Infant colic - a knife to the heart

Technically, infant colic is inconsolable crying in a baby with no evidence of anything physically wrong with them. It starts in the first few weeks of life, and almost always disappears as mysteriously as it started, by the age of about three or four months. 

A baby's cry is designed to cut straight to your heart. It's a primeval urge, to want to protect your young. Without it, mankind would probably never have survived - after all, if a baby didn't cry when they were in trouble, their parents wouldn't know when they needed protecting. But that's exactly why a baby's constant crying for hours at a time, for days or weeks on end, can drive parents to despair.

And that's exactly what colic is. Technically, infant colic is inconsolable crying in a baby with no evidence of anything physically wrong with them. It starts in the first few weeks of life, and almost always disappears as mysteriously as it started, by the age of about three or four months. That means it only last a few weeks - but they can seem to last a lifetime. Crying is often worse in the late afternoon and evening, and babies will often arch their back and/or bend up their knees.

Developing coping strategies that work for you is key - that may include sleeping when your baby is sleeping, calling on family and friends to allow you to take some time out (any one of them who's been a parent will know how you feel!) and speaking to your health visitor or doctor. It can be easy to lose sight of the fact that this isn't your fault - which it categorically isn't. I often find mothers feel terribly guilty about leaving their baby for even a minute - yet by getting a break, they'll be in a much better position to cope with those tough few weeks.

One of my jobs as a GP is to check to see if there's anything seriously wrong. This is much less likely if your baby is feeding, pooing, weeing and growing normally. Likewise, if they're entirely well between bouts of crying, and the crying tends to happen at the same time of day, colic is high on the list of likely diagnosis. However, I only diagnose colic when I've asked about other conditions.

A baby who suddenly starts crying inconsolably could, occasionally, have conditions like torsion of the testis, a strangulated hernia or intussusception, where one part of the bowel slides forward into another part and gets trapped. If crying keeps happening, we'll be thinking about the possibility of:

- Reflux (especially where babies are refusing feeds, refluxing a lot of milk after every feed or having problems gaining weight)

- Cow's milk protein allergy

- Constipation.

If colic is at the root of your baby's crying, it can be reassuring to know that it will settle on its own. In the meantime, gentle movement (rocking the cradle is the obvious one, but lots of babies seem to fall asleep when they're being driven); 'white noise' (from a running tap, hairdryer or vacuum cleaner) or a warm bath may help. Holding your baby may help, but if you need time out, don't feel bad about putting them in their cot for a bit.

Your health visitor can offer advice and reassurance, and may be able to put you in touch with other mums in a similar situation - it makes it so much better to know it's not just you. If all else fails, a one-week trial of simeticone drops (such as Infacol®) or lactase drops (such as Colief®) may help. If it helps, keep going until your baby is about four months old, then wean off over the course of a week or so. If one doesn't help after a week, try the other.

But most important of all, try not to take it personally. Colic is miserable for you and your baby but it's definitely not your fault. Once they've grown out of it, they'll forget all about it. As for you? With a bit of luck it'll soon seem like a very bad dream - and you can get on with enjoying your bundle of joy.

Disclaimer: This article is for information only and should not be used for the diagnosis or treatment of medical conditions. EMIS has used all reasonable care in compiling the information but make no warranty as to its accuracy. Consult a doctor or other health care professional for diagnosis and treatment of medical conditions. For details see our conditions.