What is colic?
Colic is uncontrollable crying in an otherwise healthy baby. Your baby is considered colicky if he's younger than 5 months old and cries for more than three hours in a row, three or more days a week, for at least three weeks running (phew!).
Colic isn't a disease and won't cause your baby any long-term harm, but it's often a very tough thing for babies and their parents to go through.
About one out of five babies develop colic, usually when they're between 2 and 3 weeks old (or two or three weeks after their due date if they were born premature).
What are the symptoms of colic?
Babies normally cry when they're wet, hungry, frightened, or tired, but if your baby shows the following signs, she may have colic.
- Excessive crying, often at the same time of day (usually in the late afternoon or evening)
- Cries that are louder and higher-pitched than normal. Your baby may sound like she's in pain.
- Inconsolableness, despite your efforts to soothe
- Crying episodes that start and end suddenly
- Signs of tummy trouble: Babies suffering from a gassy tummy or other gastrointestinal problems can become very upset. To make matters worse, a baby with colic often swallows air when she cries, contributing to the gas problem.
You may notice that your colicky baby clenches her fingers, arches her back, becomes flushed, and alternately extends or pulls up her legs and passes gas as she cries. Her face might be flushed and her belly distended. She may seem to feel better after passing gas or having a bowel movement.
How long does colic last?
Thankfully, there's a light at the end of the tunnel. Colic tends to peak around 6 weeks, and then improves significantly between 3 and 4 months. By 4 months of age, 80 to 90 percent of infants are over colic. The remaining small percentage might take another month.
Yes, that's a long tunnel. But in the meantime, learn how to comfort your baby as best you can and ask for help whenever you need it. Caring for a colicky baby can be very stressful, and you will need to take regular breaks to maintain your own well-being. Have your partner or a friend or relative take over while you go for a walk, take a nap, or let loose with a good cry yourself.
What causes colic?
Colic is one of the great mysteries of baby life. The condition is equally common among firstborn and later-born babies; boys and girls; and breastfed and formula-fed infants. No one knows why some babies are more prone to it than others, but theories abound. And there may well be more than one cause. The possibilities include:
- Smoking. We do know that babies born to mothers who smoked during pregnancy or postpartum are at increased risk of colic (although this risk is reduced if the baby is breastfed).
- Sensitivity. Some experts believe that long bouts of colicky crying are a physical release for sensitive babies. By the time evening rolls around, they say, these babies just can't handle any more sights, sounds, or sensations, and so they become distraught and cry.
- Tummy problems. Other experts think that gastrointestinal factors (a gassy tummy, under- or overfeeding, or an immature digestive system) can play a role in colic symptoms.
You can help make your baby more comfortable by making sure he isn't swallowing too much air while nursing or bottle-feeding. That means keeping him upright during feedings; burping him adequately; and making sure he has a good latch or the right bottle.
Two to 3 percent of babies have tummy pain due to an intolerance or allergy to cow's milk protein. If you think your baby might be sensitive to something in his formula or your breast milk, talk to his pediatrician. (If you're breastfeeding, you may need to eliminate dairy products from your diet for a few weeks. If your baby is formula-fed, the doctor might suggest switching to an extensively hydrolyzed formula.)
- Gastroesophageal reflux (GERD). This condition, also known as acid reflux, might lead to colic symptoms. If your baby spits up often and seems uncomfortable or isn't growing as expected, visit the doctor and let her know about your concerns.
- Gut bacteria. Another theory is that colic may be caused by an imbalance of healthy bacteria in the intestines. Studies have shown that infants with colic have different intestinal microflora than those who don't suffer from colic.
- Higher serotonin levels. Researchers have found that some colicky babies produce more serotonin – a chemical that helps the brain communicate with the body and also causes intestinal muscles to contract. More research is needed on the link between serotonin and colic.
- Early migraine. Some studies suggest that colic is a foreshadowing of migraines later in childhood. Researchers aren't sure if colic is an early symptom of childhood migraine or if babies with colic share a genetic trait with those who get childhood migraines.
- Family stress. Researchers have found an association between moms who suffer from anxiety disorders and babies who cry excessively. There may also be a link between colic and emotional tension or depression in pregnancy, and even between paternal depression and colic. If you're struggling with anxiety or depression, reaching out for support can help both you and your baby.
Should I take my baby to the doctor if I think he has colic?
Yes, it's a good idea to see the doctor about your baby's excessive crying. The doctor can rule out potential causes such as intestinal problems or urinary infections, and will check to see if your baby is feeding and growing normally. The doc will also help you determine the best course of action for your baby if she does have colic.
And if your baby has other symptoms – like fever, vomiting, diarrhea or bloody stools – call the doctor immediately. These symptoms are not due to colic.
How to soothe a baby with colic
If the doctor thinks your baby has colic, follow her suggestions for comforting your baby. You can also try these tips:
Gentle massage. Your baby might enjoy a gentle massage, but be sensitive to how he responds. He may feel overstimulated. (Chiropractic care has not been proven helpful with colic.)
Noise. Babies like sounds that remind them of the rhythmic heartbeat and gentle whooshing noises they heard in the womb. Your baby might find it comforting to sit in his infant seat near the clothes dryer as it's running or snuggle in a front carrier while you vacuum. Or he might calm down when the exhaust fan is on in the kitchen.
You can also search online for soothing sounds like rainfall or other constant, natural noise.
Silence. Some babies are comforted by motion, noise, and activity, but others need less stimulation and respond better to quiet, stillness, and darkness.
Motion. Gentle movement can be soothing, so try rocking your baby. You can put him in a baby swing, but if your baby falls asleep in the swing, it's safest to move him to a crib.
It might be easier for your baby to settle if you walk around the house carrying him in a front carrier or sling. He may prefer being held higher in the pack, close to your chest and your heartbeat; or try gently bouncing up and down in this position while hugging your baby close.
Leave the house. If you've been indoors, it may help to take your baby for a walk in a stroller, sling, or front carrier. The new sights, sounds, and smells may distract him, and the fresh air and rhythmic movement of walking may calm him enough to fall asleep.
On the other hand, if you've been out and about with your baby all morning, some quiet time at home might be just what he needs.
Try different positions. Your baby might be most comfortable cradled in your arms, or he might prefer a more upright position, or even lying tummy-down across your lap. Try different positions when he's upset to see if he seems to prefer one position over another.
Swaddle. Think about how snug your baby was before his birth, and you'll have a good idea of how wide the world seems to him right now. Swaddling – wrapping your infant snugly in a blanket or cloth – can help a baby feel less out of control. You can try swaddling your baby during feedings if he has trouble settling down enough to eat, or wrap him up before his usual colicky period or before you put him down to sleep.
Not only might swaddling help your colicky baby get to sleep, there's a good chance it will help him stay asleep, too.
Researchers have found that babies who are swaddled sleep more soundly than those who aren't. That's because when a baby twitches during sleep, his own movements can wake him up. Swaddling keeps that little twitch from becoming a full-fledged flail he's unlikely to sleep through.
It's best to keep your swaddled baby where you can keep an eye on him to make sure he doesn't roll onto his stomach and wind up face-down on the mattress. To reduce this risk, stop swaddling your baby when he's about 2 months old (or is able to roll over).
Draw a warm bath. A calming bath in the middle of your baby's crying jag might distract and relax him. Some babies are soothed by the spray of a handheld nozzle on their back. Your baby may enjoy the rhythmic pulsing of the warm water as well as the sound.
Pacify. Anything that helps your baby calm down is a lifesaver right now. For some babies, sucking is the ultimate soother. Consider offering him a pacifier, or encourage your baby to suck on his finger by gently putting it in his mouth.
Ease gassiness. Some colicky babies also suffer from gassiness because they tend to swallow air while crying. Keep your baby upright during feedings, and burp him often to try to ease gas pain.
Warm water bottle. Some babies enjoy the feeling of warm water against their belly. Fill a hot water bottle with lukewarm water and wrap it in a towel. (Don't make the water too hot – what feels warm to you might be too hot for your baby.) Place it on your belly and let your baby lie on top of you.
Probiotics. Babies with colic may have different gut bacteria than babies who don't have colic. Studies have shown that probiotics (specifically L reuteri) help reduce colic symptoms in breastfed babies. (More studies are needed to find out if it works for formula-fed babies, too). Ask your baby's healthcare provider whether probiotics may be worth a try. If so, she can recommend a probiotic for your baby.
Are there any medicines or supplements that ease colic?
Other than probiotics, you can try anti-gas drops (such as simethicone/Mylicon) sold over-the-counter. Anti-gas drops have not been proven effective for colic, but they are commonly used for gas pain in babies and are generally considered safe.
Don't give your baby any of these in an effort to calm her down:
- Infant cereal or other solid foods. Your infant baby isn't ready to digest solid food, and giving it to her won't help her feel better.
- Medications such as antispasmodics or antihistamines. These can be unsafe for your baby.
- Herbal teas or supplements. Some studies show that certain herbs, including gripe water, can relieve colic, but they can also be unsafe because the strength, dosage, and quality of the herbs can't be guaranteed. That's why many experts advise against giving herbs to your baby, while others recommend that you only do so under the guidance of your baby's doctor.
Talk with your doctor before giving your baby anything other than breast milk or formula.
How to cope with your baby's crying and stay sane
An inconsolable baby is a tough trial for a new parent. It's enough to make you cry. Go ahead. Also keep in mind:
It's not personal
When your baby rejects your attempts to console her or seems angry with you, remind yourself that she's too young to comprehend the concept of blame. And while there are ways to try to console her, colic has nothing to do with your parenting skills.
You can't do it alone
Share baby-care with your partner. Or have a friend or relative take over for you once in a while so you can take a peaceful walk, a nap, or a refreshing shower.
If you find yourself becoming angry or frustrated with your baby, take a deep breath and gently place her on her back in the crib or bassinet. Go to the next room to calm down. Or call a friend or relative to come and stay with your baby while you decompress. (Never shake a baby, no matter how upset you both become.)
If there's nobody you can call to come and support you in person, contact a local crisis hotline or a parent hotline. The people who staff these phones know how to help.
Reach out to other our site moms who are struggling with colicky babies.
Taking care of yourself is taking care of your baby
Getting enough rest, eating well, and exercising are important tools to help you cope with the challenges of caring for a colicky baby.
You're helping your baby, even if she's still crying
You may not be able to keep your baby from crying. In fact, it's possible that crying is exactly what she needs to do, and you can best help her by respecting and accepting that. Continue to hold her, rock her, whisper to her – and let her cry, all the while assured of your love.