If your baby is unsettled and cries a lot, you're not alone. You may have heard of the term 'colic' but may not be sure what it means. Colic is characterised by periods of intense crying for no obvious reason, in an otherwise healthy and thriving baby, and affects up to 1 in 5 babies. If your baby is colicky, you'll likely need all the help and support you can get to cope with the symptoms. This blog post will outline the symptoms of baby colic, as well as some handy tips on how to deal with them. Keep reading for more information!
What is normal crying?
The world is a scary place for a baby. They are born with the ability to cry, which they use to communicate their needs and wants and it is sometimes difficult to know whether their crying is a normal response or not. Generally, if your baby cries for less than three hours a day and quiets down easily to being soothed, it is considered normal. Normal crying usually peaks at 2-3 hours per day for about 4-6 weeks then gradually improves at around 3-4 months of age. You might have heard of the witching hour, which describes increase crying in the afternoon or early evening hours.
What is excessive crying?
Excessive crying is often defined by the “rule of three”: Crying for more than three hours a day, for more than three days per week, and for at least three weeks in an infant who is otherwise healthy and thriving. An unsettled baby is often known as a colicky baby because of how extremely uncomfortable they appear. The crying usually starts around the second or third week of life and peaks at around six weeks old.
These babies are often called described to have 'colic' - BUT it is important to understand that these babies are otherwise healthy and thriving and to stay clear of unnecessary medical tests and treatments.
PURPLE crying is another way to describe babies that cry excessively. The program was designed to help parents understand that their baby’s crying is not caused by anything they are doing wrong, but rather a normal response to the world. It helps to raise awareness of the reasons babies cry, with the aim of reducing the stress and anxiety that can be caused by excessive crying. The support program tries to stay clear of the word 'colic' to avoid labelling the baby with something that sounds like a condition needing treatment.
Purple crying stands for:
P - Peak of Crying
U - Unexpected
R - Resists soothing
P - Pain-like face
L - Long-lasting
E – Early morning and late-night crying most common.
What can I do to help my baby?
In most cases, colic will improve by itself without any need for treatment. Here are some techniques that can help you cope with a very unsettled baby:
Ask for support
It takes a village to raise a child! Get as much assistance from friends and family as possible so you have time to rest and recharge. Most grandparents are all too willing to babysit for a few hours so that you can get some much-needed rest and time to yourself. If you have a partner, be sure to let them know how important they are in helping with the baby and also household chores.
Prioritise and let small household duties go, such as washing dishes or tidying up. You can always catch up on these later, ask someone to lend a hand, or order some takeaways when you have not had time to prepare dinner.
Walk away when feeling overwhelmed
It's easy for parents to feel guilty about leaving their crying baby but sometimes they just need to walk away for a few minutes when you are feeling too overwhelmed. Babies are very in tune with their parents' feelings and will pick up on your cues when you feel anxious or overwhelmed. Walk away, take a few deep breaths to clear your head, then come back and try again when you feel calmer.
Use a baby sling or carrier
Babies enjoy movement and being close to their parents. A sling or carrier can be a great way to keep your baby close while freeing up your hands to do other things. You can also try to take your baby for a walk outside, your baby might enjoy the fresh air and change of scenery. And a great way for you to get some exercise at the same time!
Sometimes your baby is simply too overwhelmed by what they are experiencing and needs some quiet time to calm down. Try dimming the lights, reducing outside noise, and giving them a cuddle.
It is important to remember that it's perfectly normal for healthy newborns to cry, and sometimes to cry a lot. It does not necessarily mean that something is wrong with your baby and almost all colicky babies will start to improve between three and four months of age.
Which things are not helpful?
Parents will try anything out of desperation and commonly used remedies include gripe water, degassing agents, medications to reduce stomach acid and homeopathic remedies. There is almost no evidence to suggest that any medical treatments, (except probiotics,) are effective in treating colic and general recommendations are to avoid any unnecessary medical tests and treatments.
Alternative therapies such as osteopathy, chiropractic and homeopathy have also not been shown to help with colic and are not recommended for young babies.
Are there any medical treatments that are proven to help babies with colic?
There is some evidence that probiotics may be helpful for some babies with colic. A meta-analysis published in December 2021 in Complementary Therapies in Medicine, showed that daily supplementation with Lactobacillus Reuterii (a probiotic) significantly reduced crying time and abdominal discomfort in breastfed babies. (A meta-analysis is a study that combined the results of multiple studies, and results are regarded as more reliable than that of a single study.)
Dietary or formula changes
If you are breastfeeding and worried that your baby might be intolerant to something in your diet, then talk to your healthcare worker about possible culprits. Try and avoid unnecessary dietary restrictions, which can lead to a lack of important nutrients for you and your baby.
Also talk to your healthcare worker if you are formula feeding and worried that your baby might have an intolerance to something in the formula. If you do need to change formulas, always do so under medical supervision.
When should I worry that something more serious is happening?
By definition, colicky babies are otherwise healthy and thriving and their development should be age-appropriate. But how do we know whether there is not something more serious happening? There are a few red-flag symptoms that parents can look out for that could suggest an underlying medical condition. Make sure that you seek medical help if you notice any of the following symptoms:
Poor weight gain or weight loss
Frequent vomiting or projectile vomiting
Blood in the stool
If the baby is lethargic or excessively sleepy
If the baby has a fever
At any time if you feel something is just not right
Where to get help
Most midwives, child health nurses and doctors understand how difficult it is to care for a colicky baby. Make an appointment with one of the following:
Your doctor: Paediatrician or general practitioner
Child health nurse
A mental health professional
Community child health centres:
Some community child health centres have day clinics to help parents manage unsettled babies, or to provide support for sleeping and feeding difficulties.
There are also a few health facilities across Australia that admit families for inpatient stay, if they need support to care for a very unsettled baby. Your health worker will likely know about available services in your area.
If you are in crisis or just need someone to talk to.
Beyond blue 1300 22 4636 (24/7)
Lifeline 13 11 14 (24/7)
Panda 1300 726 306 (9am-7:30pm)
Suicide call back service 1300 659 467 (24/7)
Where to get breastfeeding help?
Australian Breastfeeding Association has downloadable information booklets and can provide some phone support. 1800 mum 2 mum | 1800 686 268
Most midwives are very knowledgeable and will be able provide help with breastfeeding. Contact your birthing hospital or unit, who should be able to put you in contact with someone locally.
Lactation Consultants of Australia and New Zealand (LCANZ) is the professional organisation for International Board Certified Lactation Consultant's (IBCLCs®), health professionals and members of the public who have an interest in lactation and breastfeeding in Australia and New Zealand. You can find a Lactation Consultant through their website.
Your regular GP or baby's paediatrician can also help with more tailored advice.
Better Health Channel: Colic
Healthdirect: Colic in babies
The healthcare information provided in this document is general in nature and not designed to replace personalised professional medical advice. Please consult your healthcare provider for advice if you are concerned about your health or the health of someone you know.