Babies are champion criers. It’s one of the things they do best. (That is, when they’re not sleeping, eating, or melting your heart.) But some newborns cry louder and longer than others—even when they’re not hungry, tired, or in need of a diaper change. Colic is often to blame for these tearful episodes. Still, you should contact your baby’s doctor any time that you are concerned about your baby’s behavior.
What is Colic?1
Up to 25 percent of infants suffer from colic, a behavioral pattern of excessive crying with no known cause.
Colic tends to follow a pattern of threes: crying for more than three hours a day (usually in the evening), for more than three days a week, and for more than three weeks.
If your baby has colic, she may pull her legs up to her belly, arch her back, stiffen her 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 mercifully go away on their own by an infant’s third or fourth month.
What Causes Colic?
Experts aren’t sure what causes colic or why certain babies experience it while others do not. There are some theories, though.
An immature nervous system. A widely-held belief is that a colicky baby’s immature nervous system 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 hallmark issue of a common childhood food allergy called cow’s milk allergy. Up to 240,000 babies in the United States are allergic to casein and whey, milk proteins that are naturally found in dairy products.2 A formula-fed infant with cow’s milk allergy may react to milk protein found in routine infant formulas. A breastfed baby can be exposed to cow’s milk protein fragments in her mother’s diet (it can be passed in breast milk). Cow’s milk protein allergy in breastfed babies is rare; if it is diagnosed, the mother’s diet is generally altered so she can continue nursing. 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.3 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 cry, too. Your doctor can provide suggestions for soothing your colicky baby. 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 infant.
Swaddle. Swaddling or wrapping your infant in a thin, large blanket can make her 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 she can’t wriggle free her 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 her 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 her in a chair, place her in a baby swing, or try a vibrating infant seat.
Pacify her. Help your baby find her hand, fingers or thumbs to suck on, or offer a pacifier.
Massage her skin. Babies love skin-to-skin contact, and studies suggest that infants who are regularly massaged cry and fuss less.4 Ask your doctor for information about local infant massage classes.
Eliminate potential food allergens. If your doctor suspects cow’s milk allergy and you are 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.5
Remember: Colic is Temporary
Taking care of a colicky infant 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 her 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.
- Roberts DM, et al. Am Fam Physician. 2004; 70: 735-40.
- Crittenden RG et al. J Am Coll Nutr. 2005; 24: 582S-591S.; Martin JA, et al. Natl Vital Stat Rep. 2012; 61:1-72.
- Sondergaard C, et al. Pediatrics. 2001; 108: 342-246.
- Underdown A, et al. Cochrane Database Sys Rev. 2006; 18: CD005038.
- Lothe L, et al. Pediatrics. 1989; 83: 262-266.