What is Baby Colic?

Colic tends to follow a pattern of threes:

  • Crying for more than 3 hours a day (usually in the evening), for more than 3 days a week, for more than 3 weeks

If your baby has colic, they may pull their legs up to their belly, arch their back, stiffen their limbs, pass gas, and have a tense, bloated belly. These behaviors—punctuated by inconsolable crying—typically start a few weeks after birth, peak around week six, and thankfully go away on their own by a baby’s third or fourth month.

“Up to 25 percent of infants suffer from colic, a behavioral pattern of excessive crying with no known cause.”

What Causes Baby Colic?

Experts aren’t sure what causes colic in babies or why certain infants experience it while others do not. There are some theories, though.

An immature nervous system.

A widely-held belief is that baby colic is caused by their immature nervous system which isn’t yet able to handle the sights, sounds, and stimulation of life outside the womb. The prolonged periods of crying are an infant’s way of self-consoling and coping with overwhelming stimuli.

A sensitive digestive system.

The word colic comes from the Greek word kolikos, which means colon. Some theories suggest that colic occurs when food moves too quickly through a baby's digestive system or is incompletely digested. It is true that colicky babies are often gassy. What isn’t clear is whether the gassiness leads to colic or colicky babies become gassy because they swallow so much air while crying.

An allergy to cow's milk protein.

Colic, or inconsolable crying, is a trademark of a common childhood food allergy called cow’s milk allergy. A formula-fed infant with cow’s milk allergy may react to the milk protein found in routine infant formulas. A breastfed baby can be exposed to cow’s milk protein fragments in their mother’s diet (it can be passed through breast milk). Cow’s milk allergy in breastfed babies is rare, but if it’s diagnosed the mom’s diet can generally be altered so nursing can continue.

Up to 240,000 babies in the U.S. are allergic to casein and whey, milk proteins that are naturally found in dairy products.

In addition to colic, babies with cow’s milk allergy also may have reflux, diarrhea, constipation, gas, skin rashes, and upper respiratory problems. A smaller number have more severe problems, such as breathing difficulties, rectal bleeding, hives or rashes, and anemia.

Reflux.

Gastroesophageal reflux disease, or GERD, is often mistaken for colic. Infants who have GERD may frequently spit up lots of liquid, forcefully vomit, choke or gag, arch away from the bottle or breast, seem irritable during or after feedings, or have trouble putting on weight.

Exposure to cigarette smoke.

Research suggests that infants are more likely to have colic when their mothers smoke during pregnancy. The chemicals in cigarette smoke may delay the development of an infant’s central nervous system or gastrointestinal system.

What Can I Do to Soothe My Baby?

Having a baby who is in tears all of the time is enough to make any parent join in on the crying too. Your doctor can provide suggestions for soothing your colicky baby, but the following methods are often helpful. Remember, every baby responds differently. You may need to try a variety of techniques before finding the ones that work best for your colicky baby.

Swaddle.

Swaddling or wrapping your infant in a thin, large blanket can make them feel more secure. It recreates the feel of the womb. Ask your doctor or nurse to show you how to swaddle your baby so that they can’t wriggle free their arms and legs.

Try various hold positions.

Carry your baby in an infant sling or front carrier on your chest as you walk around. The body contact and motion are calming. To ease gassiness, lay your baby tummy-down across your knees while gently rubbing their back.

Play calming sounds.

Recreate the soothing womb environment via soft music, a white noise machine, a fan, or a sound recording of a heartbeat.

Use rhythmic motions.

Steady movements are soothing. Cradle your baby while rocking them in a chair, place them in a baby swing, or try a vibrating infant seat.

Pacify them.

Help your baby find their hand, fingers or thumbs to suck on, or offer a pacifier.

Massage their skin.

Babies love skin-to-skin contact, and studies suggest that infants who are regularly massaged cry and fuss less. Ask your doctor for information about local infant massage classes.

Eliminate potential food allergens.

If your doctor suspects cow’s milk allergy and you’re breastfeeding, you may need to eliminate dairy from your diet. For a formula-fed infant, your doctor may recommend switching to an extensively hydrolyzed, hypoallergenic formula. Certain reactions, such as colic brought on by cow’s milk allergy, may stop within 48 hours after a formula change.

Remember: Colic is Temporary

Taking care of a colicky baby who cries a lot is exhausting. It’s okay to ask family members and friends for help when you start to feel overwhelmed or to place your wailing baby safely in their crib or infant swing while you take a few minutes to yourself. It might feel as if your baby will cry forever, but other parents can assure you: colic truly is temporary. You should talk with your doctor again if your baby still shows signs of colic after four months. It’s possible that something else is causing your baby’s tearful behavior.

*Studied before the addition of DHA, ARA, and LGG.