If infants were born with an instruction manual, early parenting would be much less stressful. Unfortunately for new mothers and fathers, tending to a baby is often a system of trial and error. Every child is different, and what works for one may not work for the other. Similarly, a child may be born who is easily comforted and takes to sleep, while its sibling seems to cry all day long. Getting to the root of those crying fits can prove rather challenging.
When crying goes on and on with seemingly no cause, this could be indicative of something more significant than just a fussy baby. Infants use crying as a method for telling their caregivers that something is amiss. Cries can indicate dampness, pain, sleepiness, or other conditions. But crying with no apparent cause is defined as colic.
Colic is not a disease but rather a behavioral condition. Babies with colic cry for seemingly no reason and very often at the same time each day. Nothing seems to comfort them. In addition to crying, the child may thrash around or clench fists.
Some believe that colic has its roots in the digestive tract, where there is the presence of lots of air that may stem from slow intestinal motility. Others believe colic is linked to an overstimulated central nervous system. Still, colic is not a diagnosis, but rather a way to describe how a baby is behaving. The colicky behavior may be indicative of another underlying condition, such as acid reflux.
According to the National Digestive Diseases Information Clearinghouse, acid reflux affects more than half of all babies under three months old and usually resolves itself between the child’s first and second birthdays. Acid reflux occurs when the lower esophageal sphincter, or LES, muscle remains open and enables stomach contents to flow back up through the esophagus and mouth. Infants have immature muscle development, and their LES may not open and close only when swallowing, enabling food to come back up. The reflux can occur when the baby cries, strains or eats too quickly.
Symptoms may include excessive amounts of spit-up, crying and pain while eating. An infant may drink breast milk or bottles quickly and gulp the liquid down because it is soothing, only to find that this exacerbates the problem. Infants with reflux may begin to cry when lying down. They may also arch their necks and backs during or after eating or spitting up. Some children have silent reflux, where the acid does not come out of the mouth, but rather the baby swallows it back down. Reflux babies may learn to associate food with pain and can develop aversions to feeding.
Whenever a child is exhibiting signs that go against the norm, parents can talk first to their child’s pediatrician. Different feeding or sleeping strategies may alleviate some of the crying. Medication or surgery may be needed in extreme cases, and a parent may be instructed to visit a specialist in gastrointestinal conditions for an accurate diagnosis.