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Colic in babies: Causes, symptoms, treatment and prevention

What is colic?

About 1 in 5 of all infants suffer from colic, spates of crying that go on for hours for no apparent reason. Although distressing for the child and exhausting and emotionally draining for the parents, the condition itself is harmless and usually ends by the time a child is 4 months old.

What causes colic?

The cause of colic is unknown. Experts attribute it to any number of things, including an infant's immature digestive system, allergies and, probably most importantly, the particular temperament of the infant.

What are the symptoms of colic?

Colic is not a disease but a pattern of persistent, prolonged crying. Doctors consider it colic if an otherwise healthy infant, up to four months old, exhibits the following behaviour:

  • Loud crying lasting three hours or more for three or more days a week, over a period of more than three weeks.
  • Prolonged crying between 6 pm and midnight in a baby that has been fed.
  • While crying, the baby draws his legs to his abdomen and clenches his hands and curls his toes; his face alternately flushes and pales with the effort of crying.
  • Baby may pass wind.

You should seek medical advice if:

  • Your baby has not had colic before and you suspect that he is colicky; your doctor may want to rule out other causes.
  • The bouts of colic are also accompanied by fever, diarrhoea, vomiting or constipation -- all signs of illness not associated with simple colic.
  • Your baby's crying sounds painful, not fussy -- indicating injury or an illness may be causing the distress.
  • Your baby is older than four months and still acting colicky.
  • Your colicky child fails to gain weight and is not hungry, which suggests an illness.
  • You're exhausted, or you are angry -- and fear stress might lead you to hurt your baby.

How can I prevent colic?

You cannot prevent colic, but if you think the distress is related to feeding, you may lessen the frequency of episodes by trying the following:

  • Hold your baby upright when feeding to prevent them swallowing air; wind them often, and especially after a feed.
  • Feed smaller amounts more frequently.
  • If breast-feeding avoid too much caffeine in your diet.
  • Try to soothe your baby with motion such as vibration (for example by taking a trip out in the car) or with white noise, for example by placing your baby in a seat near a washing machine or vacuum cleaner.
  • Avoid over-stimulating a baby
  • Hold your child during a crying episode if this helps
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