The following is one FAQ (frequently-asked question). There are 17 more FAQs on the topic of normal babies' crying and a total of 600 FAQs on our website!
Normal babies have frequent, painful tummy cramps during and after feeding in the first few months of life. This happens when milk enters the stomach. The stretching of the stomach sends a signal to the large bowel, which squeezes its contents, causing crampy pain. Its medical name is the gastrocolic (stomach-large bowel) reflex. Mothers may hear the baby’s tummy gurgling and see the baby squirming, turning red, and even crying for a few minutes. If breastfeeding, the baby may let go of the breast. The baby usually settles after passing stool or gas. Everyone has the reflex, but it is more obvious in babies, who take in a lot of milk relative to their size and whose stool (poop) is more liquid. If the baby is hurting the mother’s nipple by tugging and clamping, she can take the baby off the breast until the baby settles a little, and resume breastfeeding once the baby gives hunger signs. If the baby lets go of the breast and cries, mothers can ease the pain by using the over-the-shoulder burping technique and applying pressure to the tummy for a few minutes. The cramps are often a sign of a good milk supply.
Tummy cramps, pain, and noise are one of the most common concerns of parents.
All normal, well-fed babies have painful bowel cramps, pass gas, or stool (poop) during or after feeds in the first few months after delivery. In short, they eat and then they poop. This is caused by the gastrocolic (stomach-large bowel) reflex.
The gastrocolic reflex shows that babies are taking in enough milk. When the mother has an large milk supply, the baby tends to have more pain from the gastrocolic reflex. Babies who are underfed do not have as much bowel activity.
The gastrocolic reflex is often misinterpreted as something else including:
Each of these diagnoses can then result in worry for parents and ineffective and even dangerous interventions.
The baby’s digestive system is one long tunnel and consists of the:
The gastrocolic reflex is the cramping (squeezing) of the baby’s large bowel in response to the baby taking in milk or other nutrition. When a baby breastfeeds:
Everyone has the gastrocolic reflex but it is more pronounced in babies. Consider that:
When your baby has a painful gastrocolic reflex, you may notice:
Tummy cramps may come on when the baby is sleeping and the baby can become quite noisy. The baby may:
If your baby is having pain from the gastrocolic reflex:
To ease the baby’s pain until the cramp, apply pressure to the tummy for a few minutes. We recommend using the over-the-shoulder burping technique. Stop once the baby is no longer in pain.
Bicycling the baby’s legs is generally less helpful.
As the baby ages:
Pain from cramping is usually much less severe by three months of age.
Reflex and reflux are similar words but describe very different processes.
A reflex is an automatic response to a stimulus. For example:
Reflux happens when a liquid in the body flows in the opposite direction than usual. Gastroesophageal (stomach-swallowing tube) reflux happens when the contents of the stomach rise into the swallowing tube and may cause the baby to spit.
Struijs MC, Diamond IR, de Silva N, et al. Establishing norms for intestinal length in children. J Pediatr Surg. 2009 May;44(5):933-8