Colic in Babies: Symptoms and Advice

Mister fussy-pants is not happy. Learn symptoms of colic and some simple advice.

mom soothing baby with colic

tali ditye author mommyhood101  By: Tali Ditye, Ph.D., Co-founder
  Updated: April 29, 2023

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Anyone who has tried to soothe their screaming baby in the middle of the night has most likely wondered whether their baby has colic.

What is Colic?

Colic is a general term that is used to describe a baby who has episodes of uncontrollable crying that lasts for more than 3 hours a day, crying at least three days a week, and having these crying symptoms for at least three weeks.

Of course, every baby cries, and there are a variety of reasons why a baby might be crying, such as hunger, discomfort, fatigue, overstimulation, boredom, pain or illness. But if your baby is otherwise healthy and well-fed and exhibits crying as described above (uncontrollable crying for more than 3 hours a day, at least 3 days a week, and for at least three weeks), then he or she might have infant colic.

What are the symptoms of colic?

Babies with colic cry loud and continuously for 1-3 hours at a time, usually with a bright red face, and legs jerking between bent up to stomach and out straight. Your baby's hands may be clenched, feet cold, and they will have difficulty falling and staying asleep. Colic babies also may lift their head or legs up to relieve gas or fill their diaper with poop, and sometimes refuse to feed or fuss during feedings. Usually parents of babies with colic say that they can just "tell" that their baby is uncomfortable and appears to be in pain.

When does colic occur?

Usually colic develops around three weeks after birth, gets worse around six weeks and then usually starts to get better around three to four months of age. It can occur day or night, but a bit more frequently in the late afternoon or evening.

What causes infant colic?

The cause of colic is unknown. In fact there are probably as many theories about what causes colic as there are parents suffering with a colicky baby!

One of the most popular theories is that your baby's digestive system is not fully developed, and colic is caused by an immature digestive system that has spasms. These spasms produce stomach discomfort for the baby and extended bouts of crying.

nestig cloud crib

Another theory is that your baby's nervous system is not fully developed, and colic is caused by your baby tensing up in response to otherwise normal stimulation (such as lights, noises, jostling, etc).

Again, nobody really knows what causes colic. As more research is released, we will report on those findings here at Mommyhood101.

How can I treat my baby's colic?

Many parents find that what works for their baby does not work for a different baby, and may only work for a little while. 

There are some common themes in parents' stories about what works for their babies. These pieces of advice are:

1. If you are breastfeeding your baby, try removing certain things from the mother's diet. Some parents find that eliminating dairy from their diet works well, and other parents remove other foods such as onions, cabbage, cauliflower, spicy foods, caffeine, beans and other gas producing or acidic foods (such as tomato sauce). There are some really great resources for guidance on this, such as this book. Always check with your doctor before eliminating foods from your diet.

2. If you are bottle feeding your baby, try to make sure your baby is not getting a lot of air bubbles while eating. Hold the bottle upright enough to prevent air from entering the nipple area. Try using a curved or angled bottle, or some of the new bottles that have unique venting systems.

3. After feeding your baby, be sure to burp them over your shoulder or on your knee until they release some gas.

4. Do not feed your baby simply because he or she is crying. Stick to a schedule. Colic can worsen from excessive feeding.

5. Try to reduce stimulation for your baby, such as bright lights, noisy areas, lots of people around, and even other crying babies!

6. Try taking your baby for a walk in the stroller (see our Best Baby Strollers here!) or a drive in the car. Sometimes this helps soothe their cries.

7. Give your baby a warm relaxing bath, rock them gently on a rocking chair, and otherwise try to create a peaceful soothing environment.

8. Try giving your baby a gently tummy massage. There are some great baby massage oils out there to help calm your baby down and reduce friction, and our baby massage guide provides some great ideas.

9. Be patient! Colic goes away as your baby gets older. The first few months with a colicky baby can be very stressful for a new family, so try your best to take it easy and be patient. Time will help your baby.

What NOT to do when treating colic?

Do not use an inclined sleeper: Inclined sleepers, including wedges, inclined mattresses, and inclined bassinets became really popular in the 90's and early 2000's for raising a baby's head above the rest of their body, hoping to reduce gas and reflux and help soothe colic. However, inclined sleepers are extremely dangerous and have been linked to several infant deaths.

Do not use medications without pediatrician's permission: There are plenty that can help treat indigestion, reflux, and spit-up, but they are very dangerous for babies when misused. Do not use any medications without first seeking the advice of your child's pediatrician.

Try to avoid highly allergenic foods: A study published in the journal Pediatrics demonstrated that breastfeeding moms who avoided eating eggs, cow's milk, peanuts, tree nuts, wheat, soy and fish tended to have babies with less colicky symptoms. Always ask your doctor before changing your diet, but this research suggests that colic might (in some cases) be linked to the foods mom is eating.

Do not shake or be rough with your baby: If you find yourself getting frustrated, put the baby down in a safe place and try to relax. Sit down and have a cup of tea, read a book, or zone out while scrolling through Instagram. No matter how frustrated you get, never be rough or aggressive with a baby, and never shake them.

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