Colic - How to comfort your baby
Colic can take all the fun out of life with a baby. We’ve asked the experts for advice on how to comfort babies and calm the storm.
Babies cry; it’s a fact of life. Crying is a baby’s most effective method of communication, as challenging as that can be for her parents! But then there is prolonged crying, the kind that seems immune to comfort. Parents of babies with colic are all too familiar with this heartbreaking and exhausting message from their child.
What is colic?
Unlike reflux, infantile colic is not a medical condition, but a description of symptoms – specifically, excessive crying in infants. As distressing as it seems for both baby and parents, colic is not dangerous to a baby’s development and will not delay emotional or physical growth. While often confused with lactose intolerance or gastro-oesophageal reflux, colic is a temporary physical disorder that can be treated with time and nurture, rather than medical interventions.
Colic is sometimes diagnosed by applying the ‘rule of threes’ – when baby cries for more than three hours a day, for more than three days a week, for more than three weeks. Often the crying episodes occur at around the same time every day, especially in the early evening – a decidedly challenging time for the entire household, with dinner prep in full swing and high demands from any other children. After a day of stimulation, evenings can be particularly challenging for tired babies in general.
Colic is thought to affect one in four babies. Usually it starts when baby is only a few weeks old and improvements are often obvious by the three-month-old mark. Colic can, however, last for as long as six months.
What causes it?
There is no known pathological cause for colic, although plenty of theories abound as to what makes colic worse. Some suggest colic is associated with trapped wind, hence many treatments focus on effective burping techniques.
Paediatrician and author of The Happiest Baby on the Block, Dr Harvey Karp, connects colic with his ‘missing fourth trimester’ theory. This theory suggests babies are actually born too early, not yet fully developed to withstand the stresses of the world. However, their head circumference, in relation to the diameter of a fully-dilated cervix, makes birth at around 40 weeks optimal for Mum; let’s say no more.
Dr Karp states that the intestinal pain and digestion troubles, symptomatic of colic, could be a result of a baby’s immature gastrocolic reflex, yet if she was in the womb longer, this would have had more time to mature. The fourth trimester would technically end at three-months-old, the same time many colicky babies find relief.
Dr Karp’s advice for soothing a colicky baby focuses on recreating the sounds and motions that a newborn would have experienced in the womb, relating to his theory that this is where she would ideally still be. So, plenty of swaddling, rocking, swaying, and shushing should help. Interestingly, researchers, including Dr Karp, point out that some cultures don’t experience colic at all, specifically cultures where parents are constantly holding, rocking, and nursing their babies, actions which all mimic being in the womb.
What can you do about it?
It is all very well to say that colic is harmless and will pass with time, but in reality, colic makes the hard work of caring for a baby seem overwhelming.
The 19th century advice to "Just put cotton in your ears and gin in your stomach!” doesn’t cut it these days, but what can you actually do to comfort baby and make life easier? This is the golden question. We asked OHbaby! newborn expert, Dorothy Waide, and Philippa Murphy, postnatal educator and director of Baby Cues, for their advice on soothing a very sad baby.
Advice from Dorothy
Dorothy Waide believes the hardest thing about colic is the parents' feelings of helplessness. Your baby appears to be in pain, but she can’t tell you what’s going on and you can’t stop the crying, no matter what you do. Couple that with a lack of understanding from others, and the resulting perceptions of judgment because your baby seems inconsolable, and parents can lose confidence in their parenting ability.
Dorothy is passionate about encouraging parents in their role, empowering them with the hope that nurturing our babies comes naturally when we slow down and tune in to what they really need.
“Focus on being rather than doing”, says Dorothy. “Hold your babies in an engulf position, or a position that baby responds to, and encourage her to fall asleep in your arms if need be. Babies feel secure and comfortable there."
“A busy household can contribute to a baby’s stress levels. The more relaxed the environment, the more relaxed your baby will be”, Dorothy adds.
In saying that, Dorothy is also quick to remind parents to trust their gut instincts and seek help and support when they need it. Alternative therapies such as cranial osteopathy, acupuncture, massage, probiotics, homeopathic treatments, and products designed to assist babies with winding may help. Using a dummy can help too, as babies find sucking a comfort.
Over the years she has spent helping parents care for their newborns, Dorothy has noticed common mistakes new parents make with feeding and winding. Here are her tips to avoid them:
● When breastfeeding, try lowering baby's bottom so that her head is slightly elevated while feeding.
● When bottle-feeding, take care not to position baby so her tummy is squashed and she will therefore only drink small amounts. Instead, stretch baby’s body out so her head and shoulders are slightly elevated.
● Crying babies are often offered another feed as comfort, but this means they never have the chance for good gastric- emptying. Avoid over-feeding as it just exasperates any winding issues.
● Make sure, in efforts to wind baby, you are not extending their wake times. Instead, settle baby in your arms and allow her to fall asleep there, if she has been upset. You can then transfer her to the cot, or have a nap yourself with baby upright against your body.
● Make sure baby is dry, fed, and burped.
● Contact is comforting – carry, walk, and talk to your baby.
● Try a baby carrier for increased body contact.
● Take baby for a walk in fresh air.
● Sing to your baby.
● Give baby a warm bath followed by some massage.
● Some babies respond to white noise, such as the vacuum cleaner.
● Of utmost importance, if your baby’s crying is beginning to overwhelm you, put her in a safe place, like her cot, and walk away until you feel calmer and more ready to attend to her.
LOOK FOR THE CUES
Postnatal educator, Philippa Murphy, has just published a book, BabyCues: Nurture with Nature,which is available at babycues.info. We asked Philippa to explain her approach to treating colic.
Philippa: I never set out to find the remedy for colic or reflux when I started maternity nursing. In my twenties, I spent six years in the United Kingdom and Europe, living-in and working with families with young babies. During these thousands of hands-on hours, I cared for many babies who cried inconsolably from obvious digestive pain. I found it hard to believe that nature could get this so wrong. I wanted to find the cause, not just manage symptoms. By watching the babies themselves, I learned to read the cues about their digestive mechanisms. I then studied our early biology and now marry my research to teach a new form of care I call bio-logical care. It's care that nurtures within our biological digestive function.
OHbaby!: What are some of the common mistakes new parents make with feeding and winding?
Philippa: The number one mistake is overfeeding. Many babies are being fed beyond their digestive capabilities, whether it is too much food, feeds in quick succession, or being fed too often. Unbalanced feeding methods leave a baby’s digestive organs to process milk abnormally.
The second mistake is not releasing enough wind through burping after each feed. Parents are widely taught that a couple of burps after a feed are enough, or even that babies don’t need to burp; quite simply, this is not the case. Parents are also taught to settle a baby to sleep straight after a feed once two or three burps have been released. However, the copious amount of retained air in the stomach is then left to move onward through the intestines and bowel, causing discomfort, heightened communication, pedalling legs, and arching backwards, which all contribute to the diagnosis of colic.
OHbaby!: What would be your advice for new parents caring for colicky babies?
Philippa: Finding other parents who have experienced a colicky baby can be beneficial for your mental health. Until you have lived with these behaviours, it is difficult to understand how hard they are on everyone involved.
Seek holistic help. Balanced feeding practices and appropriate release of wind create healthy developmental sleep patterns. Therefore, a health professional who considers all aspects together is best for your baby.
OHbaby!: What products do you recommend to help babies with winding issues?
Philippa: I believe it is healthier to allow a newborn’s digestion to work as close to nature’s design as possible, therefore I don’t actually recommend any remedies designed to specifically make a newborn burp. After trying many of them myself and finding they made me more windy, I've settled on a different approach. Instead, I use an alcohol-free homeopathic remedy that stimulates calm for about five minutes. This lessens the tension in the baby’s body, which then allows the digestive movement that they are fighting against to happen, whether it is in the stomach, intestine, or bowel.
By teaching parents how to feel, read, and naturally respond to these movements, fewer products are needed.
The only other product I use from time to time, dependent on the newborn’s situation, is Slippery Elm. When taken internally, it stimulates nerve endings in the gastrointestinal tract, leading to mucus secretion, which can help soothe the stomach. This does need to be given in the correct dosage for the baby's weight.
OHbaby! naturopath, Natasha Berman, recommends QBaby ColiCalm drops, as they ease the tummy spasms and distress associated with colic. She also suggests breastfeeding mothers try Qbaby lactation tea, containing fennel and licorice to reduce symptoms of wind in their babies.
Studies don’t find any one product to be overwhelmingly effective, but many parents will swear by a particular concoction. Here are some products you might like to try. If, after a week or so, there's no great improvement, try something else.
AS FEATURED IN ISSUE 30 OF OHbaby! MAGAZINE. CHECK OUT OTHER ARTICLES IN THIS ISSUE BELOW