How long does colic last?

Dear Doctor,
My friend’s 10-month-old son seems to still be suffering from colic. The pain only comes at night and it has been like this since he was born. Is this normal? How long should a baby suffer from colic? Anita

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Dear Anita,

Colic in babies has been a universal problem for centuries around the world. It consists of abdominal discomfort and bloating or spasm-like pain, which makes a baby cry.

As babies cannot tell you what the problem is, it is confusing for most parents to figure out what exactly the baby is suffering from, and it also cannot be explained. Why some babies suffer from it and some do not have it at all, also cannot be explained. Why it happens mostly in the night is also not understood very well.

What exactly causes colic is not known, but there are various theories as to why it occurs.

Most common theory is that it occurs due to gaseous distension of the intestines. As small babies are exclusively fed on milk and lack any fibre in the diet, there are more chances of gas formation and subsequent painful bloating, after a feed.

It is also said that muscle spasms may occur in   the growing digestive system of the baby, as a growing process. This may manifest as colicky pain.

Colic is also said to be the reaction of a new baby to some external stimuli to which he is sensitive and feels uncomfortable. Such stimuli can be like sounds, bright light, some smells, and etcetera. Some experts believe it to be an attention seeking tool by some babies. Their colic draws the attention of people around them, who now come and fuss over them.

There is no sure shot diagnostic tool for infantile colic. But there are different measures that can be adopted to give relief to the crying baby and ensure that he sleeps well.

Make the child sleep in a quiet and dark room with no other disturbance. If he gets up crying, hold him close to you and soothe him. Massage his back lightly. A hot water (water should be lukewarm) bag can be applied over the abdomen, to relax the muscles of the abdomen.

Make sure that adequate burping is done after each feed. This involves holding the baby straight and patting the back lightly after each feed, till the baby makes a burping sound. If the baby is bottle fed, see that the bottle is free from air bubbles. The hole of the nipple should not be so big that along with milk, air also enters the alimentary system of the body.

If the baby is given any top feed or milk, very good hygiene should be maintained from when preparing the feed and giving it to him. Because any lapse of hygiene can lead to intestinal infections, which can cause colic pain along with or without diarrhoea. Teethers and toys put by the child in his mouth should be kept very clean and dry.

However, along with colic, if the child has a fever, marked pain on touching the abdomen or any other unusual problem, it is advisable to take the baby to a paediatrician.

Dr. Rachna Pande is a specialist in internal medicine.