What is colic?

Babies cry for different reasons. Crying is one way babies try to tell us what they need. They may be hungry, have a soiled diaper, or just want a little attention. If a crying baby cannot be comforted, the cause may be colic. Colic is a word used to describe healthy babies who cry a lot and are hard to comfort. No one knows for sure what causes colic. Colic is defined by excessive crying and is usually characterized by the following features:

  • Timing — it typically begins at approximately 2 weeks of age and resolves by 4 months. Within the day, crying is concentrated in the late afternoon and evening hours.
  • Behavior — bouts of crying are prolonged and unsoothable, even by feeding. The infant usually is described as having clenched fists, legs bent over its abdomen, arching back, a hard distended abdomen, passing of gas, and active grimacing or "painful" look on the face.

What are the symptoms of colic?

Babies with colic cry a lot—sometimes for hours without stopping—and are difficult to comfort. They are generally fussy and may appear to be in pain. They might arch their backs, clench their fists or pull their legs up to their tummies. In addition, the baby’s face might turn red after a long period of crying. Although the baby is fussy and cries, he or she continues to eat well and gain weight.

What causes colic?

The cause of colic is unknown. There are, however, several factors that may play a role, including:

  • Increased family tension or parental stress (which can stress the baby, as well)
  • Air swallowed while eating, crying or sucking
  • Over-feeding or feeding too quickly (This might occur in bottle-fed babies if the hole in the nipple is too large.)
  • Developmental adjustment

How common is colic?

Colic is a common problem, occurring in about one out of 10 infants. It occurs equally in baby boys and baby girls, and usually begins within 10 days to 3 weeks after birth.

How is colic diagnosed?

Your baby’s doctor can usually diagnose colic based on the pattern of symptoms. It will help the doctor if you keep a record of when the baby’s crying spells occur, when your baby sleeps, what your baby eats and how often, and your baby’s pattern of bowel movements.

The doctor may perform a physical exam to rule out a physical condition—such as esophageal reflux, an infection or an allergy—as the cause of the baby’s fussiness.

How is colic treated?

There is no cure for colic, but there are steps you can take to help soothe your baby. Try some or all of the following tips. You will learn which ones work for your baby and which do not.

  • If you’re nursing, you can try to eliminate milk products, caffeine, onions, cabbage, and any other potentially irritating foods from your own diet. If you’re feeding formula to your baby, talk with your pediatrician about a protein hydrolysate formula. If food sensitivity is causing the discomfort, the colic should decrease within a few days of these changes.
  • Do not overfeed your baby, which could make her uncomfortable. In general, try to wait at least two to two and a half hours from the start of one feeding to the start of the next one.
  • Walk your baby in a baby carrier to soothe her. The motion and body contact will reassure her, even if her discomfort persists.
  • Rock her, run the vacuum in the next room, or place her where she can hear the clothes dryer, a fan or a white- noise machine. Steady rhythmic motion and a calming sound may help her fall asleep. However, be sure to never place your child on top of the washer/dryer.
  • Introduce a pacifier. While some breastfed babies will actively refuse it, it will provide instant relief for others.
  • Lay your baby tummy-down across your knees and gently rub her back. The pressure against her belly may help comfort her.
  • Swaddle her in a large, thin blanket so that she feels secure and warm.
  • When you’re feeling tense and anxious, have a family member or a friend look after the baby—and get out of the house. Even an hour or two away will help you maintain a positive attitude.
  • No matter how impatient or angry you become, a baby should never be shaken. Shaking an infant hard can cause blindness, brain damage, or even death. Let your own doctor know if you are depressed or are having trouble dealing with your emotions, as she can recommend ways to help.

It also is very important that you take care of yourself. Ask family members or friends to help you so you don’t become exhausted or over-stressed.

Will a baby with colic get better?

Although a bout of colic can be frightening to watch, especially for first-time parents, colic is not harmful to the baby’s health. Babies with colic will eventually outgrow the condition, usually by the time they are 3 to 4 months old.

When should I call my health care provider?

Call your baby’s doctor if your baby stops gaining weight, shows dramatic changes in behavior or has any of the following symptoms:

  • Fever
  • Forceful vomiting (especially green in color or with blood in it)
  • Diarrhea
  • Blood in the stools


American Academy of Pediatrics.
Healthy Children. Ages & Stages. Colic.
Accessed 10/5/2010

Barr, Ronald G. "Management of Clinical Problems and Emotional Care: Colic and Crying Syndromes in Infants," Pediatrics Vol. 102 No. 5 Supplement November 1998, pp. 1282-1286

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This information is provided by the Cleveland Clinic and is not intended to replace the medical advice of your doctor or health care provider. Please consult your health care provider for advice about a specific medical condition. This document was last reviewed on: 10/5/2010...#10823