Baby Colic: Things Parents Need to Know

Few things are as sad, frustrating, and wearing on a new parent as a colicky baby. It feels awful to see your baby suffer for often unknown reasons and be unable to calm them. It can be enough to bring you to tears as well! 

When babies cannot be comforted, we often say they're colicky. Colic is used as a blanket term for when the baby is inconsolable. But what is colic? Here, we'll discuss baby colic - what it is, what causes it, and how you can help your baby through it.

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What is Baby Colic?

All babies cry. They cry to communicate their needs, to release tension and overwhelm, and to show pain. It is their only means of letting you know how they feel. Fortunately, we love them enough to try to decipher what's going on with them. Sadly, when a baby has colic, the crying begins suddenly and doesn't stop, no matter how the parents try to console them. 

Colic isn't one particular illness or disease. Rather, the word describes a collection of behaviors that are difficult to understand. We say a baby is colicky when they're crying excessively without any clear indication of why. This affects 1 in 5 babies.

Parents may experience a colicky baby for extended periods - up to hours of crying. This isn't a great situation for the parents or the baby. To make matters worse, many old wives' tales either insist the baby is just manipulating their parents or that specific prescribed remedies should cause the baby to stop immediately. So, parents are ill-advised to ignore the baby or become frustrated when the 'miracle' remedy doesn't work.

What Causes Colic

The root cause of colic is still unknown. As it isn't one particular illness or disease, many factors could contribute to the intense crying and discomfort. Colic usually begins around your baby's 6th week and can last until they're four to six months old. 

Here are some of the possible factors of colic:

  • An under-developed digestive system
  • Gas or indigestion
  • Overstimulation
  • Sensitivities to breast milk or formula 
  • Overfeeding
  • Underfeeding
  • Overwhelming emotion - frustration, fear, or excitement
  • Childhood migraine headaches  

Related: Baby Won't Stop Crying? Here's What to Do

What Are the Symptoms of Colic?

It's natural for your baby to be fussy sometimes, so how do you know if they have colic? If your baby is healthy, you will know they're colicky because they cry much more than other babies. Here are a few other symptoms of colic:

  • Your baby becomes fussy toward the end of the day consistently
  • They cry for no reason that you can figure out
  • They cry as though in pain
  • They clench their little fists when they cry or curl up their legs
  • Their face can turn red - depending on their skin tone

Additionally, because crying causes them to suck in air, their stomachs can become bloated and tight - increasing their discomfort. So, passing gas, a bowel movement, or burping may give them a little relief.

The Rules of Three

Your pediatrician will usually diagnose baby colic based on the Rules of Three:

Baby cries for:

  • At least three hours a day
  • At least three days per week
  • For over three weeks in a row

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A parent in a yellow sweater holding their crying baby


How to Treat Baby Colic

How do you treat colic if you don't know what's wrong with your baby? Here are a few ideas:  

How to Feed a Colicky Baby

If you're breastfeeding:

  • Carefully monitor what you're eating and drinking. Something that you're consuming could be affecting your baby
  • Avoid stimulants like coffee and chocolates
  • Avoid nuts and dairy. Your baby could be allergic
  • Check any medications you're taking

If you're bottle feeding:

  • Consider changing baby formula brands. Your baby could be sensitive to something in their current formula
  • Try smaller, more frequent feeds
  • Warm the formula to body temperature
  • Avoid overfeeding. Feedings should last about 20 mins. 
  • Try feeding them in an upright position

How to Hold a Colicky Baby

You might be able to give your baby some relief if you can hold them comfortably. Try these holds:

  • Walk while you hold them
  • Use an infant swing to rock them
  • Rock them in your arms
  • Lay your baby across your lap and massage their little back
  • Hold them upright so any gas can be released
  • Establish a habit of rocking them in the evening (maybe read them a story or talk to them) 

Also, remember that any stress or tension you're feeling can make the baby feel worse. So, try to remain calm and at peace. 

How to Comfort a Colicky Baby

Finally, here are some ideas for comforting your colicky baby:

  • Give them plenty of skin-to-skin contact
  • Sing to them (it doesn't matter how great you sound)
  • Give them a warm, relaxing bath
  • Place a warm towel on their stomach
  • Create a quiet, low-stimulus environment
  • Swaddle your baby in a soft blanket
  • Give them a gentle massage
  • See if they'll take a pacifier
  • Present white noise - vacuum cleaner, hair dryer, fan, or dishwasher
  • Take them for a drive in the car
  • Take them for a walk around the block in their stroller
  • Use an over-the-counter medicine for gas relief

Risk Factors from Colic

Medicine has found that babies who suffer from colic have no long-term problems. The only risk factor for babies who cry intensely for long periods is the stress level of the parent caring for them. Unable to soothe your colicky baby can be frustrating and cause many negative issues for the parents.

  • Guilt
  • Shame
  • Exhaustion
  • Anger
  • Helplessness
  • Depression
  • Premature stopping of breastfeeding

One other risk is Shaken Baby Syndrome. The stress and frustration of trying to calm an upset baby can cause parents to harm their baby. Intentionally or unintentionally shaking a baby can cause significant damage or even death to the child.   

A happy baby after they’re no longer colicky

Related:  Newborn Won’t Sleep? Try These Tips

Living With Colic: Things to Remember

As you deal with your colicky baby, remember that their colic isn't your fault. Good parents can have colicky babies. Educate yourself about colic from credible sources, and try to remain calm and peaceful as you navigate this short season of your parenthood. 

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