How to Soothe a Colicky Baby
If your baby has colic, the never-ending crying can drive you nuts. Here are some expert strategies for soothing a colicky baby.
Does your baby have intense crying spells that last three hours or more? He might be suffering from colic. There’s no specific definition of colic, but it generally means excessive crying for no explainable reason, says Barry Lester, Ph.D., director of the colic clinic at the Brown University Center for Children at Women & Infants Hospital in Providence, and coauthor of Why Is My Baby Crying.
Pediatricians generally use the "rule of threes" to determine the condition: “when a baby cries intensely for three or more hours at a time (usually during the evening hours) on at least three days of the week, for longer than three weeks in a row —for no apparent reason," says Mary Ann LoFrumento, M.D., author of Simply Parenting: Understanding Your Newborn & Infant.
- RELATED: What is Colic in Babies?
Colic usually begins around week 2 or 3 of the baby's life and peaks at around 6 to 8 weeks. Unlike with regular infant crying, attempts to stop colic-induced sessions by feeding, burping, rocking, or changing the diaper aren't successful. The condition subsidies around 3 to 4 months of age.
The cause of colic is still a mystery—and so, unfortunately, is the treatment. Desperate parents have tried a slew of purported remedies, such as midnight car rides, massage, acupuncture, battery-operated swings, white noise machines, anti-gas Mylicon drops, and "gripe waters" such as Colic Calm and Colic-Ease. Although some find success with these so-called treatments, there's little to no science to back them up, and many babies keep shrieking anyway.
"Some babies will respond to many of these interventions, some babies won't respond to any, and a lot of babies will respond only sometimes," explains Larry Scherzer, M.D., assistant professor of pediatrics at the University of Connecticut Health Center in Farmington. "Usually by the time you try everything, the baby is old enough that a lot of the crying has ceased."
Wondering what to do for a colic baby? According to experts, parents can try adopting the “Five S’s” strategy to mimic the womb environment. Read more about this strategy, plus other ways to try soothing a baby with colic.
Colic Calming Tactic: Follow the "Five S" Strategy
Because doctors don't know the exact cause of colic, it's extremely difficult to treat. Conventional medications—such as anti-gas, antacid, and pain medications—can't "cure" the condition. The same is true for dietary modifications. One thing that might work: mimicking life inside the womb with the “Five S” strategy.
Babies have an innate reflex that's triggered when we do things that resemble their fetal experience. "It's like an 'off' switch for crying," says Harvey Karp, M.D., creator of the DVD and book, The Happiest Baby on the Block. The Five S's include swaddling, shushing, swinging, sucking, and side- or stomach lying. "I've never had a child follow the Five S's and not calm down, unless she was ill," Dr. Karp says.
Here’s how to help a colic baby with the strategy:
Swaddling: Wrap your baby’s arms snugly down against her sides, but leave her legs loose and flexed so that her hips have room to move.
- RELATED: How to Swaddle a Baby
Shushing: "Inside the uterus, noises are louder than a vacuum cleaner," Dr. Karp says. Mimicking womb-like sounds help babies sleep longer. Dr. Karp recommends white-noise audio files or radio static. The recording of rain or even the sound of a hair dryer might also work. Though you may find these noises loud, babies find them comforting because they approximate what they heard in utero.
Swinging: A slow and smooth motion keeps babies calm. "Holding and rocking won't spoil the baby," Dr. Karp assures. "In the uterus, babies were held and rocked 24/7, so even if you hold your baby 18 hours a day, it's a significant cutback for your baby." Indeed, a study in the journal Pediatrics found that babies held by their parents for about 16.5 hours a day cried half as much as those whose parents held them for about 8 hours daily.
Sucking: Babies have a strong sucking urge in the first few months of life, and satisfying that urge can quickly calm a fretful infant. Try giving your colicky baby a pacifier. While some breastfed babies may refuse it, it will provide instant relief for others.
Side/Stomach Lying: Position your baby across your forearm or lap with her head resting in your hand. It's easiest to calm a crying baby when he's lying on his side or stomach. (Note: Babies should never sleep on their side or stomach, since this increases the risk of sudden infant death syndrome.)
Remember that each baby is different. Some need swaddling and shushing, while others don't calm until you add swinging. And mega-fussy kids usually need four or five S's done all together—with vigor—to switch on their calming reflex.
- RELATED: 9 Totally Normal Reasons Babies Cry
Other Tactics for Handling a Colicky Baby
“It's very important to know that colic is not your fault; it has nothing to do with you, your feeding, your parenting, or anything else," says Dr. LoFrumento. If you’re desperate to stop Baby’s crying, you can experiment with these tricks until you find the one that works best for your baby
Ask your doctor about probiotics. Some research suggests probiotics can ease colic symptoms. In an Italian study of 83 babies, crying decreased 75 percent after 28 days for those given L. reuteri vs. 25 percent for those given simethicone (Mylicon). Unfortunately, in another small study, researchers in Finland who gave colicky babies other probiotics for two weeks found no relief from symptoms. To try this method, look for probiotics made for babies, or get infant formula that contains Lactobacillus reuteri. Follow your doctor's instructions for using this beneficial bacteria.
Experiment with your diet. If you're breastfeeding, consider eliminating dairy or gas-inducing vegetables like cabbage and cauliflower. Also limit your caffeine intake, and consider giving up spicy foods. If your baby's crying doesn't improve in a couple of weeks, you can go back to your normal diet.
Get out the gas. Excess gas is one theory for what causes colic. Hold your baby’s legs up to his chest for a few minutes to get rid of it. Burping frequently during feedings may help too. You can also switch to a bottle that limits the air Baby takes in.
Use a carrier. Pace back and forth across the room with your baby in a carrier. Researchers have found that babies carried in the arms, in front carriers, or in slings for at least three hours a day cried a lot less on average than those babies who were not carried at all.
Massage your baby. Massage is a helpful tool for promoting relaxation in infants. Gently rub his back, belly, arms, and legs with loving strokes. To perfect your technique, take a class or read one of the many books now available on the art of infant massage.
Take a break. New moms often feel guilty or self-indulgent for wanting a break from their newborns. But doctors say that putting the baby in a safe place, such as a crib or playpen, and walking away—even for a couple of minutes— is exactly what you should do when crying threatens to push you past your limits. "Even decreasing the loudness of a cry by being on the other side of a wall or door can lessen the tension," says Dr. LoFrumento.
Why is separating yourself from the situation so important? There’s a strong association between excessive crying and infant injury. A survey of parents of more than 3,250 infants in the Netherlands revealed that more than 5 percent had slapped, smothered, or shaken their baby at least once because he or she was crying.
Check out colic support groups—in person or online. Connect with a mom group so you don't feel isolated. "It's easy to convince yourself that you're the only one, that there's something wrong with you, and that people think you're a bad parent because you can't get your baby to stop crying," says Laura Jana, M.D., coauthor of Heading Home with Your Newborn (American Academy of Pediatrics). "Getting support lets you maintain your sanity and gives you some distance and a little perspective."
Beware of over-the-counter products. Bryan Vartabedian, M.D., author of Colic Solved, is not a fan of gripe water, a generic term for a whole variety of folksy, naturopathic liquid drops. Small doses of anti-gas drops like Mylicon probably won't help or hurt, says Dr. Vartabedian.
Consider professional help. "Crying and fatigue can be triggers for marital distress, postpartum depression, breastfeeding failure, abuse, excessive visits to the doctor, or overuse of baby medication, as well as smoking, car accidents, and probably obesity, because when you're so tired you make bad food decisions," says Dr. Karp. So think about asking your doctor for a referral to a mental-health specialist who can help you deal with the impact of your baby's crying.
The Bottom Line
Parents tend to abandon methods of stopping the crying too quickly, says Maureen Keefe, RN, PhD, founder of the Fussy Baby Clinics in Denver, Colorado, and Charleston, South Carolina. She notes that you have to stay with an intervention for five minutes to get its maximum benefit. If the baby is still crying after five minutes, don't get discouraged—just move on to the next strategy.
Colic can be just as difficult for the parents as it is for the babies, so it's important that you take care of yourself too during this trying time. "Accept your feelings of anger, resentment, and, sometimes, even rage," says Stephanie Mihalas, Ph.D., a licensed psychologist and founder of The Center for Well-Being: Psychological Services for Children, Youth, and Families in Los Angeles. The feelings are normal, as long as you don't act upon them.
And don't forget that she will eventually outgrow this phase. Pretty soon, your baby will be happy and smiling again—and you'll be more at ease than you can imagine!