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 doesn’t happen more in any one group over another, so it shows up in 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 the 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 may be frustrating and sometimes scary, but it’s not believed to be dangerous or to have any long-term consequences for the baby. Also note that babies who have colic (rather than a medical condition) will eat, gain weight, and grow normally. If your baby is not eating and growing normally, their crying may indicate a medical issue that is impeding feeding.

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 two to three weeks old and subsides by four months of age. However, babies can continue to have colic beyond four months.

Crying Isn’t Always Colic

If your child cries for an extended period (over three hours), notify your pediatrician. If a baby under 2 months old has a fever of 100.4 degrees F or above, that’s a potential emergency, so call the doctor right away. The doctor will check to be sure your child doesn’t have any other symptoms or medical issues, such as an ear infection, dehydration, or an illness. If it’s not colic, your baby will get proper treatment. However, if your child is healthy, you can feel confident that your baby is not in medical distress.

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

Keep Breastfeeding

If your baby has colic, you do not need to stop breastfeeding. Breastfeeding is not a cause of colic, and babies who take infant formula get colic, too. Switching to formula may not help. It 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 a baby is gulping down milk, 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

Colic may also be due to an overabundant supply of breastmilk. If you have an oversupply of milk, your baby may be getting too much foremilk. Foremilk is the thinner milk that flows from the breast at the beginning of the feeding. It contains more lactose or milk sugar. Usually, as a baby breastfeeds, the foremilk gradually turns to a creamier, more filling milk called hindmilk.

But, when there’s an oversupply, 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.

Breastfeeding from only one breast at each feeding can help your baby get both foremilk and hindmilk. If you have a superabundant milk supply and switch breasts during feeding, your baby is more likely to get foremilk from both sides. But, by staying on one breast the entire time you're breastfeeding, your child is more likely to reach the hindmilk as they fully drain that breast. You can also pump from the other breast if desired.

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

Coping

Since the exact cause of colic is a mystery, there isn’t a specific treatment. That doesn’t mean there isn’t anything you can do. However, note that what works for one baby doesn’t always work for another. Additionally, what works one day doesn’t always work the next. Dealing with colic definitely involves a little trial and error. Here are some of the ways you can try to reduce colic in your breastfed baby:

  • Add some background noise: Some babies find consistent low sounds comforting. You can run the vacuum or try a white noise machine. Research indicates that music may be helpful, as well.
  • Be kind to yourself: 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. Know that this is normal for some babies.
  • 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. It brings your child close to your body where they feel warm and secure. Skin-to-skin contact during breastfeeding may also be soothing.
  • Burp your baby: Breastfed babies tend to take in less air during feedings than bottle-fed babies, so they don't always need to burp after feedings. But, if you have a forceful let-down or a robust milk supply, your child may be taking in extra air. Crying is another way baby’s get air in their stomachs. Since colic is associated with gas, burping is an easy way to try to get some of that uncomfortable air out of your baby’s belly.
  • 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, you can hold them upright to help keep the contents of their stomach down.
  • Never shake your baby: Keep in mind that no matter how stressed you get, you should never shake your baby. Shaking a baby can lead to brain damage or death.
  • Offer a pacifier: Sucking is calming for infants. If you have a healthy milk supply and your baby is over four weeks old and breastfeeding well, you can try a pacifier.
  • 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, but less stimulation may be effective.
  • Respond quickly: Responding quickly to your baby’s cry, picking them up, and holding them often, or even continuously, 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.
  • 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).
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Walk away: If it gets to be too much and you feel like you can’t take it anymore, then you need a break. Take some time for yourself. Place the baby down gently in their crib or another safe place and walk away to call someone for help or just have a few minutes alone. 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.
  • 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.
  • Whenever possible, take a break: Ask your partner, your mom, a friend, or a caregiver to help and watch the baby for a while. Sometimes you just need a little time away to clear your head and go back to your child refreshed. A walk in the fresh air, a shower, or even a trip to the grocery store may be all you need.

A Word From Verywell

Babies cry. It’s how they communicate. But, when your baby cries uncontrollably, and nothing you do can console them, it can be frustrating, stressful, and heartbreaking. All of these feelings are normal. 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.

You can only do what you can to try to soothe your child. They know you are there for them. Remind yourself to stop and take a break when you need it. 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.

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Article Sources
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  2. American Academy of Family Physicians. Colic.

  3. Szajewska H, Gyrczuk E, Horvath A. Lactobacillus reuteri dsm 17938 for the management of infantile colic in breastfed infants: a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled trialThe Journal of Pediatrics. 2013;162(2):257-262. doi:10.1016/j.jpeds.2012.08.004

  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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