Statistics indicate that anywhere from 16-26% of babies are considered as having 'infant colic'. However, there are a wide variety of opinions on what, exactly, infant colic is. While everyone seems to agree that infants considered 'colicky' do indeed cry more than others, most people seem to fall into one of two camps when considering the general nature of colic:
- Colic is a medical condition, requiring medical treatment.
- Colic is just a euphemistic term for annoying babies.
Regardless of camp, most people employ a common definition when discussing colic, known as the 'Wessel Critieria'1. To fulfil the said Wessel Criteria, babies must:
- Cry for at least three hours a day...
- For at least three days a week...
- For at least three weeks.
Notice a numerical pattern here? This, plus the fact that the symptoms of colic tend to diminish by 3 months of age, have led to people referring to the above criteria as 'the rule of threes'.
What causes colic?
Another good question, and just as hotly debated as the last. There are loads of theories here, but not much solid evidence. This may have something to do with the fact that gathering such evidence generally seems to require either surgical slicing and dicing or medical experimentation. As humans tend to be squeamish about slicing and dicing babies, as well as experimenting on them, we still haven't got to the bottom of this issue.
If you're reading this, however, there's a good chance that you're a parent holding a screaming baby and that you just really, really, want to know what's causing your baby's torment. To try and satisfy this justifiable craving, here is a list of hypothesised causes for infant colic. This list is in no particular order and remember, none of these hypotheses has been backed up yet with solid evidence.
Colic is caused by muscle spasms around the intestines.
Colicky babies are easily overwhelmed by the overload of sensory information in their environment, ie it's too loud and it's too bright - 'I want back in the womb!'
Babies with colic are simply children who will always have 'difficult' natures.
Colicky babies are lactose intolerant, or have tummies that are otherwise bothered by their formula or things in Mummy's breastmilk - possibly spicy foodstuffs or allergenic foodstuffs.
Babies become colicky if their Mummies and Daddies don't pay enough attention to their crying2.
Colic is nonexistent - some babies just cry more than others.
There, wasn't that refreshing? We're sure you found something in that list to agree with, as well as some to vehemently object to. Actually, a lot of the (scanty) evidence about the causes of infant colic comes from watching which 'treatments' seem to help in different medical studies.
What can I do with a colicky baby?
Actually... you may not need to do anything. There's no evidence that colic hurts babies in the long term, although if it makes parent-infant relationships tense, that can be an issue. On the other hand, if you find it hard to listen to your screaming baby without doing anything, here are some options:
Reducing Stimulation: Another study showed that reducing stimulation - such as noise and light - helped colicky babies.
Making Dietary Changes: A handful of studies have shown that different changes in the infant's diet (or the mother's, if she's breastfeeding) can sometimes help colicky babies. Some studies showed that eliminating dairy products3 or using hypoallergenic diets4 worked. No one diet worked for all the babies, so it's likely that just a subset of colicky babies would respond to these diets. It's also really important not to change your baby's diet without talking this over with your paediatrician first. Diets that are good for some babies can be awful for others.
What doesn't work with a colicky baby?
Here's a list of commonly tried colic treatments that have been studied in medical trials and shown either not to work or not to be safe.
- Simethicone gas drops
- Dicyclomine - This works, but has the potential for serious side effects that aren't generally considered worth the risk in an infant.
- Lactase - This is an enzyme that digests milk.
- Fibre enrichment
- Car-ride simulators
- Carrying the baby more
- Infant massage
- Blaming the parents
Several of these methods continue to be used, and individual parents may find them helpful or even just reassuring, even though they aren't clinically recommended.
Do not under any circumstances feel that you have to suffer or worry in silence. If you think that your baby has a problem, seek professional medical advice. It's perfectly OK to speak to your doctor, health visitor, midwife or paediatrician - that's what they're there for!