Colic in Babies – Symptoms, Causes & Treatment

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August 16, 2022
9 min read

The most common topic parents want to discuss with me is COLIC. And it blows my mind how much misinformation exists out there!

In this article we’ll discuss, that Colic and Purple Crying are terms that are used interchangeably, they are not medical conditions –  they are adjectives or describing terms.

We will work through the signs and common causes of colic and an action plan for colicky babies.

Search colic, infantile colic or purple crying online and you’ll mostly find two things:

  1. ways to settle or distract an unsettled baby, and
  2. reassuring messages of hope, that this torturous period will pass.

Incredibly, neither of these seek to find the underlying cause of colic, treating it instead as some newborn rite of passage.

This is absolutely wrong.

What is Colic?

Colic is often referred to as infantile colic

Colic is a word that describes a baby who cries excessively (defined by the Wessel rule of 3 – more than 3 hours a day, for more than 3 days a week – for 3 weeks).

Diagnosing colic is no more than attaching an adjective, describing an unsettled baby but not seeking to understand why.

Yes healthy babies do cry

Yes, babies cry.

Yes, you will find that a healthy baby cries.

Yes, it is a form of communication.

But excessive crying, frequent feeding, unsettled behaviour, short sleeps – these are all caused by something and the key to eradicating this colic is to understand WHY.

There are myriad reasons why babies cry excessively,

  • from wind to illness,
  • hunger to eczema,
  • and everything in between.

Fascinatingly, parental instinct as to the cause of unsettled behaviour correlates strongly with true causes.

The better you understand your baby’s cues, the better you will be at interpreting their needs and deciphering the messages within their cries.

The Dr Golly Sleep Program is designed to turn the volume up on that innate, parental instinct and empower you to prevent unsettled behaviour, not endure it.

Is Purple Crying the same as Colic?

Purple crying like colic is a describing term. It’s not a disease.

It was designed to minimise shaken-baby syndrome, by normalising the period of unsettled behaviour and infant crying between 2 weeks and 4 months.

It’s an acronym.
Peak crying,
unexpected,
resistant to soothing,
pain-filled face,
long-lasting and occurring in the
evening.

It’s essentially just another way of saying colic – it’s more of an adjective – as opposed to providing helpful ways to actually alleviate a baby’s distress.

Like Colic it is definitely NOT a period to ‘suffer’ through and survive.

Yes most babies will grow out of it by the time they reach four or so months but four months of highly unsettled behaviour and crying is not something you should struggle through.

Find the cause, alleviate it – and enjoy the extra sleep!

Colic has both causes and solution

Any baby can have colic.

Colic most often becomes evident when a baby is 2–5 weeks old and usually eases by the time the baby is 3–4 months old.

What are some of the common signs of infant colic or purple crying?

  1. Excessive crying
  2. Knees pulling up, squirming after feeds
  3. Fussy and irregular feeds, pulling off the breast or bottle frequently
  4. Generally unsettled & clingy
  5. Wakes screaming
  6. Visibly uncomfortable & distressed
  7. Very hard to burp no matter how diligent you are
  8. Farting A LOT
  9. Only wants to sleep upright e.g. pram or in the carrier and miserable when lying flat

baby crying

What causes infantile colic?

  1. Some babies have an immature gut that can’t process elements of milk – be it formula or breastmilk
  2. Some big 2-week-old babies drink the same volume as a 3-month-old, and their little stomachs just can’t process the sheer volume
  3. Some mums have incredibly quick let-downs and babies guzzle down the milk… and gulp more air
  4. Poor attachment to the breast or bottle can lead to increased air getting in during feeds

What to do if you think your baby has colic?

Colic ACTION PLAN

Step 1: Burps, burps & more burps – teach everyone in your family the @DrGolly active winding technique (it’s in the program). Any time the baby isn’t feeding, you can be burping them

Step 2: Use the active winding technique for 15min after each feeding period

Step 3: Cycling legs to remain calm when lying flat

Step 4: Regular tummy-time to strengthen their neck – the quicker they can crawl/sit-up the easier it will be to burp them & get that trapped wind out

Step 5: If you’re breastfeeding, be aware of your diet – if you’re drinking/eating a lot of cow’s milk, legumes, ruffage, cured meats, fermented products this could upset your baby – remember stuff that makes you gassy will make your baby gassy

Step 6: If you’re breastfeeding, be aware of caffeine in breast milk as this can cause unsettled behaviour (I hate saying this, because breastfeeding a newborn is one of the most exhausting jobs out there… & mums need their coffee! Absolutely enjoy this ritual but be mindful of consumption – see my blog on this topic for more info).

Step 7: Check for all other causes that could be upsetting your baby e.g. too hot/cold, itchy clothing tag, uncontrolled eczema, overtired, undertired etc etc.

Step 8: Watch for food intolerances – this is not uncommon in breastfed babies, mucus in the poo is a sign your baby is intolerant to something

Step 9: If you have completed steps 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7 & 8 and your baby is still uncomfortable/unsettled it may be time to talk to your GP or paediatrician –  a colic mix may be needed.

Colic mixes or colic medication should be your last step not your first

Remember when it comes to colic/purple crying: 

  1. Medication should be your last step not your first.
  2. Colic mixes won’t fix colic, it will simply make your baby easier to burp and expel trapped wind – your family will need to be fastidious about BURPING!
  3. I’m a paediatrician and can’t give medical advice over social media/email, if you think your baby has severe colic – you’ll need to talk to your GP or paediatrician and work through what is happening
  4. I also can’t recommend pharmaceuticals over social media or email – there are lots of colic mixes out there – again you’ll need to see your GP or paediatrician about whether a) your baby needs this & b) which colic mix is the right one for your baby – be sure to discuss possible side effects too
  5. If you’re talking to your GP or paediatrician, be open to the idea that colic may not be the problem that is making your baby unsettled – always describe the symptoms your baby has to your healthcare professional

baby sleep programs

Caring for a colicky baby is hard

You need to resolve the cause of the unsettled behaviour before things will get better:

  • Until you have resolve the trapped wind/pain, your baby is probably going to be unsettled.
  • Colicky babies will rarely sleep in a cot and have trouble linking sleep cycles.
  • Allow for contact naps in the carrier, pram or car until you have the trapped wind/pain or underlying condition under control.

Caring for a colicky baby/purple crying baby can be incredibly hard:

  • If your baby won’t stop crying & you’re not coping: call a friend or family member for support, or to take care of the baby while you take a well-deserved break.
  • Remember the term PURPLE crying is another name for Colic and was devised to stop shaken baby syndrome,
  • If you are struggling with a colicky baby you are not alone
  • The correlation between highly unsettled babies and perinatal mental health issues is almost 1 for 1.
  • All parents of unsettled babies are at a higher risk of perinatal mental health issues – if you have previously struggled with anxiety or depression you are at very high risk
  • If you need help help is available, seeking help early is the best thing you can do for you and your baby

PANDA Australia is a terrific resource

Breastfeeding mothers and colic

A note to breastfeeding mother’s trying to care for a colicky baby alone: 

  • If you are breastfeeding and you are a single parent you need to find someone to support you until you resolve the trapped wind, don’t try and do it all yourself
  • If you are breastfeeding and your partner is away or works long hours and can’t help you you need to find support

TIP: rather than take a two week vacation with an unsettled baby I highly recommend you take two weeks at home taking care of each other and the baby – working together to resolve the trapped wind/pain: so much of my philosophy and practice is around protecting the breastfeeding mother, in nearly all cases of highly unsettled babies I see, when the appropriate treatment is given and when a non breastfeeding parent spends significant time caring for both the baby and breastfeeding mother for a week or so things improve significantly

Colic does NOT mean you have to have an unhappy, unsettled baby that cries all the time – the articles on Colic that say there is no cure and some babies just cry – these are WRONG!

Colic has causes and solutions 💫

FAQs on Colic & Purple Crying

  1. Q: My GP/ Maternal child health nurse  said colic/purple crying is a completely normal developmental stage and I just have to get through it until my baby grows out of it – I’m at my wits end – is that true?
    ANS: See the blog above.  Colic or PURPLE crying is a describing term that does not seek to resolve the underlying cause of the unsettled behaviour.  Work your way through all the possible causes and treatments – remembering medication should be your last step not your first. Most importantly look after yourself, looking after a colicky baby is incredibly hard, seek help when you need it.  If you are a partner, friend, relative of a parent caring for a highly unsettled baby you need to step up and be there to support. If that parent is breastfeeding it’s even more critical you be there.
  2. Q: How long does infant colic last for in young babies?
    ANS:  Colic most often becomes evident when a baby is 2–5 weeks old and usually eases by the time the baby is 3–4 months old.
  3. Q: Can community child health clinics or sleep schools help with unsettled babies?
    ANS: Yes, similar to our online Sleep Program they’ll teach you all the basics for sleep & settling and routines, and give you some much needed parental respite (something I can’t do with an online program) – they may help you identify the cause of the unsettled behaviour like trapped wind, intolerances, hunger, eczema etc..  If you’re looking into these options and you’ve got someone saying you just have to suffer through this and there’s nothing you can do, they aren’t attuned to the physical and mental load of caring for a colicky baby, get a second opinion. Colic medication was definitely the last step to take but it’s sometimes an essential one, as is support for parents.
  4. Q: My parents say colic in babies and “unsettled babies” wasn’t really an issue in their day – am I doing something wrong?
    ANS: Your parents are right colic wasn’t such an issue – they may also say “we lied her on her belly” to sleep, and this is why. Back sleeping was introduced in the late 80’s as part of safe sleeping guidelines, it has significantly reduced SIDS – by over 90%, which is incredible and should never be challenged –  but it’s also increased the rate of unsettled babies.
  5. Q: Why would lying my baby on his or her belly help with colic?
    ANS:   Regular tummy-time will strengthen their neck – the quicker they can crawl/sit-up the easier it will be to burp them & get that trapped wind out
  6. Q: What colic mix do you recommend?
    ANS: I’m a paediatrician and can’t give medical advice over social media/email, if you think your baby has severe colic – you’ll need to talk to your GP or paediatrician and work through what is happening. I also can’t recommend pharmaceuticals over social media or email – there are lots of colic mixes out there – again you’ll need to see your GP or paediatrician about whether a) your baby needs this & b) which colic mix is the right one for your baby – be sure to discuss possible side effects too

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