What Is Baby Colic? The Ultimate Guide

When a baby repeatedly cries a lot for no apparent reason, there's a fair chance they may have what's called colic.
baby colic

When my baby developed colic I initially consulted her doctor. I then spent countless hours researching colic on the internet, as well as speaking with family and friends. I needed to find out more about this subject. And I did. Learning more about colic, not only helped reduce my girl’s crying, but it also helped ease my anxiety as a father.

After discovering what a common problem colic is, and how it can have a huge impact on a parent’s life, I decided to make this article to help you learn more about colic. 

This article will cover everything from the common signs and symptoms, possible causes, to what treatments you can try. And I’ll look at some complications of colic. 

So let’s get started … 

What actually is baby colic?

The medical definition for baby colic (infantile colic) is ‘when a healthy baby cries for more than 3 hours per day, 3 times a week for 3 weeks’. [1] More generally, it is when a baby cries for a prolonged period of time for no clear reason.

The condition tends to peak around when the baby reaches 6 weeks old and can last up until 6 months of age. Very rarely it can extend up to 1 year of age.

Colic tends to affect 10-40% of all babies worldwide, with an even rate amongst boys and girls. Being breastfed or bottle fed does not appear to have any impact. There is also no evidence to show differences between premature and full term babies. [2]

What are the signs and symptoms?

There may actually be no other signs between the prolonged episodes of crying. There are however a few things a parent may notice with a colicky baby:

Inconsolable crying that’s not like normal crying

If changing your baby’s diaper, feeding and comforting them doesn’t soothe and stop the crying, then colic is likely. Daily crying episodes usually start in the afternoon / evening time (but can vary). You may notice the crying is more high-pitched, louder and intense like a scream.

Becoming tense or stiff

Baby may stiffen up and arch their back

Your baby may be increasingly fussy, moving their limbs more so than normal. Discomfort from colic can cause babies to stiffen their bodies. In particular they may tense their arms, clench their fists and arch their backs.

Curling up

Your baby may repeatedly curl their legs up towards their mid-sections.

Changes in face

Crying and discomfort can cause your baby to go red in the face. Parents may also notice their baby furrows their brow and briefly holds their breath. Sometimes, there is paler skin around the mouth.

Swollen tender tummy

Your baby’s stomach may appear bloated and painful to touch.

Gassy and bowel activity changes

During prolonged crying, your baby may swallow a lot of air. This may be one of the reasons they seem more gassy. Parents may notice their baby has a rumbling tummy, is passing more wind and spitting up a lot. Your baby may increase their bowel activity.

Disturbed eating

Your baby may seem desperate to attach to the nipple or teat for feeding. But, they may then reject it shortly after sucking begins.

Disturbed sleeping

A colicky baby may only settle to sleep for a few minutes before waking up and screaming.

What causes baby colic?

We do not know exactly what causes colic in babies. Researchers assume tummy pain is what causes the baby to cry and there has been many theories about why this is:

Developmental

Your baby is adapting to their brand new environment and also undergoing rapid biological changes. In particular the following issues may be responsible:

  • An immature digestive system which may not quite be up to speed in processing milk.
  • Hormonal imbalances can affect the activity of stomach muscles.
  • Digestive bacteria imbalances causing inadequate digestion.

Food allergies and intolerances

Sensitivities to specific allergens could play a role in colic onset:

  • Lactose intolerance may upset your baby’s tummy, whether they are breast or formula fed.
  • Allergens in mom’s diet may react with your baby’s gut if they are being breastfed.

Infantile acid reflux

Reflux may trigger colic

If your baby already has colic, then acid reflux or GERD (gastroesophageal reflux disease) may trigger colic episodes. In particular with acid reflux, your baby may be fussy around feeding time. They may have a tendency to bring up a lot of milk during or after their feeds. GERD tends to have resolved by the age of 1.

Tobacco

Risk of colic increases in babies whose mom smoked during or after pregnancy. Exposure to secondhand smoke also poses a risk.

Excess wind

Excessive trapped air or gas in your baby’s tummy can cause discomfort.

Others

There have been other speculated causes for colic in babies:

  • Baby’s adapting senses can cause a potential overstimulation to their new surroundings. This can lead to your baby becoming stressed and overwhelmed whilst they learn to cope.
  • Feeding patterns such as over- and under-feeding, and infrequent burping.
  • Baby migraines could be triggering the behavior seen in colic
  • Family stresses may be picked up by your baby and affect them.

Treating baby colic

A colicky baby in discomfort needs to be soothed first. Remember to check your baby is not hungry and has a clean diaper. Unfortunately, there is no definitive treatment for baby colic. But, there are many options which can often provide some relief for your baby.

Changes to the environment:

A change of scene may offer a welcome change for the baby
  • Calming surroundings. Create a peaceful atmosphere by dimming the lights. Soft music can also help. New experiences and visitors will increase your babies excitement levels. So avoid these things in the afternoon and evening.
  • White noise. Sometimes the sound of a dryer, vacuum or other such hum can act as a welcome distraction for your baby.
  • A change of scene. Take your baby for a walk outside in a stroller for some fresh air, or even for a drive in their car seat.
  • Warm bath. This can help relax the baby’s muscles. The water alone may be a welcome distraction and experience for your baby.

Contact with your baby:

A gentle massage can help soothe your baby
  • Calming contact. Hold your baby close to your body and take in slow deep breaths. You could consider using a baby wrap for this or a cardigan specifically built for colic babies. Hearing your voice through soft speaking or gentle singing may help relax your baby.
  • Gentle regular motion. Rocking softly over your shoulder, in your arms or in a cradle may help soothe your baby. Sometimes walking around carrying them can be enough.
  • Gentle massage. Slow circular motions over your baby’s tummy may help with digestion. Do this when your baby is happy and comfortable. Or, you can place your baby on their tummy for a gentle back rub.
  • Swaddling your baby. Wrapping the baby snugly (but not too tightly) in a warm baby blanket can give them a sense of security. When your baby is gaining the ability to roll themselves over, stop swaddling them.

Feeding techniques:

  • Upright positioning. Holding the baby more upright may decrease the chance of them swallowing air along with milk. Curved bottle designs assist with upright positioning.
  • Frequent burping should be encouraged especially after feeding to release trapped air.
  • Fast-flow teats have bigger openings which allow milk to flow quickly. Conventional teats release milk more slowly. This encourages more sucking, increasing the risk of swallowing air.
  • Anti-colic bottles are designed to decrease the amount of air your baby swallows.

Dietary changes:

  • Mom’s dietary intake. Trial elimination of some food types causing gas (e.g. cabbage and cauliflower) or acid (e.g. citrus fruits and soda). You could also replace possible allergenic foods (e.g. dairy, eggs, nuts and wheat). [3] Remember to speak to your doctor before making changes.
  • Probiotic drops encourage the growth of health gut bacteria and may help settle the baby’s tummy. Some research shows probiotics can be beneficial for breastfed colicky babies. [4] Speak with your doctor to see which ones they would recommend.
  • Antigas drops may reduce baby gas and thus reduce their discomfort. Consult your doctor to see whether this option is suitable for your baby.
  • Ask about changing formulas. Switching to a hydrolysed (hypoallergenic) formula for sensitive tummies could be an option. Always speak to your doctor before making such a change.

Other options:

  • Gripe water drops are made from herbs and sodium carbonate. Some parents have reported success when using this to deal with baby colic. But caution should be used to avoid formulations contain sugar and alcohol. It should never be given to a baby under 1 month. It’s very important to speak to your doctor first before giving your baby gripe water.
  • Pacifiers (dummies) help recreate the soothing sensation a baby gets from sucking whilst feeding. If your baby seems overly hungry a lot of the time, they may be under feeding. Check with your doctor to see if this is the case.

When to see a doctor

With persistent crying in an otherwise healthy baby, the likelihood of colic is high. It is always recommended to consult your doctor to confirm your suspicions.

Prolonged crying may be related to another more serious issue. Medical attention should be sought should you notice any of these ‘red flags’ :

A fever is a red flag and not related to colic. Speak to a doctor as soon as possible.
  • Distended abdomen – the tummy appears to be swollen
  • Fever – a temperature of 100.4℉ (38℃) or higher
  • Vomiting – aggressively from mouth or nose
  • Diarrhea – also check for blood in the stools
  • Lethargy – reduced activity and alertness levels
  • Not feeding well – baby is not sucking strongly
  • Weight loss – or not gaining weight
  • Unusual cry – which may be weak or very high pitched

Complications with baby colic

The good news is that baby colic tends to be self limiting with no long lasting complications.

Effects on parents

Colic can have negative effects on parents

Caring for your baby during prolonged episodes of crying can adversely affect you.

  • Mothers can be at more of a risk of postnatal depression. [5]
  • Breastfeeding may stop earlier than expected.
  • Parents may undergo a range of emotions. Exhaustion and anger may go with long bursts of crying. Helplessness and guilt may result when a parent feels they can not help their child to stop crying.

Tips for parents

Looking after your colicky baby can be very challenging. Remember, nobody is to blame for your baby’s colic, so don’t judge yourself. Many parents have been through your same emotions and come through. Stay positive … your baby will soon grow out of this phase. If you are feeling the stress, try some of these tips to help yourself:

  • Simple breathing exercises can be very effective. Count to 10 and take in deep breaths.
  • Stick to a healthy diet avoiding alcohol and drugs. Stay active by doing some regular exercise. Catch up on your own sleep when your baby is sleeping.
  • Take a time out. A short 10-15 minute break during a long crying spell won’t do any harm. Lay your baby down safely in their crib, whilst you calm your own nerves in another room.
  • If there are two of you to look after your baby, then share the responsibility. Take it in turns to deal with episodes of colic. An hour off, an hour on. Or alternate night duties. Whatever suits you best.
  • Ask others who you trust. See if a family member or close friend can come and help comfort the baby whilst you have a break. The baby may respond to a fresh set of arms. Take this opportunity to go for a short walk around the block to get some fresh air.
  • Reduce the crying sound levels by wearing ear plugs or headphones. Put some calming tunes on … not too loud though as you still need to hear your little one.
  • Talking about your feelings will help you address them. Speak to your partner, family, friends, babysitter or anyone who will listen. Remember it’s normal to have these feelings.
  • Speak to a professional to let them know you are not coping. Consult your doctor or a mental health professional. Seek support groups online or locally where you can connect with parents and get more help.

Shaken Baby Syndrome

No matter how frustrated you feel as a parent or carer, NEVER shake your baby. It can cause bleeding in the brain leading to brain damage or even death.

Where to get more help

Watch this short video to learn more about colic

What to do next?

Baby colic is not uncommon and can be a distressing time for both baby and you. Don’t forget, it’s only a phase and they will soon grow out of it. 

Remember if your baby is crying, then they may be hungry. Read our article on breastfeeding vs formula, if you want to know more about how these two common methods of feeding your baby compare.

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