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Colic is the word used to describe when babies cry a lot or fail to settle for a lengthy period of time. It is now understood that 'colic' refers to the normal range of unsettled behaviour in many babies, which can be very demanding and exhausting for parents.
This crying and fussing can happen at any time, but often occurs in the late afternoon and early evening, especially in babies between two weeks and four months of age. It is very common for young infants to have crying and unsettled times.
This type of normal crying happens in babies all over the world, in all cultures, and the usual soothing techniques just don't seem to work.
Sometimes there is a medical reason for the baby's crying and this may need to be checked by a doctor or nurse. This can be very helpful because it is hard for parents to provide reassurance to their baby if they are worried there may be a medical problem. However, in most babies, no medical cause is found. Crying is a communication from the baby to their care giver that they are not comfortable or are distressed. This is a normal part of their growth and development.
Newborns have to adapt to a range of new experiences and differ in how sensitive they are to physical and emotional events inside and outside their bodies.
Sometimes the causes of the discomfort may be a wet nappy, being too hot or cold, wind (gas in their tummy), hunger, tiredness, feeling anxious or unhappy or needing company. Over time, newborns learn to anticipate what will help them feel better. For example, a good feed makes hunger go away, tiredness is fixed by a sleep, a wish for comfort is met by holding, talking and playing. This process seems to take longer for some infants who are crying persistently.
Some babies are easily frightened by and struggle to cope with normal physical sensations such as digestion or normal reflux. Others take a long time to adapt to the world and cope with changes. Many babies are very tuned in to the emotional world of their family and can be affected by family distress.
Some babies seem to cry more than others or to need more soothing than others. This does not mean there is anything wrong, rather that all babies respond differently.
Parents may also worry that crying is caused by something they have done and this can sometimes affect their confidence in handling and looking after their baby. Maternal depression, family stress or loss or a difficult time in their own childhood can reduce parents' confidence in interacting with their baby and make it hard to feel responsive or playful with their baby.
Parents should be reassured that a number of things can help them with a baby who is difficult to soothe. The most important is to get family support and talk to a health professional, such as a Maternal and Child Health Nurse or the family doctor.
The demanding evening time may be easier if you plan around it. For example, plan to eat earlier if your baby is often unsettled at dinner time or plan to carry your baby in a sling at this time.
Some babies seem to need to be with their mother all the time. Try not to fight this. As your baby develops more confidence, they will learn to self-soothe. Keep separations to a minimum, try to remain in the baby's view, carry the baby in a sling or move the baby from room to room in the pram.
Introduce a doll or teddy, outside the bassinet or cot, that the baby can look at when they wake from a sleep so that they do not feel so alone. Have a photo of you and the baby on the wall at the height that the baby can see.
Try not to get caught up in a campaign to get your baby to sleep or to adjust to a rigid routine. As babies get older they become more alert and stay awake for longer periods. Their interest in you and the world can help distract them from what is going on inside their bodies.
If your baby is in a playful mood make the most of this time for some enjoyable interaction for you both.
Medication is not recommended. It may mask illness, interfere with feeding or make your baby too sleepy.
Medication should only be used on the advice of a doctor and only for a short period of time.
See a doctor if:
Developed by the RCH Centre for
Community Child Health and the Dept of General Medicine
and Infant Mental Health. First published in 2000. Updated