It’s 5:30 in the evening and Sam has just had his bath. As Dad opens the front door, an ear-piercing scream is heard from within. Six-week-old Sam is exercising his lungs again in a ‘horror hour’ that Dad has come to know well in the past four weeks.

In the first two weeks home Sam was such an angel but on the day he turned 12 days old he developed what the health visitor calls ‘colic’. His parents had no idea that crying could be so loud and unceasing. They are feeling understandably desperate and all the time the questions running through their heads are: “Why is he crying like this?”, “How can I stop the crying?” and “How many more nights of crying lie ahead?”

What is colic?

When an otherwise healthy young baby (under 3 months of age) cries a great deal, he is said to have colic. While there are various defining criteria it is generally accepted that if a healthy baby cries more than three hours a day, more than three days in a week over more than a three-week period (Wessel’s rule of 3’s) he has colic.

Because babies who have colic generally pull up their legs and appear uncomfortable even after a feed, it has been thought that colic was caused by abdominal or tummy discomfort. This theory, however, could not explain why colic classically happens in the evening and why it disappears by three months of age in 90% of babies.

Why do babies get colic?

Recent research indicates that colic is in all probability not due to an immature digestive system as has been previously thought but rather due to immaturity of the baby’s brain.

Newborn baby’s brains are very sensitive to all the sensory input in their environments. By late afternoon their brains reach a threshold level where they literally cannot deal with any more stimulation. So the smallest input, such as winds in their tummies or even that last feed of the day is sufficient to push them into overstimulation or sensory overload. And this results in crying.

Each baby can tolerate a different amount of stimulation. Some babies can cope with more stimulation than others without fussing. Other babies are more ‘high needs’ and become over-stimulated very quickly. These are the babies who are more susceptible to colic and whose colic lasts longer and is more severe.

How to limit the crying?

Most young babies cry to a greater or lesser extent in the early evening but it is how we handle the baby that determines whether the crying will last for 15 minutes or stretch into three-hour colic.

Sam’s parents become somewhat anxious; anticipating a crying spell similar to the one they had the night before. They may start to wind him vigorously, trying to get up that elusive ‘wind’. The bouncing and patting only serve to further stimulate him. His parents then turn on the light and take him to the TV room so that they can be sociable while trying to calm him; which further exacerbates the problem. They try singing, talking, lying down, offering another feed, changing his nappy, holding him in various positions, until finally three hours later an exhausted Sam plunges into a fretful sleep.

It was not that his parents tried the wrong strategies. In fact, each of these strategies holds merit if the timing is appropriate. But at this time when Sam is over stimulated; a barrage of well-meant attempts to calm him are likely to contribute to over-stimulation and exacerbate the colic spell.

To limit your baby’s crying and prevent it from turning into a colic episode, you can try the following strategies:

  • In the first three months, limit day- time stimulation. Just being alive is exciting enough and most babies do not need too much stimulation to enhance development.
  • Have a flexible daytime sleep routine. Under three months of age, your baby should only be awake for an hour to an hour and a half between periods of sleep. By making sure your baby sleeps regularly, you will prevent him from becoming over-stimulated by giving his brain time to recover from stimulation and process what he has ‘learnt’ from the world.
  • Watch for signs of overstimulation during the day and especially in the evening, such as irritability, squirming, arching, frantic movements, frowning, yawning, hiccups and blueness around the mouth. When you notice these signs, remove your baby from the stimulating environment and use calming strategies.
  • Use sensory calming strategies such as: Swaddling; Rocking your baby or putting him in a sling or pouch; just putting him down to sleep; sticking to ONE calming strategy for five minutes.

When will colic abate?

Colic usually starts at two weeks and peaks at six weeks. By 12 weeks your baby will be better able to deal with sensory stimulation and colic abates around this time.

Samuel surprises his parents a day after he turned six weeks with his first smile and somehow just that little happy signal makes the next 6 weeks of colic easier for his parents to bear. As hard as this period is for his parents, they can know that it will pass and that by the end of the first three months, they will be enchanted by their baby’s cuteness.