Colic in Babies

What Is Colic in Babies?

April 30, 2020
5 min read

All babies cry sometimes. After all, this is the only way your little one has of telling you when he or she is hungry or uncomfortable. Sometimes your baby might even seem to cry for no reason at all.

However, sometimes your newborn’s normal fussiness turns into extended periods of crying that go on and on and can’t be soothed. These nerve-wracking crying spells could indicate that your baby has colic, which affects around 20 percent of all infants.

Read on to find out what colic is, what might cause it, how you can try to give your child relief from any colicky pain, how you yourself can cope with the stress of colicky crying, and when to take your baby to see a doctor.

What's in this article:

What Is Colic? Signs and Symptoms of Colic How to Soothe Your Colicky Crying Baby What Causes Colic? At What Age Can Babies Get Colic? How Long Does Colic Last? When to See the Doctor Coping With a Baby Who Has Colic

What Is Colic?

Sometimes your baby will cry because he or she is hungry or tired or needs a nappy change. In this case, a feed, a cuddle or a fresh, dry nappy is usually all it takes to cheer your little one up again.

If, however, your baby seems to cry for no reason, and continues to cry after you’ve tried all these things, he or she may have colic.

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

If your baby has colic, you may also notice that he or she cries more often in the afternoon and/or evening.

Signs and Symptoms of Colic

A baby with colic might show some of these symptoms:

  • Inconsolable crying. Things that usually soothe your baby – like a feed, cuddle or change of nappy – don’t seem to work. Or, they may only work for short time before the crying starts up again.
  • Becoming tense or stiff. Stiffening or tensing the body, an arched back or clenched fists could all be tell-tale signs of colicky pain.
  • Curling up. Your little one may pull his or her legs up towards the tummy several times in quick succession.
  • Swollen or tender stomach. Your baby’s tummy might seem puffed up and tight, and possibly sensitive to the touch.
  • A red face. Your little one might become a little red-faced from all the crying.
  • No other symptoms. A baby with colic will seem fine between crying spells. See a doctor if you notice any additional symptoms like vomiting or a fever.

How to Soothe Your Colicky Crying Baby

Unfortunately, there isn’t a cure for colic, but take heart: it usually clears up by itself within a few weeks or months. Still, many parents feel helpless and confused about what to do to soothe their colicky baby.

Here are some remedies you could try to comfort and soothe your little one, and give some relief from colic or lessen the symptoms:

  • Hold your baby upright during feeds. This can help prevent your little one from swallowing air along with the breast milk or formula.
  • Burp your baby frequently. Winding your baby more frequently after feeds can help release any trapped air the digestive system, relieving pressure on his or her tummy.
  • Watch what you’re eating. If you’re breastfeeding there is some evidence that cutting or reducing the amount of cows’ milk dairy products, eggs, wheat, nuts and caffeine from your diet may help in some cases. Ask your health visitor or doctor how you can substitute these items to maintain a balanced diet.
  • Switch formulas. If you’re feeding your baby formula, ask your doctor or health visitor about trying a hydrolysed (hypoallergenic) formula, in case the colic is triggered by an intolerance or allergy to something in the formula.
  • Use a ‘fast-flow’ teat. If you bottle-feed your little one and the hole in the bottle’s teat is too small, it could make your baby swallow air while feeding. Using a teat with a bigger hole could help with this.
  • Rock your baby. Gentle, regular motion can be soothing. Rock your baby over your shoulder, in your arms or in a Moses basket or cradle. Go for a stroll with the pushchair or even a drive in the car.
  • Hold and comfort your little one. Close contact and the sound of your voice can be soothing for your baby. If you hold him or her close to your chest, the sound of your heartbeat can also have a calming effect.
  • Play soft music, sing or talk to your baby. The sound of your voice is reassuring and comforting for your child, so saying ‘I love you, ‘it’s OK’, or even just chatting about the first thing that comes into your head can work wonders. White noise – the sound of a fan, radio or a white noise machine or app – could also distract or comfort your baby.
  • Give your baby a gentle massage. Gentle tummy massages – with gradually increasing circular movements – might also help with your little one’s digestion, potentially reducing colicky pain. The best time for this is when your baby is feeling happy and comfortable, for example just after a nappy change. Don’t massage your baby’s tummy while he or she is crying or seems to be in pain.
  • Give your baby a warm bath. The warm water can help relax your little one’s muscles. It could also be a welcome distraction for you both. There’s no need to go through the cleaning motions – just enjoy the water and devote your attention to soothing and comforting or playing splashy games if your baby enjoys it.

What Causes Colic?

Medical experts aren’t quite sure what causes colic, although the crying is thought to be a response to stomach pain. There are various theories about what factors could contribute to this stomach pain, which may include:

  • An underdeveloped digestive system. Your baby’s brand-new digestive system may still have a little maturing to do. Until then, your little one might be finding it harder to digest that breastmilk or formula.
  • Hormonal changes. Changes in your baby’s hormone levels might temporarily affect the muscles inside his or her tummy.
  • Bacterial imbalance. The bacteria that live in your baby’s developing digestive system may still be developing, so they could be out of balance. This usually corrects itself within a few weeks.
  • Lactose intolerance. Another possibility is that the lactose in breast milk or formula doesn’t agree with your little one’s tummy.
  • Excess wind. Extra gas or air trapped in your little one’s tummy might be making him or her uncomfortable.
  • Acid reflux or GORD. The symptoms of acid reflux or gastro-oesophageal reflux (GORD) can be similar to colic. Signs that your little might have acid reflux include bringing up milk a lot during or after feeds, and fussiness during feeding.
  • Exposure to tobacco smoke. If you smoked during pregnancy, or if people smoke around you and your baby, this could increase your little one’s risk of colic.

At What Age Can Babies Get Colic?

Not all babies end up with colic – on average about 1 in 5 get it. If your little one does go through a colicky spell, the symptoms may start appearing at between 2 and 4 weeks of age.

The crying may be irregular at first, with crying spells getting longer until your little one is about 3 to 4 weeks old.

After this, you might notice a pattern in your little one’s colicky crying. For example, it might typically last from 6 pm until 11 pm each night.

How Long Does Colic Last?

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

Check in with your health visitor or doctor if your baby’s colic symptoms show no signs of letting up after 4 months of age.

When to See the Doctor

Babies can cry for lots of reasons. If you think there’s more to your little one’s distress than colic, see your doctor to determine whether your little one has colic or potentially another medical condition.

See a doctor or call 111 straight away if your baby

  • has a fever with a temperature of 38 degrees Celsius or higher
  • has an unusual, weak or very high-pitched cry
  • is vomiting or has diarrhoea
  • seems listless or sleepier than usual
  • isn’t feeding well.

Coping With a Baby Who Has Colic

If your baby has colic, it’s important to pay attention to your own emotional state. Caring for a baby with colic can be tough, and it can make you 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 unsure if you can cope with your baby’s crying, try one or more of the following steps:

  • Breathe deeply and count to 10. Remember that many parents experience these feelings sometimes. It’s nothing to be ashamed of.
  • Put your baby safely in his or her cot and leave the room for a short break. Decide how long you’ll be – for example 10 minutes – and go back when the time’s up.
  • Call a friend or family member for emotional support
  • Ask your health visitor or doctor about support groups in your local area
  • Ask for and accept help from family and friends who can take care of your baby for a short period to give you a little time out.

FAQs at a Glance

  • Q : How can I tell the difference between colic and regular crying?
  • Q : What is the main cause of colic?
  • Q : What are the best ways to treat colic?
  • Q : How should I feed a baby with colic?

No matter how upset or frustrated you might feel when your baby is crying, remember that lots of parents find this hard.

You’re doing a great job, so hang in there – this colicky phase may be tough, but it will pass soon enough. In the meantime, take care of yourself and don’t be shy about asking for help or support if you need it.

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 National Health Service (NHS). 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.

See all sources

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