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Common Problems Encountered by Breastfeeding Women

Colicky Behavior in Breastfed Infants
Few things are more distressing to parents than the sound of their own baby crying. Mother Nature intended it this way, to guarantee that well-meaning parents would promptly respond to their baby's needs. Fortunately, by trial and error and good intentions, most parents soon learn to read their baby's cues and thus manage to keep crying to a minimum. Since human milk is the ideal infant food and is so readily digestible, breastfeeding parents often assume that their babies automatically will be content most of the time. But babies have a wide range of temperaments and differing needs. Some are naturally easy and predictable, while others are extrasensitive and more difficult in general. Babies cry an average of one and a half to four hours a day in the first six weeks of life, but any crying can feel like too much when it exceeds a parent's threshold for coping.

Colic is a vague term that describes excessive crying in an otherwise healthy baby for no apparent reason during the first three months of life. No specific cause or treatment has been identified, and parents are typically advised to use comfort measures to cope with the excessive crying until their baby outgrows the problem. Often, a baby is labeled as being "colicky" (crying without an explanation) when the infant, in fact, has a reason for crying that hasn't been recognized. If your breastfed baby cries excessively without an obvious explanation, consider the following possibilities:

Hunger
When a breastfed baby cries a great deal, the first thing to consider is the possibility of hunger. Neither the number of nursings nor the length of feedings can provide absolute assurance that your baby has gotten enough milk. Many breastfeeding mothers automatically assume that their baby can't be hungry because "I just fed him." But having nursed recently doesn't guarantee that your baby isn't still hungry. Sometimes babies nurse without having latched on correctly or without sucking properly. Sometimes the milk doesn't let-down briskly or a woman doesn't produce enough milk to satisfy the baby. Thus, an infant might "go through the motions" of nursing without actually getting a full feeding.

If your baby cries excessively and you can't figure out why, start with a weight check to be sure he is gaining at an appropriate rate. Don't settle for telephone advice about your baby's "colicky" behavior unless your infant has been weighed within the last week. Time and time again, we have evaluated a breastfed infant referred to the Lactation Program for "colic" only to find that the baby was very underweight and had been crying due to hunger. In the early months of life, you should expect your baby's height and weight percentiles to be proportionate. If your baby's weight is dropping percentiles, his crying might be due to hunger. Crying due to hunger is usually accompanied by vigorous sucking on a finger, fist, or pacifier and promptly responds to feeding.

Reaction to Maternally Ingested Foods
Allergies and other adverse reactions to maternally ingested foods can produce colicky behavior in breastfed infants as previously described. In addition to fussiness, these babies often have skin rashes, vomiting, diarrhea, congestion, or other symptoms. Irritable, allergic infants often are overweight, since they are put to breast frequently in an attempt to console them. They may become fussy minutes after nursing or a couple of hours later. Frequently, a family history of food sensitivities can be elicited.

Overactive Let-Down Reflex
As previously noted, some women are blessed with an abundant milk supply and a brisk let-down. Their breasts work like precision machines when it comes to feeding time. As soon as the milk ejection reflex is triggered, milk pours from their nipple openings so fast that it's all their baby can do to handle the flow without choking. It's a little like drinking from a fire hydrant, and some babies find it too much of a good thing. As they gulp and sputter their way through a feeding, they may get overwhelmed. Some infants pull off the breast and cry in frustration until the milk stops spraying. Others make valiant attempts to get through a feeding, but end up swallowing excessive amounts of air. This can cause uncomfortable gas and lead to unexplained crying during or after feedings.

If an overactive let-down is causing your baby distress, try expressing some milk before feeding, and put your baby to the breast after milk flow tapers to a manageable level. Or, you can interrupt nursing for a minute or two once the let-down is triggered and wait for the milk to stop spraying. Babies of mothers with overgenerous milk supplies often do better nursing from one breast at a feeding instead of both breasts. This way, they get more hindmilk and a gradually decreasing flow rate.

Gastroesophageal Reflux (GER)
The circular muscle that separates the stomach and the esophagus (food pipe) is loose in young infants, so that stomach contents can easily enter the esophagus during or after feedings and be spit up. This condition is known as reflux or gastroesophageal reflux (GER). Reflux is more likely to occur when a baby is lying on his back with a full tummy. Thus, it is not uncommon for a baby to spit up while lying supine for a diaper change after a feeding. In mild cases of reflux, the baby may spit up a lot, but acts content and gains weight appropriately. Usually, by eight to ten months of age, when babies have learned to sit up well and spend more time in a semiupright position, the frequency of spitting decreases.

In a few infants, GER represents a serious problem rather than a benign condition. These babies may be chronically fussy due to the irritation of acid stomach contents in their esophagus, producing heartburn symptoms. Babies with serious reflux often become distressed and irritable during feedings. They may pull away from the breast, cry, arch, act uncomfortable, and refuse to keep nursing even though plenty of milk remains. Occasionally, reflux is severe enough to impede proper growth and cause choking, coughing, pneumonia, or hoarseness.

If your baby has symptoms that sound like reflux, notify her physician. Generally, babies with GER do better with frequent, smaller feedings that avoid overdistension of the stomach. Spitting up can be reduced by frequent burping during feedings and by positioning the baby upright after nursings. Sometimes medication is prescribed to help the stomach empty more rapidly or to reduce the amount of stomach acids. Rarely surgery becomes necessary to remedy the problem.

Infant Colic
Colic, described earlier, occurs in an estimated 10 to 15 percent of all infants, and it is one of the most difficult and frustrating things for new parents to handle. Crying attributed to colic typically is intermittent and intense, often coming in sudden attacks and lasting an hour or more at a time. There usually is a pattern to the crying, which escalates in the evenings, when parents are most depleted and least able to cope with stress. No definite cause of colic has been found, although common theories include a sensitive temperament, an immature digestive system, and excessive intestinal gas. Colic usually peaks around four to six weeks of age and subsides by three months. It occurs in both breastfed and formula-fed infants. Colicky babies are otherwise healthy, well fed, alert and active, appear happy between crying spells, and show no long-term effects of colic.

Colic is not a telephone diagnosis. If your infant cries excessively without explanation, it is essential that your pediatrician examine him and confirm that no medical problem exists (see below). Other parents have found the following strategies to be helpful in reducing infant crying:

  • A baby's cry is a distress signal, and crying babies need to be held and comforted. Holding doesn't reinforce crying any more than feeding reinforces hunger. Responding quickly to a baby's crying doesn't "spoil" the infant. Rather, promptly attending to a crying baby teaches the infant to trust her caretakers. This trust relationship becomes the foundation for communication.
  • Gentle rhythmic motion, such as rocking or swinging, and soothing words or repetitive singing will tend to diminish crying. Steady rhythmic sound, like running the vacuum or fan in the next room, may also settle a crying baby.
  • Swaddling a distraught infant in a blanket or cuddling him snugly and providing close physical contact will help him feel secure and may diminish crying. A front-pack, carrier, or sling will allow you to hold your infant for long periods without restricting your activities.
  • Avoid vigorous bouncing, jiggling, or jostling, crowds, loud noises, or other boisterous activities that may further upset your baby. When your baby starts to fuss, take him into a quiet room with subdued lighting and minimal stimulation.
  • Place your baby across your lap tummy-down and pat her back or carry her facedown on your forearm with her legs draped over either side of your elbow. Pat her back with your other hand while walking, rocking side to side, or squatting and standing.
  • Try a car ride. Secure your baby in his car seat and go for a short drive. The motion and motor usually lull the baby to sleep. Another strategy is to push your baby around the block in his stroller until he falls asleep.
  • Arrange to take a break when you are feeling especially tense and anxious. Just getting outside and walking around your neighborhood or running a short errand while someone else stays with the baby can renew your perspective. Your baby's crying will not seem nearly as nerve-racking to a relief caretaker.
  • Take consolation in the knowledge that other parents have survived colic too. Try to remember the crying is no one's fault, the condition is self-limiting, and your baby is otherwise healthy. Never shake an infant, as violent shaking can cause severe brain injury and even death!


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From Dr. Mom's Guide to Breastfeeding by Marianne R. Neifert. Copyright © 1998 by Marianne R. Neifert. Used by arrangement with Plume, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

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