Colic in Babies: Causes, Symptoms & Treatment

Colic in Babies: Causes, Symptoms & Treatment

What Is Colic?

Colic is when an infant who isn’t sick or hungry cries for more than 3 hours a day, more than 3 days a week, for more than 3 weeks. The condition is a bit of a mystery, but experts agree on a few things:

  • Colicky babies are usually fussier in the evenings.
  • Colic almost always goes away on its own when babies are 3 or 4 months old.
  • It can happen to any baby, whether you breastfeed or bottle-feed.
  • Kids who had colic grow up no differently from those who didn’t.

When does colic start?

Colic usually starts when babies are 2 weeks old if they’re full-term, or later if they’re born prematurely. It gets worse between 4 and 6 weeks old. 

Colic Causes

Doctors don’t know exactly what causes colic. Some theories about why it happens include:

  • A growing digestive system with muscles that often spasm
  • Gas
  • Hormones that cause belly pain or crankiness
  • Sensitivity to light or noise 
  • Too much stimulation
  • A developing nervous system
  • An early form of childhood migraine
  • Fear, frustration, or excitement
  • Inability to self-soothe 
  • Milk allergy 

Many health conditions can look like colic. If you’re worried about your baby, your doctor can do a full exam to rule out other problems like:

  • An infection
  • Acid reflux or stomach problems
  • Sensitivity to formula or breast milk
  • Pressure or inflammation in their brain and nervous system
  • Eye trouble, like a scratch or increased pressure
  • Uneven heartbeat
  • Injury to bones, muscles, or fingers

Colic Symptoms

Infants often show signs of colic at the same time every day, usually in the evening. 

Colicky crying sounds different than normal infant crying. If your baby has colic, their crying may: 

  • Sound urgent without a clear reason, such as hunger or a dirty diaper
  • Be high-pitched and loud, like they’re in pain
  • Last for several hours

Babies with colic also have symptoms like:

  • Clenched fists, stiff arms, and bright red face when they cry
  • Burping and passing a lot of gas 
  • A tight belly

Colic Diagnosis

There’s no test for colic. Your baby’s doctor will ask you about their symptoms and medical history. The doctor will do a physical exam, focusing on things like your baby’s:

  • Energy level
  • Skin tone
  • Breathing
  • Body temperature
  • Weight

The doctor also might order some tests to rule out other problems.

Colic Treatment

Because there’s no clear cause of colic, there’s no single way to treat it. What helps one baby might not help yours. Just remember that it’s normal for your baby to cry, so if you can understand their different cries, that may help you deal with colic.  

Here are some suggestions to help soothe your infant:

  • Make sure they’re not hungry, but don’t overfeed them.
  • If you’re breastfeeding, ask your doctor if your medications or foods might cause irritation or an allergic reaction in your baby.
  • Change their body positions often.
  • Rock them or massage their back and tummy.
  • Talk or sing softly to your baby.
  • Use a pacifier.
  • Swaddle your baby in a soft blanket.
  • Hold them with their bare skin against yours.
  • Use white noise (like a fan) or a recording of a heartbeat.
  • Take them for a car ride or on a long walk.
  • Put them in a swing or vibrating seat.
  • Give them a warm bath.

How long does colic last?

The symptoms of colic do eventually get better on their own. Usually it’s around the time your baby is about 4 months old, but symptoms can last until they’re 6 months. 

Talk to your baby’s doctor if their symptoms don’t improve.

Colic Complications

Because colic resolves itself, there usually aren’t many complications for your baby. Most of the problems are for parents dealing with the stress of having a colicky baby, which can cause issues like:

  • Increased risks of postpartum depression for mothers
  • Feelings of powerlessness, guilt, and exhaustion
  • Ending breastfeeding earlier than desired
  • Shaken baby syndrome

When to Call a Doctor

If your baby is showing signs of colic, be sure they don’t have any other medical problems. Symptoms it could be something else include:

  • At 3 months old they still have colic.
  • They won’t take their bottle or they’re drinking less milk than usual.
  • They’re crying a lot and you can’t calm them.

Call your baby’s doctor immediately if they have any of these symptoms: 

  • Their behavior or crying pattern suddenly changes 
  • A fever of 100.4 F or higher
  • Vomiting or diarrhea
  • Bloody poop
  • Difficulty breathing 

Parent Self-Care for Colic Stress

When your baby has colic, it can be very challenging as a parent. You’re probably overwhelmed, angry, or guilty. These feelings don’t make you a bad parent. Remember that it will get better and you have to take care of yourself, too. 

It’s OK to put your baby in a crib or playpen for 10 minutes or so while you leave the room to collect yourself. Whenever possible, ask friends, family, or babysitters for help when you need a break. Lowering your own stress level will help your baby, too.

Talk to your doctor or get help if you’re overwhelmed or have thoughts of harming your baby.


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