Baby Colic: Causes, Symptoms, Diagnosis & Tips To Cope With It

Written by Rohit Garoo Experience: 9 years
Last Updated on

Your little soul cries continuously for hours together. He suddenly wakes up in the middle of the night and begins crying, but you cannot comprehend the reason. You might think that the baby must have had a nightmare or he has a sore throat/ tummy ache, which he is unable to express. You are at your wit’s end as you do not know how to calm him down.

Colic in babies is one of the most vexing moments of parenthood. The little one can have wailing outbreaks, leaving parents confused. Besides losing out on sleep, the baby ends up being stressed, affecting his overall mental health.

This post helps parents understand colic in babies, its symptoms, and ways to relieve the infant of the condition.

What Is Colic In Babies?

Before we discuss abnormal crying, it is important to realize that a normal baby can cry up to two hours a day during the first three months of life. Colic is defined as crying for over three hours a day, for three days a week, and for three weeks a month (1). The crying is usually unexplained and often at a higher pitch. There is no clear reason or stimulus, and it is also hard to calm the infant during colic. About 30% of healthy, normal-term babies can develop colic, and the condition affects both genders equally (2).

When Do Babies Get Colic?

Colic develops around the third or sixth week, and is at its peak in the first three months. An infant’s colic could last up to the age of four to six months.

What Causes Colic In Babies?

Several experts, including the American Academy of Pediatrics, state that there is no definite reason for colic (3). However, there are some problems associated with colic (4).

  • Babies who are allergic or intolerant to certain foods tend to cry more, displaying colic. For instance, newborns can be allergic to breastmilk due to lactose intolerance or galactosemia (5) (6), and when breastfed, they may become colic.
  • Gastroesophageal reflux is a condition where a small amount of stomach contents, including acid, move upwards into the esophagus. The strong stomach acid causes sharp pain, making the baby colicky (7). Gastroesophageal reflux disease or GERD is caused by an underdeveloped lower oesophageal sphincter in infants.
  • Babies could ingest a lot of gas while feeding or even when crying. Accumulation of gas causes a dull stomachache due to abdominal discomfort and makes babies colic.
  • Newborns are easily overwhelmed and stressed out by sounds and lights. They use crying as a means to vent their frustration and to self-soothe. Response to stress varies in infants and those with a sensitive demeanor are more prone to colic.
  • Some experts consider colic to be influenced by the mother’s food and lifestyle choices. For instance, mothers who smoked during pregnancy or breastfeeding tend to have more colicky babies (8). In some cases, a baby’s condition has improved after the breastfeeding mother eliminated foods such as caffeine, soy, or egg from her diet.
  • The baby could cry because of some illness. For example, a hernia in infants has been associated with chronic crying and colicky behavior.

If colic is due to some health condition, you can identify it through symptoms other than persistent crying.

Colic is different from normal crying where the baby will cry to draw the attention of a caretaker. Therefore, it is essential to look for the signs that indicate colic.

What Are The Symptoms Of Colic?

Colic can be differentiated from normal crying by looking for the following symptoms:

  1. Inconsolable crying often at the same time everyday irrespective of the baby’s routine. Most infants get colicky from late afternoon with the condition peaking between 6pm and midnight (9). The baby refuses to be pacified, despite the parent’s attempt to feed or distract the little one. It is a prime symptom as the baby is crying for no apparent reason.
  1. The baby’s crying is different when he is colic as he gives out loud, high-pitched wail that sounds unsettling (10).
  1. Frequent burping, tensed abdomen, and flushed face are the physical signs of colic. A baby with colic will inhale a lot of air while crying and burp frequently. The baby’s face will be flushed to a bright red tint.
  1. Colicky babies show a change in posture by clenching their fist, curling their legs, and arching their back. These symptoms are common when the colic is a result of gastroesophageal reflux.

Colic is a prominent reason for stress among parents (11), and seeking a doctor’s opinion is beneficial, especially in certain cases.

When To Rush To A Doctor?

Visit a doctor immediately if the baby’s colic is accompanied by the following conditions:

  • Fever of 100.4°F (38°C) or higher.
  • Diarrhea or vomiting.
  • Wails much louder than usual.
  • Trouble in breathing and the baby gasps for air while crying.
  • Loss of appetite and weakness.
  • Change in the infant’s sleeping and feeding schedule.

The doctor uses certain methods to diagnose whether or not the baby is colic and assess the severity of the condition.

How Is Colic Diagnosed?

The pediatrician will try one or more of these ways:

  • As colic is a condition and not disease, the doctor discerns the underlying cause by asking parents the baby’s medical history. He would look for any chronic illnesses or the time and frequency of the baby’s crying.
  • The doctor will do a physical examination of the baby to look for any signs of anomalies that are causing constant pain and distress. For example, the doctor may look for the signs of hernia, an injury on the head or other body parts.
  • In some cases, the doctor may conduct an X-Ray, ultrasound scan, or blood test for a detailed assessment of the underlying problem.

After a thorough analysis, the doctor suggests the treatment for the illness.

How Is Colic Treated?

Colic does not have a treatment, but if it is caused due to an ailment, it needs to be treated:

  1. Gas relief medicines are often marketed as baby colic drops and relieve the baby of excess gas. Gripe water is also often used to deal with colic. It helps in preventing the formation of gas.
  1. Probiotics are rich in good bacteria that keep the digestive tract healthy. These bacteria are naturally present in the body and help in digestion. A baby can get a booster of good bacteria through formula enriched with probiotics or from the breastmilk (12). They reduce abdominal discomfort (such as gas), thus preventing colic. A study by the American Academy of Pediatrics suggests that the use of probiotics may provide relief from colic in young breastfed infants too (13).
  1. Non-milk based formulas are suggested to babies who are allergic to milk. If the baby suffers from milk-based enterocolitis, then the doctor will prescribe a hydrolyzed protein formula, which is easier to digest than the regular formulas (14).

Consult a doctor before you use any over-the-counter colic medication such as baby colic drops (15).

“Natural remedies” should be avoided as they could be harmful. For example, herbal tea containing chamomile flower should be completely avoided as it may contain Clostridium botulinum spores. These can cause botulism in infants (16).

Alternative medication such as homeopathic medicines could be unsafe as they may contain toxic chemicals (17).

Perhaps the best way to control and prevent a baby’s colicky behavior is by sticking to some good old household tricks and remedies.

How To Soothe And Prevent Colic?

Here are quick tips that are baby safe and can be easily integrated into the little one’s routine:

  • Wrap the baby in a soft, warm blanket, hold him close, and sway slowly. Swaddling and rocking calm the babies down due to the gentle motion and the correct temperature. You could also put the baby tummy down on your knees and move your legs slowly.
  • Sing a song or a rhyme while speaking to him. Look into the baby’s eyes and ask questions such as, “Why is my baby sad?” or “What is wrong with you, little one?”. Have your partner hide behind a curtain and call the baby’s name to distract him from crying. Babies find voices of their parents reassuring, thus relieving them of stress and anxiety.
  • Play some soft music or natural sounds such as that of birds and waterfall. Keep switching to new sounds so that the baby stays intrigued. You can even show objects that have bright and high-contrast patterns to distract the infant. There are a plenty of distractions outdoors.
  • When the baby gets grumpy and colicky, you could take him out in a stroller or a car. The sight of fast-moving objects or nature itself will distract the baby and he would not cry. Remember to secure the baby properly in the car using an infant car seat before setting out for the drive.
  • If the baby is often colicky at night, then you can give him a warm bath before bedtime. This will calm the baby down and also help him understand when it is time to sleep.
  • The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends the use of pacifiers for a colicky baby before the onset of a colic outbreak. Do not force the pacifier on the baby and never tie a pacifier around the baby’s neck. The latter can increase the risk of choking from the string.Keeping the infant as vertical as possible during feeding helps reduce the chances of reflux, and thus colic.
  • The upright placement lets gravity do the work and prevent food contents from refluxing. Pausing during feeds and allowing the baby to burp also help prevent reflux and gas.
  • Feed the baby from one breast till it is empty and then switch to the other. This ensures that the baby gets the hindmilk – a fat-rich milk that follows the watery foremilk. Hindmilk makes the baby feel full and satiated. However, if the baby is full early, then do not force-feed him to reach the hindmilk (18).
  • Try changing the mother’s diet and lifestyle: If the mother smokes, then colic is the best excuse to quit forever. If a doctor confirms that the baby is allergic to a particular food, then a lactating mother can avoid that in her diet. Even if the infant has no allergy, the mother can avoid some foods (such as caffeine).

A severely colic baby will continue to grow in a normal and healthy way without any health issues. The problem with colic is short-term as the parents find it difficult to handle the baby. Keeping your cool is not easy, but with some simple tips it might be possible.

Tips For Parents To Cope With A Colicky Baby

A study by the American Academy of Pediatrics noted that colic is one of the contributing factors to stress in mothers, leading to a mother-infant distress syndrome (19). Therefore, try these to avoid any stress for you or the baby:

  • Request a family member or your partner to look after the crying baby for some time and take a break.
  • If things get overwhelming, then you can consider seeing a counselor or a local support group. These provide you opportunities to vent out your frustrations, while suggesting ways and methods of dealing with colicky babies.
  • Let the baby cry: Sometimes the only way to pass the situation is to let the baby cry. Place the crying baby in the crib, pull a chair, and sit at a distance, but within the infant’s line of sight. The baby then figures out ways to self-soothe. This method is quite popularly used in sleep training the infants, and teaching them to calm themselves without the parents’ assistance (20).

Remember, no matter how frustrated you feel, never shake or jolt the infant to stop him from crying. This might scare him and make him cry more. Shaking a baby’s head leads to abusive head trauma as the delicate brain gets damaged due to the sudden motion (21). If you feel you are not coping,contact your doctor, nurse, or counselor.

How did you deal with colic? Tell us in the comments section below.

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Rohit Garoo is a writer-turned-editor with over 9 years of experience in content writing, editing, and content marketing. He did his bachelors in Science at St. Xavier's College, Hyderabad, and masters in Business Administration at Osmania University.

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