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Real colic is intermittent pain caused by muscle spasm of the walls of a hollow organ such as the bowel. It nearly always improves after the first three months.
However, many babies cry for long periods in the first three months, especially in the evenings, for no apparent cause, and this is traditionally put down to colic. It is sometimes called evening colic or three month colic, even though it's highly likely it isn't caused by real colic at all.
Many people assume the crying results from air passing through the bowels, but there's no evidence for this; indeed, X-rays show that colicky babies have no more air in their bowels than do other babies. Having said this, some babies cry less from 'colic' if they have a bowel-calming medicine.
The vast majority of studies show that whether a baby is breastfed or bottle-fed makes no difference to whether or not he has colic. However, one study showed that colic was more likely in babies who started solids before three months. And some women believe vitamin drops give their babies colic.
Causes of colicSome babies get real colic, and there are several causes:
1. Not latching on well, so he doesn't milk the breast properly and encourage the let-down of higher-fat milk; he then goes to the second breast to fill up with even more relatively low-fat milk, so as to get enough calories. (Conversely, a well-attached baby gets some relatively higher-fat milk from the first breast, therefore gets the necessary calories from a lower volume of milk.) Low-fat milk tends to leave the stomach quickly, and because there's such a lot of it, there's a large amount of lactose (milk sugar); this then ferments in the gut and produces gas, or wind, which causes colic and, perhaps, a sore bottom.
2. Being moved by his mother to the second breast before he's finished at the first breast, has the same result. This is particularly likely with a mother who makes a lot of milk and is trying to curtail feeds.
3. Breathing smoke-filled air, or drinking the nicotine-containing breast milk of a mother who smokes.
4. Having one of variety of medical conditions that can cause colic, including food poisoning, gastroenteritis and an obstructed bowel. This is why if you don't know why your baby is crying a lot, or his cry is worryingly unusual, or there are other abnormal signs, you should consult a doctor.
There are some over-the-counter colic remedies available. However don't forget to check with your GP or midwife straight away if there is any indication of sickness, diarrhoea, constipation or high temperature with stomach pain.
Dr. Penny Stanway
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