian, or changing formulas helps their baby calm down.

Doctors may look at whether there has been a family history of irritable bowel syndrome, which can be linked with things like food intolerances, and if that could be linked to colic, Tesoriero says.

"Generally, the first option would be maternal support, then look at techniques to try and settle the baby, before necessarily moving on to diagnosing something like a cow's milk protein allergy."


Founded in 1896, Danone Nutricia works with parents, carers and healthcare professionals to educate about early life nutrition through advice and support, as well as products and services. For over 100 years Danone Nutricia has been at the forefront of research in infant nutrition and our pioneering efforts continue today. At the heart of our work is our commitment to stand by mums, dads and caregivers to nurture new lives through science-driven research and development, as well as quality manufacturing. To learn more about our commitment or to talk to one of our experts on Early Life Nutrition visit our website.