What Causes Colic?

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A wise doctor once told me that if you want to feel like an expert on a subject, read just one guidebook. If you read more than that, you’ll quickly realize that you are not an expert. Colic is one of those areas where the theories are many and the cures few. It is not a simple entity, and it’s not merely gas. Colic is a scary phase that a significant amount of babies—and their families—go through.

Depending on how you define it, up to 20% of babies go through some degree of colic. It seems that colic is a maturational phase of the intestines. When some babies are born, their intestines aren’t fully ready to break down their nutrition into amino acids, carbohydrates and fats. When baby was inside mommy’s belly, he got his nutrition from her veins, and his gut was never asked to digest any nutrition.

Colicky babies look uncomfortable; they twist and turn and cry—loudly! Parents often think something is very wrong. After all other conditions (including things like infection and milk allergy) are ruled out, the diagnosis is colic.

Colic typically starts between 2 and 6 weeks, and is over by 12 to 14 weeks. That isn’t a very long time, but it can seem like forever when your baby is wailing for no apparent reason! But colicky babies are not actually irritable all the time—it just seems that way. An episode can last for over an hour, but the baby is also often happy and can smile and eat well.

Dealing With Colic

There are many “cures” out there, from gripe water to Humphries (which are actually very dangerous!). Mylecon drops can help a little, and are safe, but I prefer to try non-medical approaches. Shushing and swaying can be effective, along with dimming the lights and speaking in low voices. Rubbing the intestines from right to left and bicycling a baby’s legs are also soothing. The book The Happiest Baby on the Block by Dr. Harvey Karp has a good section on why a baby might be colicky and how to alleviate discomfort.

I don’t recommend changing a breastfeeding mom’s diet. This is a phase that many babies go through, and the content of the breast milk they are eating may not be the culprit. I have seen many women eliminate milk from their diet, then beans, then citrus, then spicy foods, then gluten—only to become malnourished and cranky themselves! When the colic eventually runs its course, we think we’ve found the offending ingredient, but the colic probably would have passed anyway.

Having a colicky baby can be very stressful. Try to hang in there and do let your support system (including your pediatrician) know if you are feeling overwhelmed. In Brooklyn, there are even support groups dedicated to colic. This is not an easy phase to go through, but as long as it’s really colic, every baby gets through it eventually.

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