Colic is a problem that affects some babies during the first three to four months of life. It is defined by the “rule of three”: crying at least three hours per day, more than three days per week and for three weeks duration or more. Colic can be very stressful and frustrating to parents—especially given the exhaustion that comes with caring for a newborn. Colic usually begins suddenly with loud and mostly continuous crying.

All families are at risk of having a baby with colic. All babies are at equal risk of developing colic, no matter their sex, race or socioeconomic class.

What causes colic?

The causes of colic are not fully understood. There are several theories about why colic may or may not occur, including:

  • Temperament and adjusting to the world. Newborns are trying to adjust to the world they are living in, and not all babies have the same temperament. Some adjust to lights, loud noises and all the other stimulation around them with no trouble, while others are not able to adapt as easily. Just like adults, some babies are easy-going and some are impatient. Crying may be one way for a baby to vent feelings as he or she is getting adjusted to the world.
  • An inability to self-soothe. Some babies seem overly sensitive to stimulation and are unable to calm themselves. As a baby matures, he or she is better able to regulate his or her immature nervous system. As this happens, colic disappears.
  • Oversensitivity to gas.  While some people think that gas may be to blame for colic, there is little evidence to support this. In fact, treating gas has no effect on colic in babies. Doctors do not think that babies with colic produce more gas than others. If a baby with colic seems to pass more gas than other babies do, it is probably due to swallowing more air while crying for prolonged periods.
  • Milk allergy. Milk allergies may cause abdominal pain, but will usually also cause diarrhea. A baby who can’t tolerate cow’s milk and responds to a change in formula may have a milk allergy. However, there is no evidence that changing to a non-milk formula has any effect on colic.

What are the symptoms of colic?

A child who is otherwise well who cries or is fussy several hours a day, especially from 6 p.m. to midnight with no apparent reason, may have colic. Also, babies with colic may burp frequently or pass a significant amount of gas, but this is thought to be due to swallowing air while crying, and is not a cause of colic. The face may be flushed. The abdomen may be tense with legs drawn toward it. The hands may be clenched.

The symptoms of colic may look like other conditions or medical problems. Always consult your child’s doctor for a diagnosis.

Why is colic a concern?

Colic may become a concern due to the following reasons:

  • Frustrating and stressful to parents
  • Parents and infant lose sleep
  •  Infant may be overfed in an attempt to stop the crying.

Babies with colic usually grow and gain weight appropriately, despite being fussy, irritable, gassy or losing sleep.

How is colic diagnosed or evaluated?

In order to diagnose colic, your child’s doctor will examine your baby and obtain a medical history. Questions might be asked about how long and how often your child cries, if you have noticed anything that seems to trigger the crying and what comfort measures are effective, if any. Blood tests and X-rays or other imaging tests may be done to determine if there are other problems present.

When should we contact a doctor?

Before assuming your child has colic, you should look for other signs of illness. These may include, but are not limited to, the following:

  • Not sucking or drinking a bottle well
  • Drinking less milk than usual
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Becoming more irritable when held or touched
  • Strange-sounding cry
  • Change in breathing rate or effort
  • Being more sleepy or sluggish than usual.

Call your child’s doctor if you note any of these symptoms or if your baby is crying excessively. The doctor will examine your child to make sure other problems are not present that might be causing colic-like symptoms.

What is the long-term outlook for a child with colic?

The symptoms of colic usually resolve by the time a baby is about four months of age but may last until the age of six months. Consult your child’s doctor for more information.

Tips for Coping with Colic

Between the overnight feedings and countless diaper changes, parents are usually left feeling a level of exhaustion they never knew existed while caring for their newborn. If a baby develops colic (or what appears to be colic), it is easy for new parents to feel discouraged, helpless or frustrated.

All babies cry for a certain length of time every day under normal circumstances. Learning how to interpret your baby’s cry can be helpful in dealing with colic. It is normal for it to take time for parents and babies to get used to each other, and it may take weeks to figure out how to soothe your baby or learn what his or her different cries are communicating.

Although what works for one baby may not work for another, here are some tips for soothing a crying baby:

  • Make sure your baby is not hungry, but do not force feed if he or she is not interested in the bottle or breast.
  • Change your baby’s position. Sit him or her up if lying down. Let your baby face forward if you are carrying or holding him/her facing your chest. Babies like to see different views of the world.
  • Give your baby interesting things to look at: different shapes, colors, textures and sizes.
  • Talk to your baby.
  • Sing softly to your baby.
  • Rock your baby.
  • Walk your baby.
  • Swaddle your baby in a blanket.
  • Place your baby in an infant swing on a slow setting.
  • Lay your baby on his or her belly on your lap, and softly rub his or her back.
  • Go for a ride in the car. The motion of the car often soothes babies.
  • Try using something in your child’s room that makes a repetitive sound, such as a fan, a wind-up alarm clock or heartbeat CD. The sound of a vacuum or washing machine may also soothe a fussy baby.
  • Hold and cuddle your baby. Babies cannot be spoiled by too much attention. However, they can have problems later in life if they are ignored and their needs are not met as infants.
  • Try using a pacifier.
  • Let an adult family member or friend (or a responsible babysitter) care for your baby from time to time so that you can take a break. Taking care of yourself and lowering your stress level may help your baby as well.

What Is Colic?

Crying infant

Colic is the term used to describe uncontrollable crying in an otherwise healthy infant during its first three to four months of life. “We typically diagnose colic if the baby is crying at least three hours a day, for three or more days per week and for three weeks or more,” says Dr. Mary Ann Wilkinson. “We don’t know exactly why colic occurs but it is thought that these babies are unusually sensitive to stimuli and are unable to self-console or regulate their nervous systems.