Colic in Breastfed Babies

Close-up of a baby crying

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Colic is fairly common, affecting anywhere from 10% to 40% of infants, according to the American Academy of Family Physicians. It affects boys and girls of all cultures and races about equally. It also occurs in both breastfed babies and formula-fed babies.

While there isn’t a clear-cut reason for colic, there are some breastfeeding-related issues that could contribute to symptoms.

Here’s what you need to know about breastfeeding a baby with colic and how to get through those first few months.

What Is Colic?

Colic is excessive crying in healthy babies without an obvious cause.

Babies with colic cry for:

  • More than three hours a day
  • More than three days a week
  • More than three weeks

Colic tends to come on suddenly and lasts for long periods of time. It can happen anytime, but it’s often worse in the evening or at night.

It typically begins when a baby is 2 to 3 weeks old and subsides by 4 months of age. However, some babies can continue to have colic beyond that.

Colic may be frustrating and sometimes scary, but it’s not believed to be dangerous or to have any long-term consequences for the baby. Babies who have colic will eat, gain weight, and grow normally.

Crying Isn’t Always Colic

If your baby is not eating and growing normally, they are not experiencing colic. More likely, there is a medical issue that is impeding feeding.

Notify your pediatrician of this, or if your baby cries for extended periods of time (over three hours), which could indicate an issue such as an ear infection, dehydration, or an illness.

If a baby under 2 months old has a fever of 100.4 degrees F or above, that’s a potential emergency, so seek immediate medical attention.

Mother's Diet and Breast Milk

The cause of colic may not be known, but many things are thought to contribute to the condition, including the maternal diet.

The foods that you eat make their way to your baby through your breast milk. Some babies can have a reaction or an allergy to certain substances. Cow’s milk and dairy products are the most common offenders, and they can cause digestive problems leading to colic or colic-like symptoms.

You can try to remove dairy products from your diet to see if the colic improves. Other possible foods that your baby may react to are nuts, soy, eggs, caffeine, garlic, spicy foods, and shellfish.

Be patient as you eliminate items from your diet. It can take over a week to see results. Ask your doctor about probiotics, as well. Research on the probiotic Lactobacillus reuteri shows that it may help reduce colic in breastfed infants.

You do not need to stop nursing. Breastfeeding is not a cause of colic, and babies who take infant formula get colic, too. Switching to formula may not help and may even make the situation worse.

Overactive Let-Down

Another cause of colic may be an overactive let-down.

When your milk flows out of your breast into your baby’s mouth very quickly and forcefully, your child may have to gulp it down to keep up with the flow. When they do this, they're also swallowing a lot of air. Air trapped in the stomach and intestines can cause gas and stomach pain.

Before you breastfeed, you can pump or use a hand expression technique to remove a little bit of breast milk to relieve the pressure in your breast and reduce that first, forceful let-down. Then, when the flow of your milk slows down, you can begin to feed your baby. You can also use gravity to help slow the flow of your breast milk by breastfeeding in a reclined position, such as while lying on your back or leaning back in a chair.

Overabundant Supply

Foremilk is the thinner milk that flows from the breast at the beginning of the feeding. It contains more lactose or milk sugar than what follows.

Usually, as a baby breastfeeds, the foremilk gradually turns to a creamier, more filling milk called hindmilk. But, when there’s an overabundant supply of breast milk, the baby may fill up on foremilk before getting enough hindmilk.

This situation is called a foremilk-hindmilk imbalance and can cause gas, loose green bowel movements, and symptoms of colic.

If you have a superabundant milk supply and switch breasts during feeding, your baby is more likely to get foremilk from both sides. Consider breastfeeding from only one breast at each feeding to help your baby get both foremilk and hindmilk.

You can pump the other breast to avoid engorgement.

Other possible causes of colic that are not related to breastfeeding include gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), an immature digestive system, fatigue, hypersensitivity to lights and sounds, and having a mom who smokes.

Coping With Colic

Since the exact cause of colic is a mystery, there isn’t a specific treatment.

There are things you can do, but note that what works for one baby doesn’t always work for another. Additionally, what works for yours one day doesn’t always work the next. Dealing with colic definitely involves a little trial and error (and patience).

Here are some of the ways you can try to reduce colic in your breastfed baby:

  • Respond quickly: Responding quickly to your baby’s cry will not spoil your child or encourage them to cry more for attention. Instead, by reacting to your child right away, you’ll make them feel secure and safe, and you’ll show them that they can trust you to be there when they need you.
  • Breastfeed more: If your baby is crying, you can offer the breast even if you don’t think they're hungry. Breastfeeding is comforting for your child.
  • Burp your baby: Breastfed babies don't always need to be burped after feedings, but a forceful let-down or a robust milk supply can cause them to take in extra air. The same is true of crying. Since colic is associated with gas, burping is worth a try.
  • Hold your baby: Fussy and colicky babies need to be held and comforted more than calmer infants. Try placing your baby in the "colic hold" (with their stomach over your forearm). The pressure of your arm on their belly may make them feel better. If your baby has reflux or gas, hold them upright to help keep the contents of their stomach down instead. Skin-to-skin contact can also help ease little ones.
  • Offer a pacifier: If you have a healthy milk supply and your baby is over 4 weeks old and breastfeeding well, you can try a pacifier. Sucking is calming for infants.
  • Reduce stimulation: Make the baby’s environment calm. Turn down the lights and lower the TV volume or turn it off. It doesn’t have to be completely dark and quiet (some babies find consistent low sounds, like a white noise machine, comforting), but less stimulation may be effective.
  • Swaddle: Swaddling a baby in a blanket helps the baby feel secure. Swaddled babies startle less and tend to sleep better. Just remember to place your baby on their back to sleep to reduce the risk of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS).
  • Use gentle movements: Try some gently rocking, an infant swing, or a walk in the stroller. A ride in the car can give you both a change of scenery. The hum of the engine and the motion of the drive can do wonders to soothe a baby.
  • Wear your baby: Your baby may cry less if you hold them close to your body. However, if you hold your baby all day, you may not be able to get anything else done. For the best of both worlds, use an infant carrier or a sling to hold your baby close and keep your hands free.

Take Care of You, Too

Babies with colic can cry nonstop. It can be emotionally and physically draining on you as you hold, rock, walk, and try to comfort your child for hours without any results. You may even find yourself crying right along with your baby as you wrestle with feelings of frustration, stress, helplessness, and heartbreak.

It's important that you also look after your own wellbeing as you navigate this time.

  • Be kind to yourself: Colic isn’t your fault (or your baby's), and you’re not a bad parent. In fact, many other parents are in the same boat.
  • Whenever possible, take a break: Ask your partner, a relative, a friend, or a caregiver to watch the baby for a while so you can get a moment away. A walk in the fresh air, a shower, or even a trip to the grocery store may be all you need. You might even pump breastmilk so someone else can take over some feedings.
  • Take a nap: Taking care of a colicky baby requires extra energy, and since it often shows up at night, you may be losing sleep. Get rest when you can, especially during the day when/if your baby is napping.
  • Walk away: If it gets to be too much and you feel like you can’t take it anymore, place the baby down gently in their crib or another safe place and walk away to call someone for help. It’s OK to let the baby cry and go back to check on them every so often until you feel like you can handle it again.

According to the Mayo Clinic, frustration and anger—often because of non-stop crying—are what usually lead to an adult shaking a baby. This cause lead to brain damage or death.

Though you may never imagine your emotions getting the best of you in this way, it is still best to step away from a stressful situation if you feel yourself becoming overwhelmed with these feelings.


A Word From Verywell

It may seem like it’s never going to get better. And, when you're in the thick of it, a few weeks can feel like years. But, thankfully, colic does go away, sometimes as suddenly as it arrived.

You’ll get there. It just takes a little time, love, and patience. And if you're ever uncertain about anything, don't hesitate to reach out to your pediatrician—even if it's just for reassurance.

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Article Sources
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  2. American Academy of Family Physicians. Colic.

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  4. van Veldhuizen-Staas CG. Overabundant milk supply: an alternative way to intervene by full drainage and block feeding. Int Breastfeed J. 2007;2:11. doi:10.1186/1746-4358-2-11

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