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Babies with Colic

Posted 5 years ago by Brendan

Common digestive complaints like bloating, gas and constipation can affect anyone, from the very young to the very old. A bloated belly, abundant gas and abdominal cramps are rarely indicative of a serious problem but when babies are affected, it can be particularly distressing. So is bloating to blame for colic and what can help to calm the colicy baby? 

Colic 

With an underdeveloped and inexperienced digestive system, most babies experience bloating and gassiness. Some gas is a perfectly normal byproduct of healthy digestion for everyone. To read more about bloating read What is Bloating and What Causes Bloating. When pockets of gas become trapped in the stomach, upper or lower intestines, the build up of pressure can cause abdominal bloating, distention and hardness, intestinal spasms or cramps, flatulence, burping, hiccups and spit-ups in babies. All of which can be particularly uncomfortable, making for an irritable and fussy baby.

Colic episodes usually develop during the first three to four months and are characterised by inconsolable crying, writhing around in pain, fussy eating and straining as if trying to pass a bowel motion. Episodes often occur periodically in the afternoon or evening. An exact cause is unrecognised and multiple causal factors are more likely to be involved.

A baby’s digestive system

The digestive and nervous systems in babies are entirely immature and still learning how to function. For most babies breast milk is the best source of nutrition until at least six months of age, providing an easy to digest, perfectly balanced food source suited to the baby's evolving body.

Designed to optimise the digestion and absorption of breast milk, a baby’s digestive system is different from an adults. Gastric acid is limited to ensure the survival of live immune cells and beneficial bacteria found in breast milk. The gut flora which helps to regulate intestinal function and assist digestion is still establishing a supportive, beneficial balance. The ability to produce the range of digestive enzymes needed to breakdown a variety of foods can take up to two years to fully develop. A baby’s intestinal wall is also much more permeable and less selective than an adults. This type of leaky gut as well as a delayed transit time throughout the small intestine, helps to maximise the absorption of essential nutrients and colostrum required to fuel a baby’s growth and protect against infections and disease. All of which makes a baby's digestive system particularly sensitive. 

Some babies simply produce more gas than others; which some may find easier to pass than others. With colic it is likely some degree or combination of reflux or GORD, lactose intolerance, food allergy or imbalance in the guts microflora, are further sensitising the baby's digestive system.

Soothing colicy babies 

Most babies will cry when they are hungry or need winding. Effective burping after every feeding helps discourage bloating bought on by swallowing air during nursing or bottle feeding. Gulping down air while crying may also contribute to gas becoming trapped in the stomach or intestines. Holding the baby in a colic hold, face down so their tummy is laying along the forearm with a cheek in the palm of your hand can help to gently expell trapped gas. Gently massaging the tummy in clockwise movements can also help to encourage peristalsis and movement within the digestive system. A warm bath may also help. Encouraging the baby to suck on the thumb or a dummy can help ease crying in between meals.

Breastfeeding mums

The nursing mother’s diet directly influences the quality of breast milk, which when passed onto the baby can exacerbate bloating. Milk that is overly acidic, rich, spicy or pungent can be particularly irritating for a baby’s sensitive system. Stimulants like coffee and chocolate, sulphur rich foods (onions, garlic, broccoli, burssel sprouts, etc), medications and food allergens should be avoided. Removing the most common allergens like cow’s milk, wheat, eggs and soy from the mother's diet often has a significant effect. Read Bloating and Food Intolerance for more about food allergies and intolerances. Galactagogue herbs like fennel, fenugreek and shatavari can help to increase the quality and production of breast milk.

Bottle feeding mums

Cow's milk baby formulas can be difficult to digest and particularly gas forming. Talk to your pediatrician or health professionals about Goat's milk or other less reactive alternatives. Anti-colic bottles are designed to prevent swallowing too much air during bottle feeds.

Probiotics

Research suggests a healthy balance of gut flora is positively associated with a lower incidence of digestive complaints like colic, constipation and diarrhoea and atopic conditions like eczema, asthma and food allergies, in infants and children. While the gut flora’s most dominant bacteria are different in babies and children compared to adults, the gut flora is fundamentally important for digestive, immune and systemic health regardless of age. Read Good and Bad Bacteria for more about the gut flora. 

Newborns primarily acquire the microbes that colonize their digestive system during their decent down the birth canal and from breast milk. Probiotics are microbial supplements that help to establish and maintain a beneficial balance of bugs within the digestive system, which may be of particular benefit for infants with gut problems like colic, those delivered by Caesarean section, those nursed on formula alone, babies given antibiotics, premature babies or those with atopic conditions. Read Probiotics For Bloating and Do Probiotics Work for more on probiotics, or these articles for research on probiotics for babies and children. Where there are imbalances, improving the balance of friendly bacteria early is important not just for the digestive system but also for helping develop the immune system. 


Gripe waters

Gripe waters are natural formulas made with herbal carminatives like peppermint or sodium bicarbonate, that may help to relieve colicy discmofort, indigestion and bloating. Homeopathic gripe waters are also available. For more about carminatives read Getting rid of Bloating.

Environment

Just like adults can experience intestinal disturbances during stressful situations, over-stimulating a baby can increase indigestion, fussiness and gassiness. Limit loud noises, bright lights, television, visitors, activity and so on, around meals. Skin contact, swaddling, white noise, vibrations (from a washing machine, moving car, etc), rocking or a warm bath may also help to ease distress.

Further reading

For a fantastic book on ways to calm colic, naturally, take a look at the ebook, 'Calming Colic'  by osteopath and naturopath Christian Bates BSc.  You can read more about it, or order your electronic copy, here.  Christian quite rightly looks at colic as a symptom, and not a disease - asking why each individual baby may be experiencing colic, and setting out to resolve this holistically - as opposed to listing tips and tricks which might put the crying aside for a short while. 

Summing up

Chances are parents will try all sorts of tricks and remedies to help settle the various symptoms associated with colic. Often, some of these will prove helpful sometimes but not always. If dietary changes don't help and symptoms persist, talk to your health care providers about what might best help your baby during this transition stage. Keeping a diary about colic episodes will help. 

 

Let us know about any of your thoughts or experiences with colic below. 

About Brendan O'Loughlin

Brendan is a integrative naturopath, nutritionist and yoga teacher. He has completed training in Naturopathy, Nutrition, Herbal Medicine, Yoga, Iridology and Live Blood Analysis.

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