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What is colic? Understanding the signs & symptoms of colic in babies

Here’s some news for parents of babies with colic: colic is not a disease, and it won’t cause any long-term harm to your baby. Now, that may be relieving to know, but frankly, this news is likely to provide cold comfort. Colic can still be an extremely trying condition for the parents – and baby.

Colic is uncontrollable crying in an otherwise healthy baby. If your baby is younger than five months old and cries for more than three hours in a row on three or more days a week for three weeks or more, he or she is showing the signs of colic.

Even the above definition can leave parents a little confused, though. After all, babies crying for no apparent reason is normal and to be expected. So is it normal crying or colic crying? It’s no wonder that parents become anxious and frustrated.

Compared to a baby that is simply crying, the symptoms of colic in babies include restlessness, fussing and difficulty settling into a particular feeding or sleeping pattern. If she cries very loudly and seems inconsolable, this may also be a sign of colic. Occasionally, too, she may draw her legs up as if she is suffering some discomfort.

Another sign of colic occurs when the baby is feeding: the child may feed hungrily, only to be hungry again a short time later. At other times, your baby may not feed well at all.

Why do babies cry?

Small babies (even without colic) usually cry for up to three hours every day, sometimes for long periods at a time.  However, it is not unusual for some to cry for even longer than this. Babies cry for several reasons, such as when they’re wet, frightened, hungry or tired. The worst period for this type of crying is around six weeks of age.

As a baby begins to mature, crying is more to do with attention seeking or communicating. Consequently, the crying happens more sporadically throughout the day, rather than in long periods.

With colic, the crying is excessive and generally occurs around the same time every day. Typically the crying commences in the late afternoon or evening, and you may notice that the cries are high-pitched or louder than her normal crying. The episodes of crying may also start and finish quite dramatically.

It is important to note that babies crying is a normal part of development, which typically gets better with time. Crying and difficulty settling has little or nothing to do with how good you are at parenting. Even the most confident and calm parents are likely to have babies who cry a lot.

What causes colic?

No one knows why some babies suffer from colic while others do not. It’s no surprise that theories abound. Some point to medical conditions while others feel that the parents’ emotional state contributes to the condition. The latter idea probably only adds insult to injury for parents who are left in an anxious state because of their crying baby!

Colicky babies don’t have any identifiable medical cause or physical reasons for their crying, and estimates of babies suffering from the condition range from anywhere between eight and 40 per cent. It also appears that the condition is indiscriminate, being equally common amongst boys and girls, breastfed and formula-fed infants, firstborns and later-born babies.

There is a belief amongst some experts that long bouts of colicky crying is a way that sensitive babies physically release tension. They believe that by late afternoon or early evening, the child is overwhelmed by sensations and cannot take any more sights, sounds or activities, and therefore becomes distressed and starts to cry.

Other theories involve imbalances of healthy bacteria in the intestines, with some experts recommending probiotics. In addition, research has shown that mothers who smoke during pregnancy – or postpartum – have a higher risk of having a colicky baby.

Colic: will it ever end?

Understanding the signs & symptoms of colic in babies - Sage Institute of Child CareIf you have a colicky baby, it may feel like this problem will never end – it can push anyone’s tolerance levels. It’s important that you get adequate help to care for the baby so you can have some much-needed time out to restore your sanity, and get some sleep.

Many people are keen to know how long colic will last in babies? Fortunately, the symptoms of colic don’t last forever. The condition peaks at around six weeks of age and then slowly improves. Around 80 – 90% of babies with colic get over the condition at the age of three or four months. The remainder generally take an extra month or so.

If you feel that your baby suffers from colic, talk to your doctor to discuss ways of coping with the condition, as well as ruling out any other potential causes. Meanwhile, it pays to be as patient as possible. Nothing lasts forever, not even colic.

Sage Institute of Child Care – it’s more than a job, it’s a rewarding career.

Vicki Tuchtan

Vicki Tuchtan

Vicki Tuchtan is the Academic Director at Sage Institute of Education. She oversees learning processes, teaching outcomes, resources and course development. A passionate advocate for bettering standards of training in Australia, she is currently writing her PhD thesis on defining quality training in the Australian vocational education sector.
Vicki Tuchtan

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