Common indicators of colic in babies
- Pulling the legs up to the tummy. Your little one may squirm around, drawing their knees up to their belly.
- Arched back and clenched fists. It may be difficult to hold your baby during their tearful episodes. They may clench their fists, arch their back, and stiffen their arms and legs.
- Flushed face. Their face may be red, purple, or flushed during a crying spell.
- Tense, bloated belly. Your baby’s tummy may seem swollen, tight, and sensitive when touched.
- Gassiness. Babies with colic may pass a lot of gas.
How long does colic last?
Fortunately, colic usually doesn't last long. Most infants outgrow colic by four months old. If you think your baby has colic, reach out to your pediatrician, because while colic itself is not harmful, your doctor will want to examine your baby to check for other potential issues that may be contributing to it, such as cow’s milk protein allergy.
What causes colic?
Contributing factors of colic may include:
- 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 or immature digestive system. The word colic comes from the Greek word kolikos, which means colon. Some theories suggest colic occurs when food moves too quickly through a baby's digestive system or is incompletely digested. Indeed, 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.
- Cow's milk protein allergy. Colic is a hallmark of a common childhood food allergy called cow’s milk protein allergy, which affects 2–6% of children.2 A formula-fed infant with cow’s milk allergy may react to milk protein found in routine infant formulas. Switching to a hypoallergenic formula like Nutramigen can help, but don’t change formulas until speaking with your doctor.
Cow’s milk protein allergy in breastfed babies is rare, but if a mother consumes cow’s milk, she could pass on cow’s milk protein fragments to her baby via her breast milk. If the child’s pediatrician identifies them as having a cow's milk allergy, mom will usually have to alter her diet 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 with 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.3
How to soothe a colicky baby
The best way to soothe a colicky baby is to calm them the best you can. Remember, every baby responds differently, so you may need to try a variety of techniques before finding the ones that work best for your little one. Here are some tips that may help your baby feel better.
- Swaddle. Swaddling or wrapping your infant in a thin, large blanket can make them feel more secure. The baby burrito-like technique recreates the feel of the womb and may help promote sleep and calmness.4 Watch our video on tips for how to swaddle your baby or ask your doctor or nurse for guidance.
- 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. Help your baby find their hand, fingers, or thumbs to suck on, or offer a pacifier.
- Massage. 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 and discover some easy baby massage tips and techniques to help get you started at home.
- 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.
What is typical fussing versus colic?
Normal fussing and colic have one thing in common: crying. But when the tears don’t stop for days and hours on end, and your baby is otherwise healthy, it could be colic. Aside from uncontrollable crying, here are some other ways you may be able to tell if your baby is experiencing typical fussiness rather than colic.
Does my baby have colic or is it fussing?
Snuggles soothe them
Babies, like everyone, love human contact. Your little one likes to be snuggled, cuddled, hugged, and kissed—and you probably love doing that, so win-win. Sometimes all a fussy baby needs is a little TLC to transform those cries into coos.
A colicky baby will cry for no apparent reason and be nearly inconsolable. They may not want to be held at all, arching their back, wiggling around, and clenching their fists.
Babies will fuss when they are hungry and usually calm down after eating. If your baby is well-fed and still crying, it could be colic. Even though it may be tempting to offer your baby more food, avoid overfeeding. If they’re colicky, it won’t help and could make your little one even more uncomfortable.
No major tummy issues
While all babies have gas, which can cause fussiness, a colicky baby may have other digestive issues as well. They may vomit forcefully or have severe reflux or diarrhea. You may also notice blood in their poop. Since these issues are not associated with common fussiness, see your pediatrician. It could be colic due to cow’s milk allergy or another health condition.
Could my colicky baby have a cow's milk protein allergy?
A baby with colic could be allergic to the protein in cow’s milk, but severe crying wouldn’t likely be the only indication. Watch for other possible allergic reactions such as eczema, vomiting, and diarrhea. Visit our Cow’s Milk Allergy Center to learn more about cow’s milk allergy indicators and talk to your baby’s doctor about any of your concerns. If you’re formula-feeding, cow’s milk allergy management is usually as simple as switching to a hypoallergenic formula like Nutramigen.
Should parents switch to a hypoallergenic formula for colic?
Switching to a hypoallergenic formula may be the first thing your doctor suggests if they suspect your baby’s colic is due to an allergic reaction to the cow’s milk protein in their current formula. A hypoallergenic formula, like Nutramigen® with Probiotic™ LGG®, has extensively broken-down protein and the LGG probiotic, which together help manage cow's milk allergy indicators and can help your baby feel better fast.
Because breastfed babies have similar rates of colic as formula-fed babies, mothers who are breastfeeding should continue breastfeeding.
Regardless of whether you’re formula-feeding or breastfeeding, speak with your healthcare provider before changing your or your baby’s diet.
Do probiotics help ease colic?
They might! Probiotics influence gut health and promote good gut bacteria, which may help ease colic related to tummy discomfort. Babies are born with an immature gut microbiome, a collection of beneficial bacteria that could play important roles in the baby’s digestive system, cognitive function, and immune system. If there’s an imbalance of bacteria in your little one’s digestive tract, it may lead to distress. Probiotics may help promote a balance of “friendly” bacteria.
Getting help for you and your baby
Taking care of a colicky infant is exhausting. It’s OK to ask family members and friends for help when you start to feel overwhelmed or to place your wailing baby safely in the 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 is temporary.
And remember to reach out to your doctor. Be sure to ask about possible food allergies that may be causing your baby’s colic and whether you should try eliminating potential allergy-causing foods that contain cow’s milk protein. You should only make changes to your baby’s diet under the supervision of your doctor or a specialist.
To find out if cow’s milk allergy is causing your baby’s colic and other issues, your doctor may do some allergy tests and/or suggest putting your baby on an elimination diet followed by a food challenge.
In the meantime, continue to learn about what could be upsetting your baby by finding out which foods have cow’s milk protein. Figuring out whether your baby’s colic could be related to cow’s milk allergy is important for helping manage the issues they are experiencing.
Ask your doctor about Nutramigen® for colic due to cow’s milk allergy
Colic doesn’t always mean cow’s milk allergy, but the only way to know for sure is to visit your pediatrician. If your healthcare provider identifies an allergy to cow’s milk protein, they will most likely suggest switching a formula-fed baby to a hypoallergenic formula, such as Nutramigen LGG. It’s one of the easiest and quickest cow’s milk allergy management strategies.
Nutramigen LGG from Enfamil, the #1 pediatrician-recommended formula brand for cow’s milk allergy, has been clinically shown to manage colic due to cow's milk protein allergy fast, in as quickly as 48 hours.* It helps more babies overcome cow’s milk allergy and return to consuming regular milk in as soon as six months of feeding.†
Nutramigen’s benefits don’t stop there. Your baby’s gut health and developing immune system get added support thanks to the probiotic LGG, which promotes an increase in healthy gut bacteria in the gut microbiome and helps reduce the incidence of future allergies.**. Nutramigen also has expert-recommended omega-3 DHA to support brain growth, and is lactose-free.
While you’re waiting to speak with your doctor, or if your baby has already been identified as having cow’s milk allergy, sign up for Nutramigen Savings and Support. Join now for free and enjoy up to $130 in exclusive savings, samples, tips for cow’s milk allergy management, and more.††
The colic experience can be challenging. It is understandable to be concerned and overwhelmed. But try to keep in mind that as long as there is no underlying health condition, colic is harmless—and there is nothing you did or didn’t do to cause it. Talk to your pediatrician about management options, reach out for support from family and friends, and practice some self-care. In time your baby will outgrow it, the screams will let up, and you’ll both be smiling and on your way to your next memorable parenthood moments.