Illnesses > Illnesses in Infants > Infant colic

Infant colic

Lots of experts give advice about how to care for fussy babies.  There are special medicines (such as Mylicon), special formulas, and home remedies galore.  (Could someone please tell me what "gripe water" actually contains?)

But most babies who cry a lot don't have "colic."  I haven't made this diagnosis more than 2 or 3 times in my 30+ year career.  There is usually some other explanation for a baby's fussiness.

For starters, true "colic" refers to a baby who cries all day and all night.  If your baby cries only at night, for example, and seems fine during the day, she probably doesn't have colic, and may not have any medical problem at all.

A persistently crying baby with no other symptoms should be examined, to rule out an ear infection or other medical illness.  But most commonly, the medical exam is normal.

Here are some of the possible causes of a fussy baby.

Overstimulation:  When my daughter was born, our friends and relatives were as excited as we were.  We had many visitors.  She slept all day, but then screamed all night.  Once we finally figured out that we needed to limit visitors during the day, she was more alert in the day, and we all slept better at night.

TV is another important cause of overstimulation; I recommend that the TV and screen time be limited to an hour a day within the baby's hearing.  (And don't turn on TV or videos for the baby!)

The "fussy period":  At a few weeks of age, many infants will start crying every evening.  The infant may start to get wound up just after supper, then wail on and off until he exhausts himself before midnight.  These infants sleep fine the rest of the night, and they seem fine in the daytime.  This "Fussy Period" is well known.  It is frustrating but not serious, and most babies grow out of it by about 6 weeks of age.  This is another manifestation of overstimulation.  During the day, do what you can to limit the noise, and handle the baby gently; when the baby is wailing, certainly offer feedings, holding, and other comforts; and get through it as best as you can.

Parental excitement: The noise that a screaming newborn makes is close to intolerable.  Exhausted, frightened parents can be desperate to calm the baby.  But please be assured that if your baby is gaining weight, is feeding well, and has no other sign of illness, then it is very unlikely that the screaming represents a medical emergency.

In fact, parents can inadvertently overstimulate a screaming baby.  Vigorous bouncing, loud "shh"'ing, and patting the baby may actually inflame his mood, causing a vicious cycle.

Instead, the most effective action is to role-model the calm behavior that you would like the baby to perform.  You can hold the baby close, move slowly if at all, and speak quietly if at all.  The louder the infant becomes, the more quiet and soothing you can try to be.  It may take an hour, or much longer!  But, through your role modeling, your infant will learn self-soothing; he will learn to manage his own emotional state, which is a very useful skill for anyone to learn early.

Teething: probably not a cause of infant colic.  Infants may start chewing and drooling for months before the first tooth breaks through.  But infants under 2 months old are unlikely to have behavior changes due to teething.

Formula "allergy":  Most infants can handle any commercially available formula.  But some will have a formula intolerance, manifested as persistent vomiting, diarrhea, or constipation.  Simple crying without other symptoms is rarely due to formula intolerance; but a change in formula might be worth a try.  Try switching to a soy formula, or Nutramigen (or their generic substitutes).  (I don't find "Sensitive" formulas to be more helpful than regular milk-based formulas.)  If you try a formula change, continue using it for at least 5-7 days; rapid formula changes will leave you unsure which one helped the most.

Gastroesophageal reflux:  "silent reflux" is a common medical cause of persistent crying in infants.  Stomach contents may not reflux all the way into the mouth, but the discomfort of having stomach acid refluxing into the esophagus can cause crying and arching.  Keeping the baby upright during and after feeds can help.  If not, a visit to the office is useful; the baby should be examined, then we might try thickening the milk with cereal, or medication.  Sometimes XRays are needed.

A persistently crying newborn can be frustrating, or even frightening.  But there's usually a treatable cause.  So don't give up hope - and try to get some sleep yourself!

     --  David Epstein, MD