Infant colic is perhaps one of the most frustrating and tiring conditions parents of infants may face. A baby who has true colic will often affect the physical, mental, and emotional health of the whole family if healthy coping strategies are not in place. While there is certainly no guaranteed cure for colic, there are a number of natural treatments (for infant and parents) that may help everyone survive this difficult phase with their health and sanity in tact.
Before going into the treatment recommendations, it is important to understand what true colic is. Many parents will use the term “colicky” casually when describing a fussy or irritable baby. Colic is a medical diagnosis first described by Morris Wessel in the journal Pediatrics in 1954 as “a condition of a healthy baby in which it shows periods of intense, unexplained fussing/crying lasting more than 3 hours a day, more than 3 days a week for more than 3 weeks.” This definition has since been expanded by many pediatritions to include healthy babies who have sudden and severe unexplained crying episodes lasting less than 3 hours a day.
Colic typically appears by age 2 weeks and generally resolves at age 3 or 4 months but may last up to one year. The fact that true colic only affects “healthy” babies essentially means that other medical causes of the crying must first be ruled out. Unfortunately, this does not always happen and parents are left having to deal with their colicky infant with little advice from a pediatrician other than to wait it out.
Because infant colic can raise the stress level of the parents and household, it is important to take care of yourself. Colic usually gets worse in the evening or at a predictable time of day. Plan to have support (spouse, friend, or other adult family member) or a safe place to leave your baby for a few minutes, if you need a break for the sake of your sanity. Unfortunately the toll colic can take on parents may be more significant to a baby’s health than the crying spells themselves. If you are alone and need support, call a 24 hour crisis line or nursing hotline to talk you through what to do rather than taking your frustration out on your infant or other children depending on you.
One theory behind colic is that infants’ digestive systems are more sensitive at this age and gas and abdominal pain may be the primary trigger. The fact that breastfed infants are less likely to develop colic supports this theory, since they are getting the nutrients designed especially for their immature digestive system. If your baby is formula fed and shows symptoms of colic, you should talk to your child’s health care provider about switching to a different infant formula. Some infants with sensitive digestive systems may require an elemental formula (available with prescription only) that is much easier to digest as it contains only amino acids rather than whole proteins. Sometimes dairy allergy can present initially as colic but is usually always accompanied by other digestive symptoms such as vomiting and/or diarrhea. Even so, you should talk to your child’s health care provider before making any changes, so they can do an exam and monitor symptoms as well as growth and development appropriately. (Continued below)
If your baby is breastfed, there is a possibility that something in mom’s diet may be triggering the colic. The most common food associated with gas that can cause discomfort and irritability in infants is. Food sensitivies to wheat or gluten may also be triggers as the proteins can get into the breastmilk and cause irritation in the baby’s digestive system. Some mothers may also notice a difference when avoiding certain “gassy” foods such as broccoli, garlic, onions, etc. Removing the offending foods from mom’s diet can make a difference. If it is impossible to completely eliminate a problem food (and breastfeeding moms should be careful about restricting their diet too much, since they need to get adequate caloric intake while breastfeeding), then the breastfeeding mother should take digestive enzymes to help break down the food, so it is less likely to cause problems for her baby. Talk to your child’s health care provider or a lactation specialist if you have other questions regarding diet and breastfeeding.
Other treatments that may address digestive causes of colic are gripe water (a “tea” made from fennel and other herbs that soothe the digestive system). This is available at most pharmacies, supplement stores, or health food stores and can be administered in drop form directly to infants. Follow the dosing recommendations on the package and do not use the product if it has expired or not been stored properly. Other products that may help include homeopathic formulas for colic that come as liquids or soft tablets that can be crushed and rubbed in the baby’s mouth. Always follow the instructions on the package and let your child’s health care provider know about any over the counter or natural treatments you use. Finally, some infants may benefit from lactase drops. Lactase is the enzyme that helps break down milk sugar and some infants don’t make enough of this enzyme, which can lead to digestive discomfort. Dosing and administration is based on weight and feeding amount, so it is best to discuss this option with a healthcare provider who is familiar with the use of this supplement for infants.
If your baby does not respond to changes in diet or other treatments that address possible digestive issues and other medical conditions have been ruled out, it is possible that the colic is just an extreme in the range of normal. It may also be related to the fact that the nervous system is not completely mature and cause babies to be more sensitive to all stimuli and their environments at this age. The crying is just their way of dealing with or processing their environment. These babies may respond to a nervine tonic such as chamomile tea (boil water before turning off heat, steap 1 tsp dried chamomile flowers in 1 cup hot water for 15-20 minutes and cool before administering) given in a medicine dropper or syringe (about 3 mL at a time) up to 4 times a day to a young infant less than 4 weeks or 2 oz. in a bottle to infants over 4 weeks. Breastfeeding moms may also drink chamomile tea to soothe themselves as well as their infant. Chamomile is antispasmodic and nervine (calms the nervous system), so it can help address multiple causes of infant colic.
Another remedy for worn out parents at the end of their rope is Rescue Remedy, a combination of Bach Flower Remedies that can help with anxiety, trauma, grief, and extreme stress. This remedy works on an energetic level to help parents cope in a healthy way with their situation and environment. Parents can also support each other by taking turns with the infant during the worst times and allowing their partner to do something to de-stress such as exercising, taking a bath, escaping to a quiet place, and/or sleeping
It is especially important for parents to recognize when their stress levels are too high and they need professional help. Counseling is something that may be beneficial especially if the lack of sleep and stress of dealing with a colicky infant is causing strain on relationships or contributing to depression or other mental health conditions. There is no shame in getting help, and sometimes the best treatment for your baby is to take care of yourself the best you can in order to be the best parent you can be!