Dealing with a newborn’s piercing cries can faze the bravest of parents. But it doesn’t take very long to learn to decipher your little one’s wailing. Soon, like any expert, you will be able to tell the difference between a cry of hunger, the crankiness of sleep and the distress of a soiled diaper.
Sometimes, however, your newborn may cry for longer periods of time for no apparent reason. She may be constantly irritable no matter what you do to comfort her, and even if there are no physical signs of illness or injury. Experts call this excessive crying ‘colic’.
Although crying continuously may not harm your baby, it can cause you a lot of stress. The following are some possible reasons for your child’s discomfort, as well as tried and tested strategies to calm her down.
Signs of colic
Colic usually begins about ten days after birth and may last till your child is three or four months old. Unlike usual crying, colicky crying normally follows a certain pattern:
- Excessive crying starts within the first three weeks after birth.
- Baby has continuous bouts of crying at least three days a week and at about the same time each day.
- She cries continuously for more than half an hour, even when she is not hungry.
- She cries after a feeding or refuses to have her milk.
- She has trouble sleeping.
- She draws up her knees, clenches her fists or passes wind when crying.
- The crying does not respond to your usual methods of comforting such as feeding, diaper-changing or cuddling.
- She appears to be happy and healthy otherwise.
It is a good idea to keep a written record of her crying episodes to observe if there is a distinguishable pattern behind her behaviour.
Causes of colic
The exact causes of colic are still unknown. But there is scientific evidence to blame colic on baby’s immature digestive system. One possible reason is that when baby swallows too much air during feeding, crying or sucking, the air gets trapped in baby’s gut, causing discomfort. Over-feeding and being allergic to formula or other food are also possible causes. Baby may also cry due to oesophageal reflux, when stomach acid is pushed back up the throat.
Some experts think that as baby’s central nervous system is still unsettled, she may not be ready for the various stimulation this new world is offering her. There is also a school of thought that believes babies who experienced a difficult birth are more emotionally sensitive or reactive, and harder to soothe. Others blame colic on living with a parent or parents who smoke.
Ways to calm your baby
These methods may ease baby’s discomfort either directly or by distracting her and taking her mind off the pain:
- Hold her close to you and gently massage her belly.
- Use a baby sling or sarong to keep her close to you throughout the day.
- Sing to her or show her some of her favourite toys and pictures.
- Have as much skin-to-skin contact as possible, for example, by stripping her to her diaper and placing her on your chest.
- Bring her for a walk or a ride in the car.
- Use a pacifier for brief periods.
- Sit with her on a rocking chair. A rhythmic rocking motion is very relaxing.
Colic isn’t easy to prevent, but there are some things you can do to avoid frequent outbursts:
- Breastfeed. Breastfed babies usually develop less colic because they take in less air than bottle-fed babies.
- If you breastfeed and baby is very colicky, consider changing your diet to include less spicy food, wheat products and other digestive irritants like caffeine.
- Feed her smaller amounts of milk but more frequently to calm her digestive system.
- Ensure that baby is properly winded.
- Be careful about how you hold baby during feeding. Don’t hold her with her head too low or you may inadvertently encourage oesophageal reflux.
- If you are bottle-feeding, look for bottles that use a “natural flow” system designed for reducing colic.
- Check with your doctor whether you should switch to a different type of formula or even soy milk.
- Avoid over-stimulating baby and ensure that she gets sufficient sleep.
- Attend to her immediately when she cries.
When to call your doctor
Although it is better to check with your doctor anyway when your child gets colicky, the following warrant immediate medical attention:
- Baby’s crying gets more intense as if she is severely distressed.
- Crying bouts last for hours on end, occur more than three times a day or both.
- Your baby doesn’t feed well and doesn’t seem to be putting on weight.
- A younger baby (less than two months old) who is colicky as well as ill, such as with fever or diarrhoea.
- An older baby (more than three months) who is still colicky.
- Your gut feeling tells you something is wrong.
- You are too exhausted and stressed out by her crying.
Have some time for you
Parents of colicky babies can become too tired to concentrate on anything else, especially if baby’s distress continues late into the night and you are losing sleep. It will be very helpful if you could rope in the help of relatives to babysit your child so that you can get some precious rest. Getting enough sleep or having some time for a warm, soothing bath will leave you refreshed and ready to face an upset child. And do console yourself that although it can seem never-ending, colic usually disappears after the first two months. Soon, your little angel will be her usual, smiley self.