Fussy baby: Is it colic?

All babies fuss. But is it something more? Learn the signs and symptoms of colic.
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Within the first month of Colton Murphy’s life, he began crying for three-hour stretches at 11 p.m. “His whole body would tighten up,” remembers his mom, Jennifer Murphy. “His hands and feet would clench, and the cry sounded painfully sad.”

Colton had colic, and it lasted nine long months for the Waterdown, Ont., family. “It was horrible—I’d even say traumatic,” Murphy says. “It’s so hard to watch your baby go through such pain and not be able to make it stop.”

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Calgary mom Erin Brophy can relate. Her second child, Hannah, also had colic. “From the moment we took her home, she was fussy and cried a lot,” Brophy says. The only thing that calmed Hannah was applying pressure to her belly and frequent nursing, especially through the night.

There is no test, so you can’t know for sure, but the “rule of threes” is often used to diagnose colic: an otherwise healthy infant, generally between three and 14 weeks old, who cries for three or more hours a day, three or more days a week. The crying is often worse at night. “It is really a diagnosis of exclusion,” says Calgary paediatrician Peter Nieman. When doctors don’t see symptoms of other problems—like blood in the feces, vomiting or poor weight gain—they’ll likely land on a colic diagnosis.

And while colic usually lasts about three months, it can go on longer, which happened for both Colton and Hannah. “For some families it ends abruptly, but for most it resolves slowly over time,” says Nieman.

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It’s important not to assume automatically your baby has colic—have her checked out by a doctor. Nieman recommends keeping a journal of symptoms before going to the doctor. “When does the crying happen? What does your baby do? Pull up her legs? Vomit? The history is very important. Go prepared so the doctor can do a thorough exam to make sure it’s not an allergy or something else.”

There’s speculation over what causes colic, such as sensitive temperaments and immature nervous systems, but no firm answers. What soothes one baby can irritate another. If you’re breastfeeding, changing your diet—especially eliminating dairy and gluten—can help, and Nieman recommends baby probiotic drops. A 2010 trial reported in the journal Pediatrics showed a decrease in crying in breastfed colicky babies given doses of the probiotic Lactobacillus reuteri.

The only advice Murphy’s doctor offered was to wait it out, so she researched solutions on her own, trying over-the-counter remedies like gripe water and gas-relief drops. Nothing worked consistently for Colton’s episodes. When Colton was calm, she used her fingertips to massage in an upside-down horseshoe shape about an inch above his belly (a technique suggested for colicky babies). It sometimes helped, and it was also good bonding time with her son.

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Symptoms of colic can mask other medical issues. When Hannah was still crying a lot at five months, Brophy pushed for a second opinion and Hannah was eventually diagnosed with a milk allergy. “We lived with ‘colic’ for a long time, and it’s such a frustrating diagnosis because you feel so helpless. We only discovered the milk allergy because we fought for answers.”

Above all, don’t be afraid to take a breather. Constant crying is not only hard on the baby, but also on you. “The intensity of the baby crying is equivalent to the sound of a lawn mower,” says Nieman. “Ask for help so you can take a little time away. I’m also a firm believer in the value of eating well and getting regular exercise to de-stress and give you back that mental edge.”

“It’s all really hard,” says Murphy. “But remember that you’re doing the best you can. Lean on your partner, if you have one. You’re going to need support to get through this.”

Expert tip: While there are few scientific studies about the efficacy of chiropractics on colic, the anecdotal evidence from parents who go this route is resoundingly positive. “Make sure the chiropractor is experienced and familiar with babies,” cautions Calgary paediatrician Peter Nieman. “Only very gentle manipulation is needed.”

A version of this article appeared in our April 2014 issue with the headline “Could it be colic?” p. 48.

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