‘This too shall pass’ – newborn colic is a phase

Support systems and strategies for coping with continuous crying

Thursday, 23 March 2023 “Between the sleep deprivation and endless piles of washing, newborn life can be challenging. Colic takes the experience to another level, with those trying to comfort a continuously crying baby becoming quickly depleted. There are however strategies to help you get through this phase, and it is just that – a phase.”

Sr Amori Jordaan, a specialist midwife who is the maternity unit manager at Netcare Linkwood Hospital, explains that colic is not a medical condition but rather refers to extreme and inconsolable crying for hours at a time, taking place over a period of weeks or months. 

Sr Amori Jordaan, specialist midwife at Netcare Linkwood Hospital

“While it is unclear what causes colic, there may be a link with the immaturity of the infant nervous system, the gut, or a combination of the two. Food sensitivity that causes discomfort may contribute to colic, and the baby’s underdeveloped nervous system may result in certain babies feeling over stimulated and stressed by the sensory input of being in the world.

“In both cases the issue begins to resolve around the three to four month mark when the nervous system starts to mature and the baby is moving more, helping to release trapped gas in their abdomens. This timeline mirrors that of when colic tends to subside, however there is no proven link,” she says.

“Consoling your baby continuously for several hours without knowing why they are crying or what you can do to comfort them is frustrating and exhausting and is associated with postpartum depression and other mental health conditions in the mother. The impact of this on parents is astonishing and it can, in severe cases, result in shaken baby syndrome – a serious injury to the brain caused by shaking the baby out of frustration.”

Dr Chizgani Nyasulu-Egbunike, a paediatrician practising a Netcare Linkwood Hospital, adds that the reality of having a colic baby is a far cry from what many parents imagine as they prepare to bring their child into the world.

Dr Chizgani Nyasulu-Egbunike

“Between the newborn photoshoots and light-hearted baby moments that circulate on social media, there can be very high expectations of what early parenthood is like but there aren’t a lot of honest conversations about breastfeeding difficulties and how crushing it is on your morale to be up all night with an unhappy infant,” she says.

“The frustrations that parents experience during this time can lead to feelings of guilt, but self compassion is important. Know that it is ok to feel frustrated or sad at times – this does not make you a bad parent. Having a colic baby is a very challenging experience and while that difficult period will come to an end, in the moment it is demoralising and that needs to be acknowledged.”

Sr Jordaan notes that when it comes to colic, being prepared is key and it can make all the difference to be aware of what to expect and of how to soften the experience for you and your baby. 

The colic period

Typically, colic begins at around two weeks and becomes steadily worse with your baby crying more and more each week. It usually reaches its peak at around six weeks to two months, after which the crying will gradually reduce back to normal levels by four months or so.   

Normal crying vs continuous crying

Crying is a baby’s way of letting you know that they need something such as a feed, a nappy change or sleep. This is normal and they will usually stop crying once they have what they need. A colic baby however will cry inconsolably for hours at a time and for no apparent reason. This will often take place around the same time each day, usually in the late afternoon or early evening. This will also be punctuated by a peak after which it will reduce and they will then become calm again.

Appearance of extreme distress or pain

During a colic crying spell your baby’s cry is not only continuous but intense and they will usually clench their fists and turn red in the face. This is highly distressing for parents as it seems as though the baby is in a great deal of pain or distress, yet nothing will soothe them.

Because babies of this age have not yet learned to breathe through their noses they can swallow quite a bit of air during a crying spell, leading to them feeling bloated which can cause them to cry even more. 

Rule out physical discomfort

If you are experiencing what you suspect is a period of colic with your baby, it is important to rule out any potential physical concerns by visiting your clinic sister or doctor. These could include:

  • Reflux – reposition and keep your baby upright after feeds to avoid stomach acid coming up.
  • Allergy – milk protein in formula can cause discomfort and you may need to change their diet.
  • Illness – this would be accompanied by other symptoms such as fever and vomiting. 

Classic calming techniques

  • Swaddle – a nice tight swaddle stops the baby’s startle reflex and mimics the womb. Put them on your chest with their head just below your chin for closeness and comfort. A baby wrap carrier also works well as you can continue with your daily activities and baby is securely wrapped with you. 
  • Skin to skin – this can be very soothing as your breathing and heart rate will calm your baby but only if you are calm – if you are feeling anxious or aggravated then this is not a good time for skin to skin.
  • Take baby outside or for a walk if you can – vitamin D has a major effect in boosting mood for you both, especially if you do this regularly. It can also help to improve sleep.
  • Soothing sounds and smells – go for a quiet drive in the car or play white noise from an app on your phone to help block out other sounds that they may find overwhelming. A drop of pure lavender oil nearby or on a gently warmed microwave bean bag can be very soothing.
  • Bath and massage – hold your baby safely in the water without touching them too much until they are calm. Follow this with a gentle massage in a quiet, dimly lit space to keep stimulation to a minimum.    

Take advice with caution

Dr Nyasulu-Egbunike and Sr Jordaan emphasise the importance of accepting help from family members, friends and neighbours in taking care of the baby and assisting with other children or housework. However, Dr Nyasulu-Egbunike cautions parents to be wary of recommendations when it comes to medicines.

“It takes a village to raise a child but the village also comes with its own advice, which differs from person to person and which must be taken with a pinch of salt. Some will suggest home remedies, others swear by certain over the counter medicines but a lot of these may include alcohol and other ingredients that can be damaging to your baby’s liver and impact their health in other ways.

“Naturally, the people in your life have only the best intentions at heart when they give this type of advice, but a newborn’s system is incredibly fragile and any course of treatment needs to be decided upon in consultation with a doctor to ensure that what you are giving your little one is safe for them,” she says.  

Sr Jordaan concludes by reminding parents that when taking steps to support their baby through the colic period, they do not forget about themselves. “You cannot give your best when your tank is empty. Lean on your support system or create a schedule with your partner so that you can step away and have time to yourself to eat a proper meal, go for a walk, or even just wash your hair. This is not self-indulgent; it is essential for your mental health.

“Remember, this too shall pass. It may be rough seas for a while but you will come out with a happy and healthy baby – we just want to stress the importance of having happy, healthy parents on the other side too,” concludes Sr Jordaan.   

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