Colic in Babies

Updated: Mar 29

By Sandy Antunes, M.OMSc.

When a baby seems to be suffering from digestive difficulties, it can be very difficult to know exactly what is wrong and how to help.  It is very distressing to parents if their otherwise happy baby is crying in pain for long periods of time. Deciding how best to help the baby is made more difficult because of the multitude of often contradictory and confusing advice offered by everyone- including family, friends and health professionals. Most people assume that any crying baby is suffering from colic. In reality, there are several different causes of infant digestive disorders, and so, they should be treated accordingly. Some crying babies may have no problem with digestion, but simply be complaining of being uncomfortable somewhere else in his/her body.

The earliest sign of colic is that the baby is very flatulent, with explosive bowel movements. The baby is obviously uncomfortable and often seems in considerable pain. The stomach is distended or swollen with loud gurgling sounds in the abdomen. Some colicky babies may be more affected than others, and it may lead to bouts of crying inconsolably for several hours.

Lactose intolerance can be a major cause of colic. These babies most commonly cannot secrete the lactase dehydrogenase enzyme and so cannot digest the lactose component of any animal milk. If this is suspected to be the cause of colic in a breast fed baby, the mother should avoid dairy products in her diet. In a breast fed baby, foods in the mothers diet may cause or aggravate  colic. Foods such as acidic fruit, wheat and spicy food should be avoided. Chocolate and coffee may also act as a stimulant to the breast fed baby.

Reflux occurs when the valve that shuts off the entrance to the stomach fails to work properly and some of the the stomach acid escapes into the lower part of the esophagus. The baby will spit up small amounts of semi-digested milk. This causes pain or burning sensation (like heartburn).  Twists or strains on the baby’s torso can distort the function of the diaphragm, and can be a result from the pressures of birth. If the diaphragm is distorted it can disrupt the muscular component of the valve (sphincter) of the esophagus.  Some twists may be due to the infant lying in an awkward position in the womb. This pressure seems to affect the rib cage, twisting the diaphragm and disrupting the valve. Using gentle osteopathic manipulative treatment, it is possible to release the distortion of the ribcage and therefore improve the effectiveness of the sphincter to the stomach. This usually helps the reflux to resolve, although the symptoms rarely resolve immediately. It takes time for the irritation and sensitivity in the lower part of the esophagus, caused by burning from the stomach acids to settle. However, within a week the symptoms would usually be expected to ease or show signs of improvement.

Another common cause of colic in babies is Infant Gut Irritability. The stomach seems to empty too rapidly, moving undigested milk through the small intestine at a great speed. This rapid intestinal movement causes loud gurgling sounds. The fermentation of the undigested milk causes the gut to expand which stimulates its contraction further, as the pressure in the colon causes pain and eventually explosive flatulence.  It seems that the irritability of the intestines is part of a stress response of the brain to pressure. This can cause an over excitability of the nervous system that manages the internal organs of the body, and increases the activity of the gut.

Osteopaths feel that mechanical stresses imposed on the baby during pregnancy and delivery can cause or aggravate colic. A controlled clinical trial showed that osteopathy is highly effective at reducing the symptoms of infantile colic. The research results showed that not only did treated babies cry less, but they also showed a significant improvement in hours of restful sleep.

A common area where dysfunction is found in babies with colic is the base of the skull. The main nerve, (the vagus nerve) that supplies the stomach and upper part of the intestines is vulnerable to compression as it exits out through one of the small holes in the base of the skull. This interference with the vagus nerve is thought to cause the stomach to be more sensitive and reactive, so being another cause of colic. With osteopathic treatment it is important to release the tensions and pressures in the cranium that may still be present from the birth, and may affect the baby’s delicate nervous system.

Osteopathy is very gentle and works in a way that encourages the tissues to ease and release on their own, allowing the nervous system to return to a more relaxed state, which helps to calm the intestines. This treatment, depending on diagnostic and palpatory finding, may help to treat some of the other conditions that are also affecting the baby. This can make the baby more comfortable, helping him/her to cope better with the discomfort of colic.Each baby may be treated differently, although there are some common findings in colicky babies.There is no single prescribed osteopathic treatment or technique for treating babies with colic. We work with the whole body to release tensions and stresses wherever they are found, to restore a sense of balance, harmony and relaxation to the whole body.


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