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Desperate about your young baby’s behaviour?

Sunshine follows rain, night follows day, cats sleep on newspapers and babies cry all evening. Such is life in all its glory. Every parent I see will accept that, when they announced that they were planning a family their news was met with smug grins and a threat of “just you wait for those sleepless night!” And yet, when those sleepless nights arrive before the ink is dry on the hospital birth notes, parents quickly come to the conclusion that their baby is unusual, broken, poorly or just plain naughty!

Erratic, fussy, irrational and impossible to soothe, the young baby is the same the whole world over and once you understand exactly why your little one keeps you on your toes (don’t you dare sit down) all evening, you will be more able to accept that what you need are coping strategies rather than a non-existent cure.

Colic is the name given to the particular pattern of crying and fussy behaviour seen in the Baby in the first 3-4 months of life. The pattern starts towards the end of the first week following birth and is characterised by regular, nightly crying bouts between about 5pm and midnight and then again between 2-3am and 4-5am. The baby draws up his legs and appears to be in pain. Suckling and rocking appear to help for short bursts but nothing gets the baby to sleep for long, until the end of that particular colic bout when baby falls soundly asleep.

It seems that colic has been around since the dawn of time and, from an evolutionary point of view, makes perfect sense for the survival of the species. After all, noisy babies get cared for, quiet ones get put in a corner (of a cave) and left alone …

You will hear all sorts of explanations for colic – wind, reflux, silent reflux, naughtiness, manipulation, poor milk quality, stress in the mother, but none of these make sense when looked at from a scientific, rational standpoint.

Colic simply means spasm and this is exactly what your baby is experiencing – painful gut spasm caused by high blood levels of hormones that make the smooth muscle of the gut contract. These hormones are circulating in all of us – they cause labour contractions, amongst other things. They are at their lowest between about 7am and midday, which is when your baby will be most settled and pain-free, and peak daily between 5pm and midnight and 2-5am. The evolutionary reason for a baby to be settled in the warm morning hours when the sun is up and mum is busy out hunting and gathering, and then demand to be kept very close in arms and soothed continually in the dark, cold nighttime hours are pretty obvious when you stop and think about it.

Happily, evolution has given us built-in soothing strategies – skin to skin, suckling and breastmilk, and when a baby comes to our boob all these three things happen together automatically. Suckling creates an endorphin release into baby’s bloodstream and, also, human milk contains endorphins. These natural opiates RELAX smooth muscle and therefore ease gut spasm, but they also wear off very quickly – in about 5-10 minutes. So the picture a mum typically sees is… baby in pain with gut contractions; baby gets driven through reflex behaviour to give suckling cues; baby suckles and produces endorphins at the same time as receiving a little endorphin-rich milk; baby’s gut relaxes; baby stops suckling; endorphin level drops off over about 10 minutes; gut contractions return; baby gets driven to suckle again, and so on and so forth. It is easy to see how mums think that somehow their breastmilk is actually causing the problem whereas, really, the baby is self-medicating on endorphins with each return to suckling.

People call this behaviour “cluster feeding” but in reality it is “cluster SUCKLING”. Because babies need to stay close all night to keep warm and safe, their highly-evolved, spasm-ing gut keeps them on high-suckle alert. Suckling alone produces endorphins and so babies do not actually need lots of milk during these hours – if they could get lots of milk every time they suckled overnight, they would either vomit huge amounts or you would be pushing them to school in a wheelbarrow in a few years! So, as mums correctly perceive, when a baby is at her most suckly, mum’s supply adjusts down. In the less suckly morning hours, mum’s supply adjusts up. In this way, babies can suckle as much as they need to and also get, over 24 hours, just the right amount of milk.

Now, how to deal with the problem. Firstly, it can help to know that there is no cure; only coping strategies until baby develops out of this very vulnerable state and is more able to cope for longer periods without skin to skin and suckling. This developmental stage arrives at around the 4 month mark. Next, it is useful to remember that colic is definitely not caused by wind or foods (with a couple of notable exceptions, for which, see later) seeping into the milk. In fact, all the weird and wonderful ideas you’ll hear about food really don’t bear scrutiny: human milk is made from our blood and our blood cannot become gassy, acidic or spicy and nor, therefore, can our milk. The trick is to keep endorphin levels as high as possible as this is what relaxes the painful gut. Now, as suckling raises endorphins and human milk contains endorphins, boobling will always be the most obvious solution, and you cannot put the baby to the boob too often. Baby will simply do lots of non-milk boobling and then, periodically, when a really bad spasm hits, he will draw a little endorphin-rich milk out to supplement his own suckling endorphins.

Other tricks that will stimulate your baby to produce her own endorphins are massage, skin-to-skin, rocking and jiggling, firm bottom patting, car rides, warmth (such as a bath), and stimulating her senses with certain white noises such as the hoover! Just remember that endorphins have a very short half-life, so every time you stop doing the soothing, you have about 10 minutes or so before the spasm and crying will return. Simply put, if you stop soothing your baby, your baby will stop being soothed!

Trying to cure a baby of his colic is like trying to cure him of being a baby. He will grow out of it at about 3-4 months no matter what you do (everything or nothing) when his immature nervous system stabilises. Of course, if you try different remedies, whichever one you are trying when baby is 3 months old will be hailed as a miracle cure and you will urge all your friends to try it.

Some great news about colic is that the baby who spends all evening and night soothe-suckling and in close skin to skin contact at the boob is less likely to get infections or suffer SIDS. Colic also seems to badly affect the brighter, more sociable babies – again, all that time in arms being rocked and talked to brings dividends. So much so that, even if your baby seems much calmer than your average baby, it is worth treating her as if she were really colicky and keeping her in arms as much as possible.

Colic can be more obvious in the atopic baby so, if you have eczema, asthma, hay fever or migraines on either side of the family, then your baby may be more severely affected. Many atopic people are sensitive to dairy, and cow’s milk protein is one of those rare exceptions where tiny food proteins can pass into mum’s milk and cause upset in very sensitive babies. The atopic mum might find that cutting out all dairy in her diet may possibly cut down the severity of the colic bouts. However, it is also very possible that the teeny weeny exposures to dairy proteins via breastmilk might actually help prevent dairy sensitivity when older. Remember though, the idea that the foods you eat can make your baby windy or cause your milk to be too acidic or spicy is simply not true – mums milk comes from your blood and your blood cannot be windy, acidic or spicy!

So, to sum up, your highly evolved baby survives the early, vulnerable first months by ensuring he spends long periods in arms, suckling. This arms-seeking behaviour is driven by painful hormonally-triggered gut spasms, particularly in the evening and night hours. As well as keeping him safe, this prolonged in-arms, soothing phase of life forges strong bonds and developmental leaps in language and socialisation. The mum who can just can trust her own instincts to pick up her baby up and soothe him continually helps rather than hinders this stage, and her milk carries soothing, gut-relaxing endorphins to ease the pain.

Your colicky baby will almost certainly turn into an outgoing, physically active baby (the more severe the colic, the more the baby may be likely to fit this personality type) who is an utter delight to mother (although you’ll need your wits around you as the little trouper raids every cupboard in sight!) There is light at the end of the tunnel – best to batten down the hatches for 3 months and emerge when the storm has passed and the sun is shining!

“There was never a child so lovely, but his mother was glad to get him asleep …”
Ralph Waldo Emerson

1 reply
  1. Naomi
    Naomi says:

    Love this post. I’m so glad I heeded this advice in the first few difficult colicky months. It enabled me to accept my little one was just doing what babies do and it was my job to soothe him through it. I was a much less anxious new mum as a result. Great blog!

    Reply

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