What is baby colic?
Baby colic is extended crying for no apparent reason in an otherwise healthy baby. All babies have periods of fussiness, but colic is different. The specific baby colic definition is based on threes:
- Crying lasts for three hours or longer each day
- Crying happens for three days or more a week
- Crying occurs for three weeks or more
Colic is quite common, affecting 20 to 25% of babies. Its occurrence typically peaks around 4 to 6 weeks of age and resolves on its own by 3 to 4 months.
Colicky crying usually starts suddenly around the same time every day. The crying tends to be more urgent and intense than regular crying. Babies with colic are inconsolable, no matter how much you try to comfort them. This can cause a lot of stress in parents and caregivers. To make matters worse, colic spells tend to occur in the evening hours when parents are tired. The timing adds to the emotional effects baby colic causes in adults.
Doctors don’t know for sure what causes baby colic. And it seems that all babies are at risk of it. The most likely theories are that colicky babies are highly sensitive to stimulation or that they aren’t capable of self-soothing yet. This may be related to an immature nervous system. There are several other theories, such as food intolerances and digestive problems, such as reflux (GERD). If your baby has reflux, contents from the stomach can back up the esophagus due to a weak muscle that separates the esophagus from the stomach. Doctors can test for GERD; however, no one single theory can explain colic completely.
Because the cause is unclear, it’s hard to know how exactly to treat colic. The first step should be to talk with your baby’s doctor to make sure nothing else is wrong. The doctor may have recommendations for specific ways to feed or nurse your baby. You can also try minimizing stimulation, while offering physical touch and comfort. What works for one baby may not work for another. Know that you won’t spoil your baby by cuddling and trying to meet his or her needs. In fact, babies are healthier when parents don’t ignore their signals for attention.
Contact your baby’s doctor right away if inconsolable crying happens with other symptoms. This includes fever, vomiting, diarrhea, bloody stools, difficulty breathing, strange-sounding cry, listlessness, or decreased activity. Other red flags include a baby who isn’t feeding well or who can’t suck strongly at the bottle or breast.
What are the symptoms of baby colic?
The main symptom of baby colic is sudden, loud crying that goes on almost non-stop. The crying lasts for three or more hours, on three or more days of the week, for three or more weeks. Colicky babies cry for what seems like no reason, around the same time of day. They aren’t crying due to hunger or a dirty diaper. The cry can sound like they are in pain and they can be very difficult to console. Otherwise, colicky babies are healthy, eat normally, and are relatively calm during other hours of the day.
Other common symptoms of baby colic
Other common baby colic symptoms include:
- Burping or passing gas often, which is due to swallowing air during crying spells
- Curling of the fists or pulling the legs in toward the belly
- Swelling or distending of the belly, which may also be related to swallowing air
Symptoms that might indicate a serious condition
In some cases, inconsolable crying can be a sign of a serious condition. Contact your baby’s doctor right away if your baby has any of these potentially serious symptoms including:
- Decreased alertness, activity or movement, or sleeping more than normal
- Diarrhea or blood in the stool
- Fever of 100.4 degrees Fahrenheit or higher
- Using extra effort to breathe or crying that has a strange sound to it
- Weak sucking at the bottle or breast, or inability to feed
See your doctor if your baby develops symptoms of colic. It’s important to rule out any possible medical cause for the crying.
What causes baby colic?
The reason some babies get colic is unclear. There are several theories about why it happens and what could contribute to baby colic. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, an immature nervous system is often responsible for baby colic. This means colicky babies are unusually sensitive to stimulation or can’t regulate their nervous system response with self-soothing. As the baby grows and matures, the nervous system is able to cope with reactions better.
Other contributing factors may include:
- Medical conditions, such as hernia or reflux (GERD)
- Problems with milk or protein in formula (rare)
- Sensitivity to the mother’s diet in breastfed babies
Many people believe gas is the underlying problem in baby colic. However, there isn’t much evidence to support this theory. While colicky babies may have more gas than normal, it’s primarily the result of swallowing air during crying spells. Passing gas may provide temporary relief for colicky babies, but treating gas has no effect on colic.
What are the risk factors for baby colic?
Any baby can develop colic. It most often starts and peaks between 4 to 6 months of age. In most cases, it resolves around 3 to 4 months of age, although it can last as long as six months.
Reducing the risk of baby colic
It is not possible to prevent baby colic. If you are concerned about colic, talk with your baby’s doctor.
How is baby colic treated?
There is no specific baby colic treatment. Each baby is different, so helping your baby may take some trial and error. If your baby has GERD, your doctor may recommend medication to help treat colic while the digestive system matures. Other suggestions include:
- Burp your baby often during feeding, use feeding equipment that minimizes the amount of air swallowed, and talk with your doctor about different formulas.
- Check that your baby isn’t hungry or needing a diaper change.
- Give your baby a warm bath.
- Hold your baby giving skin-to-skin contact and take calm, slow breaths.
- Make dietary changes if you nurse by eliminating one thing at a time from your diet, such as caffeine, dairy or wheat. Work with your pediatrician for guidance.
- Offer a pacifier.
- Place your baby belly-down and rub your baby’s back.
- Play soft music or white noise from a fan, vacuum, or clothes dryer.
- Rock, hold, cuddle or walk your baby.
- Sing, talk or coo to your baby.
- Take your baby for a car or stroller ride or use a swing to see if motion is soothing.
The constant crying with baby colic can be very stressful for parents and caregivers. The evening timing of the crying adds to the stress because adults tend to be tired when it starts. Check yourself when caring for a colicky baby. If you’re feeling tense, anxious, or even angry, place your baby in the crib or other safe place and step back. Ask a friend or family member to help and get out of the house and away from the situation. Talk with your doctor if baby colic is causing you emotional difficulty or depression.
What are the potential complications of baby colic?
There are no short-term or long-term complications from baby colic itself. The biggest risk of baby colic comes from overstressed parents and caregivers. The stress from baby colic can lead to the following problems:
- Feelings of guilt and anger
- Shaken baby syndrome, which happens when adults reach a breaking point and shake or otherwise hurt babies. Shaking a baby can lead to permanent brain damage and even death.
Help is available for adults dealing with a colicky baby. Ask friends or family members to care for your baby while you get a short break. If no one is available, put your baby in a crib free of blankets and stuffed animals. Close the door and walk away for 10 minutes. Go outside or somewhere in the house to get a break from the crying. Do something to calm yourself—meditate, listen to music, take a shower—then return to your baby when you’re feeling under control.
If you can’t regain control or feel like you could hurt your baby, call 911 or the national hotline 1-800-4-A-CHILD (1-800-422-4453) for help immediately. You can find more information and support for keeping your baby safe at the National Center on Shaken Baby Syndrome.