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.
- Want to be held.
- Want more or less stimulation.
Although crying is normal for all babies, those with colic cry a great deal, are more difficult to console, have interrupted sleep and can cause parents a lot of anxiety.
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 usually has the following features:
- Timing: It usually begins at approximately 2 weeks of age and goes away by 4 months of age. Within the day, crying is concentrated in the late afternoon and evening hours.
- Behavior: Bouts of crying are prolonged and can’t be soothed, even by feeding. The infant usually has the following:
- Clenched fists.
- Legs bent over its abdomen.
- Arching back.
- A hard, swollen abdomen.
- Passing of gas.
- Active grimacing or "painful" look on the face.
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 three weeks after birth.
Symptoms and Causes
What causes colic?
The cause of colic is unknown. There are, however, several factors that may play a role, including:
- Gas (air swallowed while nursing or crying).
- Reflux (bringing up) of stomach contents.
- Food allergies.
- Milk-protein intolerance.
- Family or caregiver stress.
What are the symptoms of colic?
Colicky babies are healthy infants who have recurrent periods of inconsolable crying—without apparent reason. These sometimes occur for hours without stopping. The baby can be difficult to comfort during these stretches of time. These periods of fussiness are not linked to hunger or discomfort, and the babies are otherwise normal. They 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.
Diagnosis and Tests
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.
Management and Treatment
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.
- Rocking, either in a rocking chair or in your arms as you sway from side to side.
- Gently stroking your baby’s head or patting his or her back or chest.
- Swaddling (wrapping him or her snugly in a receiving blanket).
- Singing or talking.
- Playing soft music.
- Walking him or her in your arms, a stroller, or a carriage.
- Riding in the car. (Be sure to properly secure the baby in his or her car safety seat.)
- Rhythmic noise and vibration.
- Burping him or her to relieve any trapped gas bubbles.
- Warm baths. (Most babies like this, but not all.)
- Decreased stimulation (use quiet voices, turn electronics such as television, phones off).
- White noise, vibration and motion can be soothing.
- 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.
- Introduce a pacifier. While some breastfed babies will actively refuse it, it can provide instant relief for others.
- 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 he or 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 overstressed.
Outlook / Prognosis
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 healthcare provider?
Call your baby's doctor if your baby stops gaining weight, shows dramatic changes in behavior or has any of the following symptoms:
- Forceful vomiting (especially green in color or with blood in it).
- Blood in the stools.