As a new parent, you know that living with a crying baby is part of your new normal. And although the occasional crying jag is one thing, colic is a different story. Hours of wailing, day after day, can disrupt the whole house. And it's even worse when you don't know why your baby is crying so much and nothing you do seems to help. It is estimated that 10%-26% of healthy term newborns will experience colic symptoms. The definition of colic is that an otherwise healthy baby will cry for more than three hours a day, at least three days a week, for at least three consecutive weeks. Colic symptoms generally start at about 2 weeks of age, hit their peak at 6 weeks of age, and resolve between 12-16 weeks of age.
Before trying any home remedies, it's important to tell your doctor about your baby's inconsolable crying to rule out a medical problem. Most babies with colic are perfectly healthy -- eating and developing well.
But if nonstop crying has you at your wits' end, take a deep breath and try these colic remedies to calm your baby -- and your nerves.
"First, try the obvious and feed your baby," advises Stanley Spinner, MD, chief medical officer of Texas Children's Pediatrics in Houston. "Typically, babies who are colicky cry a lot in between feedings. When you pick them up and nurse them or offer them a bottle, they'll usually calm down and take their feeding well," Dr. Spinner says.
Of course, you can't feed your baby constantly, nor should you. Be careful not to overfeed because this can cause gas and even more crying. This is more of a problem if you are bottle-feeding, says Spinner. Once out the immediate newborn period (first month of life), wait at least three to four hours from the start of one feeding to the start of the next one.
Here are some other dietary changes that may help a baby with colic:
- Tweak your diet. If you are breastfeeding, limit spicy foods and caffeine. Coffee and some sodas have caffeine, which can stimulate your baby's nervous system and trigger crying, explains Spinner. Some spicy foods could also be irritating to your baby's delicate digestive system.
- Switch formula? Parents (and even doctors) of bottle-fed babies with colic often start switching brands or types of formula to see if it helps. By the time the parents get to the last (and most expensive) formula, they often say the baby's colic improved, reports Spinner. But, he adds, usually this has little to do with the formula. At this point, the baby simply is starting to outgrow colic. A true formula intolerance typically causes other symptoms like vomiting and rashes, says Spinner.
- Skip the rice cereal. Some people may tell you to mix a little rice cereal into your baby's bottle. But Spinner doesn't recommend that because "too much cereal may artificially make the baby feel full and therefore decrease their formula intake. Young healthy babies, especially those less than 4 months of age, should have all of their calories come from either formula or breast milk." Prior to 4 months of age, a baby's ability to efficiently digest the carbohydrates found in cereal is limited and can promote colicky symptoms. Spinner adds that rice is a starch and may constipate the baby, causing more fussiness.
- Try probiotics. Probiotics, or "good" bacteria, might help balance the "bad" bacteria in your baby's intestines. "We are seeing some studies to show that giving newborns probiotics might reduce the incidence of colic," says Spinner. A Dutch study, published in the February 2013 issue of the journal Pediatrics, found that colicky babies had lower levels of beneficial bacteria and higher levels of harmful bacteria in their stool than babies who were not colicky, suggesting that increasing healthy bacteria might be beneficial for colicky babies. Spinner says he often recommends adding a probiotic to a baby's formula or breast milk. Ask your doctor to suggest one if this is an option for your baby.
Get up close and personal
Hold your baby close: Skin-to-skin contact can help calm the crying, says Spinner. Consider using an infant sling or carrier so you can carry him but have your hands free.
Don't worry that you'll spoil your baby by picking him up every time he cries. According to Spinner, "[Babies] don't develop patterns of behavior under 6 months of age when it comes to things like that."
Try sound and motion
Movement and certain sounds may help. Give these colic remedies a try:
- Use white noise. Run a vacuum or a blow dryer. That sort of white noise soothes many babies, says Spinner. Or invest in a white noise machine to put in your baby's room. The sound of a babbling brook or rainfall may help send her off to dreamland.
- Move with baby. Pick up your baby and walk around the house or rock him in a rocking chair.
- Go for a drive. Strap her in the car seat and go for a drive around the neighborhood. The vibrations and movement may calm the crying and even make her drowsy. But don't get behind the wheel if you are too upset or exhausted.
- Fake him out. Spinner says when parents are at the end of their rope, he often tells them to invest in a machine that attaches to the crib and mimics the sounds and vibrations of a car ride. "Most of the time, parents report the baby is much, much better with that."
- Take a break.
Dealing with a colicky baby is nerve-wracking, so now is not the time to be "supermom" or "superdad." Ask a relative or trusted friend to help with the baby so you can get some rest.
If you get overwhelmed when you're by yourself, put the baby safely in his crib and walk away. "The crying is not going to harm the baby...you can put [him] down if you need to," says Spinner.
No matter how frustrated you are, never shake the baby. This can cause serious brain injury or even death.
And if all else fails, keep in mind that this too shall pass. Colic usually goes away by the time a baby is 3 or 4 months old.
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American Academy of Pediatrics: "Colic."
Cohen, Gail, et al. "Colic." Pediatrics in Review 33.7 July 2012: 332-333.
Stanley Spinner, MD, chief medical officer of Texas Children's Pediatrics in Houston
American Academy of Pediatrics: "Amount and Schedule of Formula Feedings"
de Weerth, C., et al Pediatrics February 2013.
Sleep Tight Infant Soother website
New York State Department of Health: "Shaken Baby Syndrome: Facts and Figures."