Colic is a term that strikes fear into the hearts of many new parents. The relentless, inconsolable crying of a colicky baby can leave parents feeling overwhelmed and exhausted. Traditionally, colic was defined by the rule of 3s, with symptoms usually subsiding by the third month of life. However, as our understanding of infant development and health has evolved, we now know that colic can persist beyond this timeframe, often with underlying gut-related causes. In this article, we will explore the various causes of colic, with a particular focus on the insights provided by Maureen Minchin’s work.
The Definition of Colic
Colic is characterised by periods of inconsolable, unexplained, and incessant crying in infants. While it was originally defined by the rule of 3s, it has become evident that colic can extend beyond the three-month mark for many babies. While it is often misunderstood as a diagnosis on its own, colic is actually a group of symptoms pointing to an underlying issue. It has since been made clear (while not yet in mainstream literature) that the majority of colic cases point to an underlying gut issue.
Other Causes of Colicky Symptoms
- Hunger: Sometimes, crying can be attributed to simple hunger. Ensuring that your baby is well-fed and satisfied can help reduce colicky symptoms. Read this blog post I did on milk feeds in the first year of life.
- Clothing: Discomfort caused by tight or irritating clothing can lead to increased crying in infants. Make sure your baby’s clothing is comfortable and not constricting. Highly sensitive infants who are susceptible to sensory overload will struggle with annoying tags in clothing for example.
- Behavioural Factors: Parental anxiety and behaviour can influence an infant’s mood. Babies are co-regulators, meaning they often mirror their parents’ stress levels. Stress management techniques can be valuable for both parents and infants. Taking deep breaths, repeating affirmations, filling your own tank and getting support are all very helpful in managing stress and anxiety.
- Stimulation: Overstimulation or under-stimulation can contribute to colicky symptoms. Finding the right balance of sensory input for your baby can help soothe their crying.
- Smoking: Studies have shown that colic is 25% more prevalent in babies exposed to smoke. Nicotine irritates mucosal surfaces, alters the microbiome, and hyperstimulates infants, potentially leading to colic symptoms.
- Chemicals from Household Products: Chemicals from air fresheners and cleaning products can be absorbed by babies’ bodies, causing irritability and headaches. Some colicky babies may even experience migraines later in life.
Causes of Gut-Related Excessive Crying
- Trapped Gas: Most commonly, colic is caused by the pain of trapped gas in the infant’s digestive system. Babies can swallow air during feeding, crying, or even due to the flow of milk. This trapped air can lead to discomfort and crying. Snag my FREE Optimal Winding guide if you are struggling with feeding and trapped wind.
- Food Intolerance: Some babies may experience colic due to food intolerances, reacting to something in their milk. Identifying and addressing these intolerances is essential.
- Gut Microbiome: The composition of a baby’s gut microbiome can play a significant role in colic. An imbalanced microbiome (due to antibiotic use, formula, intolerances, digestive overload etc.) may contribute to digestive issues and excessive crying.
Colic Possibly Caused by Trapped Gas
Understanding the physiology of the upper gastrointestinal organs is crucial. Babies naturally swallow air during feeding and crying. Bottle-fed babies, in particular, may ingest more air. High milk intake can lead to digestive overload and gas being digested and possibly fermented, causing discomfort around 3 pm. Grab my FREE Optimal Winding Guide to help with this.
Colic Caused by Overfeeding
Overfeeding can lead to excessive pressure in the stomach. In response, the body may attempt to reduce pressure by bringing milk back up the oesophagus. This can result in reflux or regurgitation, contributing to colic symptoms.
Ensuring that your baby is calm before feeding can help prevent excess air intake and reduce the risk of colic. We also want to find other ways to soothe babies besides feeding to avoid digestive overload. Not all cries mean hunger so getting to know your baby’s cries can be really helpful.
Choosing the Right Teat for Bottle-Fed Babies
When bottle-feeding, selecting an appropriate teat is essential. Consider the hole size in the teat and opt for the lowest and slowest flow rate to prevent overfeeding and reduce colic symptoms.
Colic can be a challenging and distressing experience but understanding the potential causes of colic, including trapped gas, digestive overload, and gut-related issues, can empower you to take proactive steps to alleviate your baby’s discomfort. Maureen Minchin’s work sheds light on the importance of the gut microbiome and responsive feeding practices in addressing colic. By being attuned to your baby’s needs and making informed choices, you can help soothe colic and provide relief for your little one.
Want to learn more about how you can best support your newborn with optimal settling, feeding, winding, routines and more? Check out my Newborn Settling and Sleep Guide.