Colic is excessive, frequent crying in a baby who appears to be otherwise healthy and well fed. Colic is very common, affecting about one in five babies, but it is still poorly understood.
Crying is normal in babies. At six to eight weeks, babies normally cry for two to three hours a day. But babies with colic will cry inconsolably for several hours at a time and it’s often worse in the evenings.
Colic usually begins within the first few weeks of life and peaks at around 6 to 8 weeks. It often stops by the time the baby is 4 months old, and by 6 months at the latest.
You may also notice that your baby’s face becomes flushed, and they may clench their fists, draw their knees up to their tummy, or arch their back.
If your baby has colic, they may appear to be in distress. However, the crying outbursts are not harmful and your baby will continue to feed and gain weight normally. There is no clear evidence that colic has any long-term effects on a baby’s health.
Seeing your doctor
Babies with colic usually don’t have any underlying medical condition. However, you should see your doctor if your baby cries excessively. This is so your doctor can rule out conditions that may be causing your baby’s crying, such as eczema or gastro-oesophageal reflux disease (GORD). GORD is a condition where stomach acid moves back out of the stomach and into the oesophagus (food pipe).
If no other cause of your baby’s symptoms can be found, a diagnosis of colic can be made (although this is simply a term used to describe a baby that cries a lot). Your doctor can advise you about the things you can do to help your baby, including what treatments are available.
When to call your doctor immediately
A number of signs and symptoms may suggest that your baby is more seriously ill. It is recommended that you contact your doctor immediately if your baby:
- has a weak, high-pitched continuous cry
- seems floppy when you pick them up
- takes less than a third of their usual amount of fluids
- passes less urine than usual
- vomits green fluid
- passes blood in their stools
- has a fever such as 38°C or above (if they’re less than three months old) or 39°C or above (if they’re three to six months old)
- has a bulging fontanelle (the soft spot at the top of a baby’s head)
- has a fit (seizure)
- turns blue, blotchy or very pale
- has a stiff neck
- has breathing problems, such as breathing quickly or grunting while breathing
- has a spotty, purple-red rash anywhere on their body (this could be a sign of meningitis)
- has a seizure (fit)
None of the above symptoms is caused by colic. If you can’t get hold of your doctor, call healthdirect on 1800 022 222 for advice.
What causes colic?
The cause or causes of colic are unknown, but a number of theories have been suggested. These include indigestion, trapped wind or a temporary gut sensitivity to certain proteins and sugars found in breast milk and formula milk.
However, there is little solid evidence to support these theories.
Colic occurs equally in boys and girls, and in babies who are breastfed or bottle-fed. Colic is thought to be more common in babies whose mothers are smokers or who smoked while they were pregnant but the evidence is not conclusive.
Comforting your baby
There is no ‘best’ way to comfort your baby or reduce the symptoms of colic. Different babies respond to different methods, so you may have to see what works best for you. Remember your baby is not unwell or in pain. It is not your fault.
The following suggestions may help:
- Holding your baby during a crying episode, and wrapping them snugly in a blanket or baby sling.
- Keep calm and talk gently to your baby.
- Check your baby doesn’t need a feed or a nappy change.
- Develop a regular daily pattern of feeds and sleeps.
- Don’t overstimulate your baby.
- Darken the room for daytime naps.
- Try soothing techniques such as baby massage, gentle rocking or patting, or a warm bath.
- Offer a dummy.
- Try to soothe your baby before they become too worked up.
- Try not to startle your baby, e.g. with quick movements.
- Check formula is being made up correctly, if you’re using it.
- Talk to a doctor or other health professional.
You can buy ‘gripe water’ — an over-the-counter liquid that claims to ease gas and other ‘colicky’ symptoms. Gripe water contains a range of different ingredients including herbal ingredients. There is no evidence that gripe water can improve colic in babies and such products should only be used in consultation with your doctor.