10 Ways to Help a Baby with Colic

Colic is not quite a medical diagnosis, but it is one that pediatricians are familiar with. Your doctor may use the term, or may not. If they do use the term, they may use it in a very strict sense that does not match common usage. One common definition is called the Rule of Three: it is colic if the baby cries for no apparent reason and inconsolably for at least three hours a day, at least three days a week, for at least three weeks in a row. By this measure, only about 2% of babies will be diagnosed with colic, but the percentages go up quickly if you relax these standards (for example, three hours for three days a week for more than one week includes 9% of one-month old babies).

Traditionally, colic was code for intestinal gas, and this is still often the case. But if the doctor has good reason to believe that it is gas, they will probably say so; there is no real benefit to speaking in code. However, if you live in an area of where colic is a commonly used term, they may use it simply because it is the term most of their parents are already using. When in doubt, ask for clarification.

Many of the following recommendations assume that the problem really is gas; some assume that the problem is calming the baby. Either way, if it works to keep the baby from crying all the time, it's probably doing good. And of course, I am not a doctor. When in doubt check with your doctor, and believe them, not the internet.

1. Check for obvious causes. If your child has severe diaper rash, if a tooth is coming in early, if a onesie is too tight... fix that first. It may solve the problem, but even if it doesn't, it will make baby slightly happier, and thus make it easier to know when you do find a solution that works.

2. Take a break. If it really is colic -- that is, if the baby really is inconsolable -- relax a bit. You are going to take the time to solve the problem, but this will be way easier if you are not stressed out. It is hard to relax when baby is screaming, but it's also hard for baby to relax when you are stressed out. Hand the baby to someone else, take a nap, have some tea. This is hard, and can be hard to organize, but it is seriously a good idea to take care of yourself.

3. Okay, time to try some stuff. Lets see if we can get the baby to relax a bit themselves. If you haven't tried the standard get-the-baby-to-sleep routine, it goes like this: rock the baby, bounce the baby (gently), walk with the baby, pat the baby on the back. While you are trying to soothe the baby to sleep, you need to try these various things for at least 10 minutes each before you consider trying the next one, unless they seem to actively be making things worse. It is hard to be patient when the baby is screaming; you can do it, this is why you took that nap and tea-break before we started.

4. ...But of course, you've already done all the normal things. Don't forget to try some other things: baby swings, rocking cradles, and a drive in the car are all old favorites because they work (sometimes). Some parents have found success putting the baby in the car seat and putting the car seat on top of the drier while it runs (make very sure that the seat won't vibrate off the edge!). White noise can also work -- a fan, a vacuum, or a white noise machine may help get baby to sleep.

5. And finally, on the sleep front, have you tried swaddling? I have not, and do not know anyone who has, but a lot of parents swear by it. Swaddling has some research studies backing it up -- it results in deeper sleep with less wakings -- and has been shown to be safe as long as you do it right. Right mostly includes making sure that the baby is lying on their back (this is always something you should do to protect from SIDS, but it's especially important when children are swaddled; swaddling plus sleeping on the front equals an increased risk of SIDS, but swaddling plus sleeping in the back is perfectly safe) and making sure that the baby can move their legs a bit (to protect against hip displasia later in life).

6. On the calming front, infant massage may help. This may help simply because it allows the baby to relax, but if you suspect digestive troubles you may want to focus specifically on gently massaging the abdomen.

7. If you really expect that it is trapped gas (or are running out of other things to try), you might try a 'bicycle legs', that is, lying the baby on their back and gently moving their legs up and down in a peddling motion, as if they are riding a bike. Both this and infant massage may help with gas or indicate that baby is craving certain types of sensory input. If these work and you don't detect any sign of gas, you might want to read up sensory activities and sensory integration disorder; it may help you find soothing activities that will make your life easier for years to come.

8. If your baby is fed formula, you might try switching formulas, particularly to a soy-based or hydrolyzed protein formula. These formulas tend to be a bit more expensive, and the studies supporting their use are pretty much universally sponsored by the companies that sell them... but that's still a lot better than using things like gripe water and simethicone, which have no evidence to support them.

9. Alternatively, if your baby is primarily breastfed, there is some research suggesting that changing the mother's diet to a low-allergen diet can help. The default is a scatter-gun approach, where mom gives up dairy, nuts, wheat, and eggs. The good news is that if this does work, it should work in a matter of days. However, if this still seems too much of a challenge, some people report success with more limited elimination diets, e.g., just giving up dairy.

10. Perhaps a more palatable option for breastfed babies are probiotic tablets. You can buy these as drops, formulated for infants, at most pharmacies. However, studies have only found significant results in breastfed babies, not formula fed.

There are, of course, many more things you can try. But I've limited myself here to things are likely to be harmless (although some sources would be horrified that I recommended placing baby on top of a drier! Seriously, monitor them closely), and things that have some evidence supporting them. I have tried to give more ideas than appear on WebMD or TheBump, but there's not a lot more that can be said without entering into the area of highly questionable pseudoscience. If you do need to look further afield for ideas, use common sense, and let me know what works for you!