It can be distressing for both parents and infants – but what is it and how can you ease your baby’s suffering?
When your baby draws its legs up and screams the place down for an hour, it’s distressing for both of you. And if it continues for three hours a day three days a week, for more than three weeks, and your baby is otherwise healthy and well fed, then your infant officially has colic. Most crying under three months (colic can start in the first month) is due to this harmless but stressful condition. But occasionally infants have more serious illnesses, so you should check for symptoms, such as floppiness or pallor, on the NHS choices website and if you’re at all concerned call a doctor immediately.
Colic affects 5-20% of infants and, while not life-threatening, is wearing for parents, never mind the infant. It often starts in the late afternoon when you’re both tired. This week the BMJ published a review from the Drug and Therapeutics Bulletin assessing the evidence for the many treatments. So should you use anything to treat your baby’s colic?
The causes of infant colic are unclear, with theories including hypersensitive nerves in the gut causing pain or an imbalance of bacteria in the bowel producing too much gas. Parents have been accused of over-anxiety, family tension or not enough parent-infant interaction. As often happens when the cause is unknown, there are lots of treatments on offer – most of which, the review found, lack evidence that they work. The review finds no evidence for the benefits of acupuncture, chiropractic care, or for massage or swaddling for comfort. Herbal supplements such as fennel show some reduction in colic but also caused vomiting and constipation.
Some colic is actually cow’s milk intolerance, so a week’s trial of excluding dairy from a breast-feeding mum’s diet or the use of hypoallergenic formulae for bottle-fed babies is reasonable. I found simethicone drops (which reduce gas in the bowel) made me feel more able to cope, but randomised, controlled trials showed no difference compared to placebo. Lactase drops mixed with the milk and left for 24 hours before feeding reduced colic in one randomised trial but not in others.
Some studies show that paying more attention to your baby, holding and gently rocking them, bathing them (made mine scream more) and getting help from friends and family (my mum took it in turns to walk round with them) can all help, depending on your baby. Cry-Sis has a helpline. But remember that it’s nothing personal: your baby loves you and can’t help crying, and it will pass. The next period of disproportionate screaming will be when your infant grows into a teenager.