What Is Colic And What Should You Do About It?

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Colic is one of those things that you often hear about, and hope that you don’t have to experience. It’s reasonably common though. So, a lot of people have a friend or a relative that has had a colicky baby. It’s also somewhat misunderstood. Almost all babies do their fair share of crying. So, it’s not uncommon for new parents to wonder if their little one is colicky or just crying a bit more than usual.

What Is Colic?

Some babies cry a lot more than others. When a baby cries a lot, and there appears to be no cause, there is a chance it’s colic.

Common Characteristics

If your baby is under five months old, and cries for at least three hours per day, three times a week, for three weeks, it’s probably colic. Crying can happen any time day or night. However, it usually happens at around the same time each day, and late afternoons and evenings are most common.

Crying from colic tends to be more intense than normal crying. Colicky babies often clench their fists, arch their backs, and become red in the face. Crying is often mixed in with outright screaming as well.

It’s important to point out that colic is not a disease. Really, it’s just a pattern of behavior. While it can be quite frustrating to deal with, there are no harmful long term effects.

crying baby

How Long Does It Last?

Colic generally shows up 2 – 3 weeks after birth (or 2 – 3 weeks after due date for preemies). The good news is that while crying bouts may feel like they last an eternity, colic does not last forever. Colic usually peaks around 6 weeks and then begins to decline. By four months of age, 80 – 90% of colic cases are resolved.

Sometimes colic resolves itself gradually. In those cases, infants have a mix of good days and bad days. Crying bouts may become shorter as well. Over time, the proportion of good days increases. Then, after a while, they are all good days. In other cases colic just ends suddenly one day without warning. So, even if you aren’t seeing any improvement, don’t despair. Tomorrow, it may all be over.

How Common Is It?

Colic is fairly common. In fact, it occurs in about 1 out of every 5 babies. That’s good news and bad news. The bad part is that it means there is a decent chance that you will end up experiencing it. The good news is that a lot of parents and babies have gotten through this trying time, so you can too.

What Causes Colic?

No one knows exactly what causes colic. It’s a bit of a mystery. Colic is equally common among boys and girls, breastfed and formula fed babies, and firstborn and later born babies.

There has been some research showing that babies that are born to mothers that smoke during or after pregnancy are more likely to be colicky. However, this risk is reduced if the baby is breastfed.

Theoretical Causes

While no one knows exactly what causes colic, there are a number of theories:

  • Overstimulated senses. Newborns have a built in mechanism that lets them tune out sights and sounds. This helps ensure that they will be able to sleep and eat without being disturbed by whatever is going on around them. After a few weeks, this mechanism goes away. At this point, infants may be overstimulated by what is going on around them.
  • Immature digestive system. It’s possible that food passes through the digestive system too quickly and is not entirely broken down. This can result in pain from gas building in the intestines.
  • Acid reflux. If baby is experiencing acid reflux, this can lead to pain and discomfort.
  • Food allergies. There are a number of different food allergies that might be upsetting your baby. For formula fed babies, it might be an intolerance to cow’s milk. For breastfed babies, it could be any number of foods that mom is eating and then passing along in her breast milk.
  • Imbalance of brain chemicals. Colicky babies might have an imbalance of serotonin and melatonin. Having too much serotonin can cause the intestinal muscles to contract and cause discomfort.

How To Soothe Your Baby

The first step in soothing your little one is to determine if you baby’s crying bouts are really colic, or if there is some other underlying cause. If your baby is crying excessively, it’s a good idea to visit the pediatrician. Your doctor may be able to identify another issue.

If you’re breastfeeding, you might try changing your diet to see if it helps. Foods like wheat, eggs, nuts, onions, cabbage, and caffeine can often cause issues. So, try taking a break from each of these for a few days at a time to see if you notice any improvement. You might also try eliminating dairy from your diet. Give this one a couple of weeks since that is how long it will take to eliminate cow’s milk protein from your breast milk.

If your baby is formula fed, you might try switching to a different type of formula. It’s possible that the one you’re using contains some ingredient that doesn’t agree with your little one.

Colic Remedies

While it can be notoriously difficult to soothe a colicky baby, that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t try. Here are a number of different ideas:

  • Massage. Give your baby a gentle baby massage. This can be soothing and relaxing, and may help take your little one’s mind off things.
  • Sounds. The womb can be a noisy place with all of the swooshing sounds from mommy’s stomach and the sound of her heartbeat. Putting your little one in a noisy environment can actually be quite helpful. Some babies like to sit near the washing machine and others enjoy the sound of the vacuum. Of course, you can pick up a sound machine as well. These often have a variety of different options, including white noise and other soothing sounds.
  • Music. On a similar note, music can be a nice idea. Try putting on some Mozart or other classical music, and then experiment with different things. Maybe your little one will enjoy the Wiggles, or perhaps baby will like your favorite tunes.
  • Calm and quiet. Some babies benefit from going into a calm, quiet room. This is particularly helpful if overstimulation is part of the problem.
  • Take a walk. Motion can make some babies feel better. Get outside and go for a walk while your little one sits in a stroller or a baby carrier. If nothing else, you might enjoy getting some fresh air yourself.
  • Pacifier. Offer your baby a pacifier. This can be really soothing for some infants.
  • Bath. Try a bath. This can be stimulating and distracting. Some babies like the bath and others cry at the sight of water. Even if your little one cries during the bath, it’s possible that when the bath ends, the tears will as well.
  • Swaddle. This can make your little one feel snug and secure, which is reminiscent of the womb.
  • Go for a drive. Driving in the car has an almost magical power to calm most babies down. It’s some combination of the vibrations, motion, and sounds that does the trick.
open road
  • Probiotics. This can help with tummy trouble in case that is the underlying cause. Check with your pediatrician first though.
  • Rocking. The gentle motion of being rocked can soothe babies that are upset at times.
  • Gas relief. Try burping your baby. It’s possible that gas is the culprit here. Try to keep your little one in an upright position during feeding sessions as well in order to reduce the chance for gas to build up to begin with.
  • Switch positions. If your baby is sitting up, perhaps lying down is the answer. Or, you might try a little tummy time. Sometimes, changing things up a little is the best solution.
  • Gripe water. Some parents recommend gripe water as a colic remedy. However, while there is a lot anecdotal evidence supporting its use, there are no reliable studies that point to this as an effective remedy. I included it on this list since it comes up a lot, but can’t say I would recommend it.

How To Cope With Colic

Colic can be really hard on parents. It’s overwhelming enough to take care of a newborn to begin with. They need constant attention, and you pretty much have to give up on sleeping. When you throw seemingly endless and intense crying into the mix, it puts even the most mentally tough parents to the test. Soothing a colicky baby is very challenging as well, which often adds to the frustration.

It’s important to remember that colic isn’t your fault, and it doesn’t mean that there is anything wrong with your baby either. As difficult as colic can be, it doesn’t cause any long term harm whatsoever.

The best thing that you can do to cope with colic is to make sure you have others help shoulder the burden. Both parents should be taking turns, so that while one is on, the other can leave the house and get some peace and quiet. If possible, it’s a good idea to bring in relatives to pitch in for a few hours here and there as well.

One key to getting through this challenging period is remembering that this is just a temporary phase. Within a few months it will probably get significantly better, or even pass entirely.

Howard is a co-founder of Smart Parent Advice. When he isn't spending time with his wife, Kristin, or his two children, he can often be found running around on the tennis court.