Colic in babies

Just about every baby, starting as early as 2 weeks, has an upset period sometime during the day for seemingly no reason at all. However, sometimes a baby’s normal fussiness turns into extended periods of crying that go on and on and can’t be soothed. These nerve-wracking crying episodes could indicate the baby has colic. Read on to find out what colic is, what might cause it, how you can try to comfort your little one if he has colic, how you yourself can cope with the stress of colicky crying, and when to take your baby to his healthcare provider.

What Is the Difference Between Normal and Colicky Crying?

Sometimes your baby will cry because she is hungry or tired, or because she has a wet diaper. But when she’s been fed, cuddled, or had her diaper changed, she will stop crying.

If, however, she seems to cry for no reason, and continues to cry even once you’ve checked her diaper, fed her, and comforted her as best you can, she may have colic.

This is what sets normal crying apart from colicky crying. With normal crying, your baby will respond to comfort measures and will stop crying eventually; with colic, your baby persistently cries and can’t seem to be consoled.

What Is the Definition of Colic?

Colic is the word used to describe a condition when a healthy baby cries for more than three hours per day, more than three days per week, for three or more weeks, and is hard to console or comfort.

With a colicky baby, the bouts of crying typically intensify and last as the day goes on, and can worsen in the evening, typically between 6 pm and midnight.

What Are the Signs and Symptoms of Colic?

If you suspect you have a colicky baby, look out for the following possible signs and symptoms:

  • Inconsolable crying

  • Screaming

  • Extending or pulling up of his legs to his tummy

  • Passing gas

  • Enlarged or distended stomach

  • Arched back

  • Clenched fists

  • Reddened face after a long episode of crying.

How to Soothe and Treat a Colicky Baby

Many parents feel helpless and confused about what to do to help soothe their colicky baby. Here are some remedies you could try to help limit or prevent colic in your baby, sometimes even before a bout of crying starts:

  • Do not overfeed your baby. This can make her uncomfortable. It might be best to wait about two to two and a half hours in between feedings. If you’re unsure whether you’re feeding your baby enough, ask your child’s healthcare provider for personalized advice.

  • Watch what you're eating. If you're breastfeeding, try to eliminate caffeine, onions, cabbage, and other potentially irritating foods from your diet. Read more about caffeine and breastfeeding.

  • Switch formulas. If you're feeding your baby formula, check with her healthcare provider about trying a hydrolyzed formula (hypoallergenic), in case the colic may be a result of an allergy to something in the formula.

  • Rock, walk, and hold. Rock your baby in your arms or in a rocking chair. Put her in a swing. Walk with your baby in a stroller or baby carrier. Hold her against your chest. Take her for a car ride. These motions and the close contact can be soothing for your little one.

  • Try burping your baby more often. Don’t wait until the end of a feed to burp your baby; instead burp her throughout the feed even if you think your baby may not need to be burped. For example, if you are bottle feeding your baby you may wish to burp her every two to three ounces of milk, and if you are breastfeeding your baby you may wish to burp her when you switch from one breast to the other. You can read more about how to burp your baby.

  • Offer your baby a pacifier. Sucking on a pacifier may help calm her. Keep in mind you should never give your baby a pacifier that is filled or dipped in honey. This is partly because the sugar in honey is not the best for your baby’s healthy but also because it is not healthy for babies under the age of 12 months to have honey. Read more about when babies can have honey.

  • Give her a gentle massage. Place your baby across your lap, tummy down, and rub her back. Read more about giving your baby a massage.

  • Turn on some white noise. Turn on a fan, a dryer, vacuum cleaner, or noise machine as she may find these kinds of noises comforting.

  • Give her a warm bath. If your baby finds being in water soothing, you can indulge her in a lovely warm bath when she’s feeling fussy. Just make sure to never leave your little one unattended near water.

  • Play soft music, sing, or talk to her. Soothing your little one this way may help your baby calm down.

  • Wrap her securely in a large, thin blanket. You may even like to swaddle your baby, which involves wrapping her snugly in a swaddle blanket.

Unfortunately, there is no cure for colic. Remember that sometimes no matter what you do your baby will cry. So don’t beat yourself up about it. Try any number of these different approaches. If one method doesn’t work within a week, go with something else on the list.

You may find that by the time you’ve tried most of these steps, your baby will have outgrown this colicky phase.

What Causes Colic?

Medical experts aren’t quite sure what causes an otherwise healthy baby to cry so much. The condition could result from multiple contributing factors, and sometimes multiple triggers may be at play.

Theories about the potential causes of colic include:

  • Gassiness. Many babies with colic have gas, but gas can be the result of crying — air is swallowed when a baby cries or nurses, and all the trapped air can make your baby feel uncomfortable.

  • Digestive issues. This can include if your baby’s digestive system is still underdeveloped or there is an imbalance of healthy bacteria in the digestive system.

  • Temperament. Babies are born with certain personality traits, and some babies may be more sensitive or easily irritated than others.

  • Sensitivity to stimulation. If your little one’s nervous system is immature, your child may be extra sensitive to stimulation. For example, all the new signs and sounds your baby is exposed might be overwhelming, and because your baby cannot yet effectively self-soothe he may start crying. Preemies who feel overwhelmed by all the new external stimuli may appear to be fussy instead of crying.

  • Acid reflux or Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease (GERD). Since your baby’s sphincter (the muscle that locks of the stomach from the esophagus) is still maturing, liquid in your baby’s tummy may travel back up toward the throat. The discomfort of this may cause crying. Although almost all babies get reflux from time to time, if the condition becomes chronic (that is it happens often), it is called GERD. The symptoms of acid reflux or GERD can include arching of the back, wet burps, irritability, and refusing to eat or only eating a little.

  • Overfeeding or underfeeding. Being hungry as well as feeling too full can cause your baby to feel uncomfortable, and your little one may express this discomfort by crying.

  • Not enough burping. Burping your baby helps remove some of the trapped air he swallows during feeds or while crying. If you don’t burp your baby often enough during feeds, that trapped air can result in your baby feeling gassy and the discomfort can lead to crying.

  • Food allergies or milk intolerances. If you breastfeed your baby, your little one may be sensitive to something in your diet. If your baby is on formula, he may be sensitive to an ingredient in the formula.

  • Exposure to tobacco smoke. Smoking during your pregnancy or exposing your baby to smoke in your home may have an effect on how active and optimally functioning your baby’s gastrointestinal tract is, and this in turn may increase the risk of colic. Keeping your home and your baby's environment smoke-free is also crucial for protecting your baby from SIDS and from respiratory illnesses.

  • Family stress or tension.

  • Underlying health issues. In some rare cases it could be that your baby has colicky cries because of a medical problem like a hernia or an infection.

When Does Colic Typically Start?

Normal crying typically starts when your little one is about 2 weeks old. When babies develop colic, it's usually between 2 and 4 weeks of age. About 1 in 5 babies end up with colic.

How Long Does Colic Typically Last?

Colic episodes can last for about 3 hours a day until your baby is about 6 weeks old; then, these episodes may get shorter and last about 1 or 2 hours a day until your little one is about 3 or 4 months old.

In general, colicky crying tends to stop when you child is about 4 months old, but it can sometimes last until around 6 months of age.

When to See Your Healthcare Provider

If your baby’s crying persists and nothing seems to help, it could be time to visit your baby’s healthcare provider. He will be able to determine whether your little one has colic or pinpoint another medical condition.

Also, if your baby still shows signs of colic once he’s more than half a year old, speak to your baby’s healthcare provider to find out if there is an underlying cause.

Seek immediate medical attention if your baby

Coping With a Colicky Baby as a Parent

When your baby has colic, it’s important to pay attention to your own emotional state. Caring for a colicky baby can be tough, and can make many parents feel anxious and inadequate, not to mention stressed.

No matter how frustrated you feel, never shake your baby. Shaking an infant can cause bleeding in the brain, leading to permanent damage and even death.

If you find yourself feeling out of control and unable to cope with your baby’s crying, try one or more of the following steps:

  • Take deep breaths and count to 10

  • Put your baby in his crib or another safe place, and leave the room to take a break

  • Call a friend or family member for emotional support

  • Call your healthcare provider and make an appointment to have your baby seen to rule out a medical condition unrelated to colic

  • Ask for and accept help from family and friends who can take care of your baby for a short period, giving you a much-needed break

  • Don’t feel guilty about soothing your baby. You are not spoiling her. By holding and comforting her, you are trying to make her feel better, and eventually the colic will subside.

FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS

  • Medical experts aren’t quite sure what causes colic in babies, but contributing factors may include:
    • Gas
    • An underdeveloped digestive system
    • Acid reflux or gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD)
    • Overfeeding
    • Underfeeding
    • Not enough burping
    • Food allergies or milk intolerances
    • Exposure to tobacco smoke
    • Family tension.

  • If your baby has been diagnosed with colic, here are some strategies and remedies you can try:
    • Don’t overfeed your baby
    • Try burping your baby more often
    • If you’re breastfeeding, eliminate caffeine, onions, and cabbage from your diet
    • If you’re formula feeding, ask your baby’s provider about switching to a hypoallergenic formula
    • Rock your baby in your arms or in a rocking chair
    • Offer your baby a pacifier to calm her
    • Put her in a swing to comfort her
    • Walk with your baby in a stroller or baby carrier, or hold her against your chest
    • Place your baby across your lap, tummy down, and rub her back
    • Turn on a fan, a dryer, vacuum cleaner, or shusher to create some white noise
    • Take her for a car ride. The motion and noise can have a calming effect
    • Give her a warm bath
    • Play soft music, sing, or talk to her
    • Warp her securely in a thin blanket.
  • Signs and symptoms of colic can include
    • inconsolable crying
    • screaming
    • extending or pulling up of her legs to her tummy
    • passing gas
    • enlarged or distended stomach
    • arched back
    • clenched fists
    • reddened face after a long episode of crying.

  • In general colicky crying stops when your baby is around 4 to 6 months old.

A Final Note

No matter how upset or frustrated you might feel when your baby is crying, remember that you’re doing a great job as a parent. Soon enough, this colicky phase will pass, and you can get through this.

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How we wrote this article The information in this article is based on the expert advice found in trusted medical and government sources, such as the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. You can find a full list of sources used for this article below. The content on this page should not replace professional medical advice. Always consult medical professionals for full diagnosis and treatment.