Cry babies: The facts about colic and what you can do to relieve it
Colic is very distressing for parents, even if it's very common in babies. But what to do when your baby won't stop crying? Chrissie Russell reports
Babies cry. That's the philosophical wisdom often imparted by friends, relatives and even health professionals, but it's absolutely no use to the sleep-deprived, stressed out parents on the other end, dealing with a colicky baby.
Colic, generally defined as repeated, excessive bouts of crying, is common - recent estimates suggest around one in five babies are affected - but just because it's an everyday affliction doesn't make it any easier for those coping with it every day.
"I remember having to bounce my first-born for four hours solid one evening and thinking I must be the only mum in the world to have such a difficult baby," says Dublin pharmacist and mum-of-two Sheena Mitchell. "Even with my medical background it was really, really challenging, especially because she was my first and I'd nothing to compare it to."
She's not alone. Colic regularly comes up as a talking point amongst mums on parenting forums like MummyPages.ie. "It's a very emotive subject," says Laura Haugh, MummyPages mum-in-residence. "Because it usually presents itself in babies around two or three weeks old, it can be very upsetting for mums as they often don't understand why their previously happy baby starts to cry for hours on end and nothing seems to settle them."
The inability to pinpoint what's causing the crying is stressful, but according to Dr Sinead Murphy, consultant paediatrician and director of education at the Royal College of Physicians of Ireland, parents need to realise it is normal.
"Even if it is at the more distressing end of the spectrum of normal," she says. "It's probably much more painful on the parent than the baby." According to Dr Murphy there's nothing new to colicky babies. Breast or bottle fed, any baby can have it. "Colic has always been around but perhaps our expectations as parents have changed," she explains. "We feel all things should be explainable when in effect colic is just the extreme end of normal baby behaviour."
She adds: "But it's important to know what's not normal 'colic' behaviour such as if the baby has a temperature, not putting on weight adequately, they're pale, passing bloody stools, or frequently vomiting. It's also important to get support, because it can be very stressful for parents."
There's a lack of evidence to support any cures but anecdotally many parents report varying levels of success with a host of treatments. "The sucking sensation soothes some babies so a soother might be an option," suggests Laura. "Motion can help, gentle massage and rubbing clockwise on a baby's tummy can release gas. If bottle feeding, make sure the teat is the right size so they're not taking in too much air and if breastfeeding try to steer clear of gas-producing foods like dairy, caffeine, beans, onion and broccoli."
According to the Irish Society of Homeopaths (irishhomeopathy.ie) some parents are turning to alternative medicine for help. "Many parents' first visit to a registered homeopath is with a colicky baby," says Sheelagh Behan from the ISH. "Sometimes it is their first choice as they wish to treat their baby in the most natural way possible. Others have tried everything else and come in desperation."
A homeopath will discuss medical history and the baby's patterns of crying before prescribing a small dose of something like Chamomilla, Colocynthis or Dioscorea in remedy form.
"One young mother came in with her first-born," says Sheelagh. "The baby was generally laid back and happy but had episodes of inconsolable, angry crying not long after feeding (she was breastfed) and because nothing would soothe her, the mother was spending hours walking around the house with the baby on her shoulder.
"Every so often the baby would stiffen with her head pulled back, back arched and some stools were greenish. The homeopath also noticed some small saliva bubbles around her mouth. A few doses of Chamomilla sorted out the colic and returned the child to a happy state of healthy thriving."
In cases where homeopathy doesn't resolve the issue, the ISH suggest a craniosacral osteopath (www.osteopathy.ie) may help. This practice, one that frequently appears on parenting forums as a recommendation, involves gently manipulating the baby's body to encourage the release of tension, compacted nerves and stress that may have been caused by birth trauma.
In the past an old wives tale suggested sugary water to soothe a distressed, colicky baby, but Sheena Mitchell says she'd be reluctant to recommend it as "it could irritate little tummies even more". "In the end I found warm baths, frequent winding and keeping the baby upright in a sling after feeding really helped," she reveals. "My two girls also reacted really well to Infacol, an over-the-counter medication that was easy to administer and helps break down the wind bubbles so they're easier to pass. But it's a case of trial and error, what works for one baby won't necessarily have the same effect on another."
Sheena now runs Wonderbaba.ie, an online resource providing out-of-hours advice for parents. "A lot of the time parents just need reassurance, particularly in the evenings which is when things like colic often strike," she says. "But I can also identify if there are other symptoms that could point to something else."
Something worth bearing in mind, because, although colic is common, bouts of crying aren't always just about a 'colicky baby'. Dublin mum Cherie Bacon Byrne has just written a book, The Reflux Bible. Her three-year-old daughter Raven was diagnosed with colic but also later revealed to have a more serious condition, reflux disease.
"For several months she was screaming in pain for 14 hours a day," says Cherie. "It was horrific. We kept being told there was nothing structurally wrong with her and she was thriving but we had a baby that was screaming all the time."
It was only after repeated hospital visits and doing her own research, that Cherie saw an improvement in Raven once she introduced probiotics, dairy and soy-free formula and medication to calm her gut.
"I knew the pitch of her cries were different to the cries from colic," says Cherie. "But I felt a lot of people were blasé about it. Just being told 'she'll grow out of it' wasn't good enough. My advice now to any parent would be to educate yourself and trust your gut."
Colic: The facts
Who?: One in five babies will be affected by colic
What?: The ‘Rule of Three’ usually applies: Bouts of crying lasting at least three hours, for more than three days a week, for more than three weeks.
When?: Symptoms often present at three weeks, peak at two months and stop at three months.
Why?: The cause of colic is unknown but some think it might be associated with baby’s immature digestive tract and difficulty breaking down lactose, explaining why it might be worse after feeds, particularly in the evening.
How can I fix it?: There’s no recognised cure but warm baths, keeping baby upright after feeds, frequent winding, some overthe- counter medications, osteopathy or homeopathy may offer reprieve. Most importantly, get support if you’re feeling under stress as a parent dealing with colic.