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Baby Colic Causes And Treatments Key Facts

7 Causes Of Infant Colic Explained
Baby colic causes and treatments

What is baby colic?

The reason why some babies experience colic is still unknown. And what colic is can also sometimes be confusing.

Doctors classify the behaviour as colic, by following the ‘Wessel criteria’ or rule of 3’s (Dr. Morris Wessel). This is a baby that cries inconoslably without apparent reason, despite your efforts, for more then 3 hours a day (mainly as a single outburst episode), at least 3 days a week for at least 3 weeks.

Most commonly colics starts at around 3 weeks of age, peaking at around 6 to 8 weeks and usually overcome by the third month of life.

Causes of baby colics

  • Gastrointestinal development
  • Unbalanced gut flora
  • Genetic predisposition to allergies or particular sensitiveness
  • Excess wind / lack of burping
  • Overstimulation
  • Homeostatic sleep pressure and Immature nervous system
  • Serotonin overload

In this article I am going to explore all these theories and give possible solutions. Each parent may take from this what is useful to them. There is no right or wrong. Also remember your baby is perfectly healhty and is going to be as chearful as anyone else once the cause is addressed and the colicky period is over. Colic is not a condition or a disease, it is more a symptom and a behavioural state.

Does baby colic have long lasting effects?

Excessive crying is associated with giving up breastfeeding, overmedicating babies, post-partum depression and accidental shaking of babies. This is why understanding what is happening, knowing your options and having the right support is important.

Likewise it is important to know that colic is not harmful in itslef, a colicky baby is not an unhealthy baby.

What if it’s not baby colic?

Remember that a baby that cries is tensing up, for example she may be arching her back or become stiff, or he may become red from exercion. Your baby is also ingesting excess air while crying. This in turns may give tummy discomfort. Tummy discomfort makes her cry … you get the picture.

Also, when considering if your baby has colic or not, you need to make sure you have already eliminated all the basics needs; hunger, cold, heat, overtiredness, wet, sick or ‘calling’ for love and connection. All these basic needs should be met for your baby’s wellbeing.

Gastrointestinal development

This is based on the concept that a new born has a growing and developing digestive and immune system with all the gut flora yet to be established.

The immaturity of these systems and its development creates body sensations, sometimes may be muscle spasms or cramps that the baby didn’t have in the womb.

Unbalanced gut flora

A prospective randomized study published in the January 2007 issue of Pediatrics concluded that “L reuteri improved colicky symptoms in breastfed infants within 1 week of treatment, which suggests that probiotics may have a role in the treatment of infantile colic.”

Researchers had a 95% success rate by giving babies probiotics AND eliminating cow’s milk from the mother’s diet. They gave colicy babies who were breastfeeding 5 drops daily of the beneficial gut bacteria (the probiotic L. reuteri) while all the mums were asked to eliminate cows milk from their diet. 95% of the probiotic babies improved, as opposed to only 7% of the control babies, with crying improving somewhat in the first week and dramatically within a month.

If this study is repeated with the same results by other researchers, probiotics could soon be prescribed as routine for the cure for colic.

Food allergies or lactose sensitivities

Allergic symptoms are similar to the symptoms of colic, or can cause colic.

Some studies suggest that the mother’s diet may affect her baby. Foods that have been linked to gassiness are: the proteins of dairy products such as casein or whey, cruciferous vegetables (broccoli etc), night shades (tomatoes etc), legumes (peas, beans etc), eggs, soya, penuts, coffe and probably some more too.

It’s worth following your insticts on suspected foods and try a healthy, nutritious elimination diet (one element at the time) over the colicky period to see if any of these foods are affecting you and your baby.

Likewise elements found in formula, as well as the lack of natural enzyme and other component not present in cow’s milk, can affect formula fed babies.

It’s also worth knowing about transient lactase deficiency (TLD). This is when the digestive system is not producing enough enzyme to break down the lactose (sugary) part of the milk. This causes the undigested food to ferment in the gut, causing excessive gas, bloating and even diarrhoea.

Excess wind or lack of burping

Your baby may ingest air from feeding, crying and sucking. While trapped air is not believed to create colic it may contribute to your baby wriggling and making some noises.

For a baby to become red in the face with possibly a hard tummy for a few seconds, when passing gas or stool is normal. This does not mean they are in pain. it is a natural body reaction. If they are happy in between episodes and not too distressed during them, there is most probably nothing wrong.

There are some burping or winding techniques that works better then other. Experiment which one your baby prefers.


When an adult is sleep-deprived, the strain this puts on them and those around them is generally well recognised in society. If this happens to a child is also generally understood. When this happens to a baby, less so.

In the first two weeks after birth, babies are in a way ‘protected from their immature systems’. They can’t see more then 20cm away, they can’t pin-point individual sounds, they can’t coordinate eye to object movement etc. But between the birth and the first 4 to 6 weeks- which coincidently is when colic starts and peaks – their senses develop and ‘all of a sudden’ they can perceive their surroundings in much more detail.

Babies are also hard-wired for social interaction and will go well beyond the point of tiredness in order to mantain the connection.

Note that at this point babies can only sustain 1-2-1 ‘comunications’; imitating facial expresion, listening to someone speaking, making eye-to-eye contact. This is why you may find that if you go to a stadium, your baby happily falls asleep, while at home she dones’t! At the stadium your baby can’t possibly perceive all the individual noises. While at home they are considerably less!

The stadium (or the resturant) may act as a white noise enviorment!

Some experts believe that overtiredness or overstimulation can contribute to colic episodes. The theory seems to be supported by the fact that the colicky episodes are mainly in the evening after the stimulus of the day, rather then in the mornings.

It’s up to you as a parent to try and figure out if this may be a possibility for your baby. If so, the good news is that you can do something to change this.

Homeostatic Sleep Pressure and Immature nervous system

In her book ‘The no-cry nap solution’ Elizabeth Pantley talks about homeostatic sleep pressure or what she calls the ‘volcano effect’. While Pantley doesn’t make the connection to infant colics at this point, in my experience as a post-natal doula I often see the connection and again often (but not always!) the solution is found by improving the feeding-sleeping cycle of the baby.

A newborn cannot endure being awake for more then 1 to 2 hours maximum at the time. And sometimes it is only 20/ 30 minutes!
A 6 week old baby cannot endure being awake for more then 1 to 3 hours maximum at the time.
A 12 week old baby cannot endure being awake for more then 2 to 3.5 hours maximum at the time.
And so on.
A year old baby cannot endure being awake for more then 7 hours. A toddler usually needs one day time nap to break the day and make it through to the evening.

When children are pushed beyond the time span that is ideal, biologically speaking, for them to be awake without a rest break, that is when they become fatigued and unhappy. As the day progresses the sleep pressure builds making a child fussier, whinier and less flexible. They have more crying spells, more tantrums, and less patience.

As a child progresses through the day, his biology demands a nap so he can regroup. Without a nap break, the homeostatic pressure continues building until the end of the day, growing in intensity, so that a child becomes overtired, wired, and unable to stop the explosion. The result is an intense bedtime battle with an overtired child who won’t fall asleep no matter what. 

Most of us can say that we have experienced longer and better sleep when we are relaxed, and how difficult it is to actually go to sleep if we are constatnly running on adrenaline. This is no different for a baby.

A baby who doesn’t rest enough during the day will have an increase in cortisol and adrenaline (flight-or-fight response of the sympathetic nervous system) making it more difficult to settle in the evening. While a well rested baby will be in a relaxed biological state (controlled by the para-simpatetich nervous system)

It may be worth observing and writing down your baby’s feeding-sleeping-active cycles ‘for 24 hours’ and see if any of these factors may be contributing to the colicky period.

Serotonin overload

Another theory is that of Marc Weissbluth, MD, professor of clinical pediatrics at Northwestern University School of Medicine and author of Your Fussy Baby (Ballantine). Marc Weissblunth believes that colic may be connected to an imbalance of the brain chemicals melatonin and serotonin. Colicky babies might have more serotonin, which makes intestinal muscles contract. One reason colicky babies can fuss more at night, he explains, is that serotonin levels peak in the evening. This imbalance, naturally resolves around 3 to 4 months-interestingly, around the same time that colic typically disappears- when babies start making melatonin, which relaxes intestinal muscles.

I believe this will make an interesting study.

Newborn Treatment Of Colic Key-Facts

  •  Holding your baby skin-to-skin is one of the most effective treatment.

The more hours held skin-to-skin, even when they are not fussy, the less fussy they will be. (Despite common concerns, this will not result in a spoiled, clingy child. In fact, will guard against it).

Skin-to-skin help weight gain, it regulates temperature, heart-beat and breathing. It is the most natural and safe environment for your baby.


  • Using a sling can prevent the outbreak of colic episods. (Why babywearing matters by Rosie Knowels)

  • Introducing probiotics in your, or your baby’s diet

This has been found to improve colic symptoms in babies within 1 week from use. See ‘unbalanced gut flora’ section above for details.

  • Using a warm blanket on your baby’s tummy


  • With adequate information, consider prone (tummy) sleeping or prone positions to settle your baby. Such as the ‘tiger on the tree hold’ or resting with their tummy against your chest.


“Dr. Nils Bergman believes that prone sleeping is the biological normative standard in healhty infants. Prone sleep supports autonomic regulation, heart rate, temperature and breathing. Bergman raises many questions about the potential stressor effect of placing babies to sleep on their backs, and the inhibited homeostatic capabilities that may occur as a result. … Bergman claims that the current generalised advice of back sleeping may be detrimental to most babies who are not predisposed to a greater risks of SIDS when sleeping in prone position.” (Why your baby’s sleep matter by Sarah Oackwell-Smith).

  • White noise can help calm your baby.

In the womb your baby heard sounds, mainly the heart-beat, blood running through your blood vessels and the movement of your stomach and intestines, that actually reacheed the level of about 90 decibels. About the level of noise in an apartment next to a train line with train in transit.

For your baby a hairdryer, a hoover or the sound of water etc can be particularly familiar and reassuring.

  • Rocking or swinging. Similarly, during pregnancy your baby was continually rocked by your body. Even when you were still, your breathing was swinging her in and out.

Not only are babies not familiar with stillness, they also need human contact for homeostatic regulation: heart rate, breathing, temperature. In your arms there is a natural movemet, warmth and contact that makes your baby feel very safe and secure.

  • Similarly, sucking is a baby’s instinctual need. Sucking releases oxytocin, the calming and loving hormone that regulates the nervous system and its response to stress.
  • Use baby massage techniques or instinctual touch to massage your baby. If this is done consistently away from the colicky episods, once or twice a day for few minutes, it can greatly help your baby move any trapped air or matter along the colon for release.


Baby massage also helps relaxation and bonding which can be particularly important during what can be a stressful period.

  • Allowing quality time for yourself. Take a break and recharge. Asking for support is sometimes what makes the difference between struggling and enjoyment.