What causes Colic, really? A Traditional Chinese Medicine Answer & Solution
Updated: May 14
Western medical definition: Infantile colic is one of the major challenges of parenthood. It is one of the common reasons parents seek medical advice during their child’s first 3 months of life. It is defined as paroxysms of crying lasting more than 3 hours a day, occurring more than 3 days in any week for 3 weeks in a healthy baby aged 2 weeks to 4 months. Colic is a poorly understood phenomenon affecting up to 30% of babies, underlying organic causes of excessive crying account for less than 5%. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3411470/
On that note: Colic is not a poorly understood phenomenon in TCM. Chinese medicine has understood the reasons behind colic for centuries and there are simple ways to help treat it. When you know why something is occurring, you can go about resolving the problem.
What Causes Colic? - According to TCM
Weak digestive system
Certain foods consumed by breastfeeding mothers (spicy food)
Cold air breathed into the stomach (cool draft or A/C)
Common symptoms of colic in babies include:
Crying for more than 3 hours per day
Crying for no reason (not hungry and diaper does not need to be changed)
Your baby cries at the same time in the evening every day
Bloated belly and points arms towards tummy
Understanding colic and the digestive process: vis-a-vis TCM
In TCM, it is understood that the spleen & stomach (which involves the pancreas too), along with the intestines are involved in digestion. And additionally, the liver can have a negative effect on the digestive processes (TCM calls this effect, “Wood overacting on Earth”).
Most importantly however, is that in a newborn child their vital organs are not mature. The infant stomach tends to be slightly stronger than the other digestive processes, hence a baby's constant need to feed. With this strong desire to breastfeed or bottle feed their system is overburdened. Food accumulates, gas builds up (and burping sometimes relieves it, but not always) and your baby belly begins to hurt and crying ensues. What’s worse, a mother’s natural instinct to comfort her baby with more breast milk or formula actually makes things worse. Totally unintentional. (Don’t feel bad. You have solutions now…)
The liver organ’s involvement happens when your baby is crying and their stress reaction kicks in because of the gastric pain and constipation. In TCM, the liver is associated with stress and anger. When these emotions ramp up it causes the liver to negatively affect the digestive process. The clearest example of this in adults is IBS. When we get stressed it can lead to bloating, gas and irregular bowel movements.
A little note about cold and its effects on the GI tract.
In TCM, it is understood that cold is a pathogen causing illness. Cold can invade the stomach & intestines directly. A baby is most vulnerable to cold, we all know this and why we bundle them up.
What is less understood is that cold air can be breathed in by a baby and cause a constriction of the GI tract. The GI tract is a sort of muscle, it is layered with smooth muscle in fact. So the concept of an athlete needing to warm up their muscles to prevent injury due to the cold constricting their muscles, applies with the GI tract too. If the GI smooth muscle lining is tight and constricted it can’t move well nor can it break down the food or assimilate it optimally.
Cold air from a draft, air conditioning in a room, even a cold formula or defrosted breastmilk can constrict the digestive muscles in a baby and cause colic pain, constipation and gas build up. It is important to keep a baby warm, the room where they sleep warm and the air around them warm. New mother’s bodies too should not be exposed to cold (a topic for another day).
Professional & Internet Advice is Confusing
You already have read many helpful articles on treating colic in babies. You have noticed some of the advice has helped. Knowing a little bit more now from a TCM perspective, you begin to see how some of those methods do work and others don’t.
For example, a warm bath or warm compress on a baby’s belly works. Warmth relaxes the muscles. Infant massage works (sometimes, depends where and how you stimulate). Eliminating certain foods from your diet if you are breastfeeding does work. TCM advises against spicy foods (not relevant if you formula feed). And of course not feeding on demand; following a feeding schedule does help.
However, these methods (with so many great intentions and creative ideas) are hit or miss. Nothing is consistent, otherwise there wouldn’t be so many blog posts about it or dozens of different suggestions. Try this or try that. This worked for my baby and so did this. But you try it and nothing happens and you are left feeling super stressed and super worried about your baby.
Now of course it is important to know that this doesn’t affect all babies and some babies do “grow out of it.” Yet you are here because this is not the case for your baby.
Why it’s important to treat colic right away
If parents are able to help treat colic symptoms right away, at the root cause, by using Tuina massage and a proper feeding schedule, this will help to prevent other health problems later on in life.
If a child’s digestive system is nurtured and strengthened, they become less picky eaters, their ability to concentrate improves, their energy improves, they are less moody.
There is the possibility of eliminating food allergies, environmental allergies, reducing the chances of developmental delays, improving mental health and supporting the immune system.
Remember, we get most of our nutrients from our food. So, if a child’s digestive system is weak that means they are not assimilating all their nutrients from their food. It becomes a chronic form of micro malnourishment, despite any efforts to feed your child the healthiest of foods and taking appropriate vitamins & supplements. Damaged or inflamed cells in the GI tract are less capable of breaking down and/or assimilating the nutrients from our food. This leads to less blood production and nourishment for vital organs.
If the organs are not functioning optimally, further medication (probiotics/enzymes) won’t help enough. The biomedical research is correct, inflammation in the newborn gut is a possible issue causing colic pain, yet still a mystery. This is why it’s so important to strengthen the vital organs and digestive system, help clear inflammation and help facilitate repair and harmony. Tuina massage is the simplest and most effective way to go about doing this. It is time tested.
Also, here is a research article about some long term effects on children who’ve dealt with colic. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4809021/
Suggested Feeding Schedule Advice
Our western culture had follow scheduled feedings up until about 2 to 3 decades ago. We are seeing it encouraged and taught again. There are many amazing mothers, pediatricians and lactation consultants who know the importance of this and teach it.
Feed on Schedule, Not On Demand
You are not starving your child, nor are you unkind
A simple regime of 2-3 ounces of milk every 4 hours
(this depends on baby’s body weight)
Foods to Avoid for Breastfeeding Mothers
Average feeding amounts by baby's weight
Weight in poundsOunces per feeding
6 to 8 pounds (2.5 to 3.5 kg) 2 to 3 ounces (60 to 90 mL)
8 to 10 pounds (3.5 to 4.5 kg) 3 to 4 ounces (90 to 120 mL)
10 to 12 pounds (4.5 to 5 kg) 4 to 6 ounces (120 to 180 mL)
12 to 16 pounds (5 to 7 kg) 6 to 8 ounces (180 to 240 mL)
As always, consult your pediatrician before trying anything new on your baby or if you are unsure of it. Research and learn as much as you can. Ask questions. Being a parent is a learning process and we are not born with that knowledge. We are lucky enough to live in an information rich society and can ask professional advice when needed or educate ourselves on a topic.
TCM’s Solution: Tuina - Chinese Medical Massage
Learn Tuina to help treat colic pain with our online course. Video demos are prioritized; help your baby first. No need to sit through a lecture.
We created a solution for parents to effectively treat their infants suffering from colic pain. The Tuina massage methods we teach are clear and effective. They work right away. We provided demo videos to follow along, simple enough even when stress and anxiety are high
because your baby is crying non stop. Just press play and follow along. We show you how to do it with a partner or how you can do it if you're alone with your baby.
We also show you how to prevent the colic from occuring again, massage methods to strengthen the digestive system and balance hormones (also important for growing babies).
Imagine how much easier life can be for your child if they have one less health issue to worry about in the future. Digestive health is a big one and by regularly helping your child with Tuina massage you strengthen their vital organs and build their immune system. You’ll help them to thrive!.
Click the link below to sign up for our course and start helping your baby today.