Colic in Babies


Colic is a condition where there are repeated bouts of excessive crying in a baby who is otherwise healthy. The definition doctors use is: a baby crying for more than three hours a day, for more than three days a week, for at least three weeks. Colic is common and distressing. It usually goes away by the age of 3-4 months.

A typical baby with colic

Colic is common and can affect up to three out of ten babies. A healthy newborn baby may have periods of crying. For no apparent reason he or she cries as if in pain. The usual methods of comforting do not work very well. He or she does not want to feed, and may pull up their knees. Sometimes the baby’s abdomen (tummy) appears to rumble. The cry may sound different and more piercing than normal. He or she may appear to be settling when suddenly another bout of crying occurs. This may go on and off for several hours until he or she settles and falls asleep.

Variations on a theme

In some babies, a period of restlessness in the evening may be all that you notice. In some babies with severe colic, the crying may go on for many hours throughout the day (and/or night). However, babies with colic are fine between bouts of colic. They feed well, grow well, and do not show any other signs of illness.

What causes colic?

Despite a huge amount of research on this condition, the actual cause is still not clear. The term colic is used as it is thought the baby has pain in the abdomen. Research suggests this may be related to a change in the level of hormones that control the movement of gut muscles. Another theory is that babies with colic may have an abnormal balance of bacteria in their gut, which gradually corrects itself over a few weeks. Some (but certainly not the majority) of babies with colic have an intolerance to cow’s milk.

Smoking or being in a smoky atmosphere during pregnancy during your pregnancy does increase the risk of your baby developing baby colic.

Some parents feel that they have done something wrong in some way. This is not the case.

How is it diagnosed?

Colic is diagnosed by excluding other causes of persistent crying. Babies with colic are otherwise well and continue to put on weight normally. In the majority of babies who cry a lot, no illness can be found and colic is often the cause of this. A baby with colic will have spells when they are perfectly fine in between bouts of crying.

Helping colicky babies and their parents

There is no treatment that cures colic. Every parent has their own way of coping and may find different things helpful.

One or more of the following may help.

Check for causes of discomfort

Make sure the baby is not cold, is not hungry, and is changed often enough.

Reducing anxiety

Even newborn babies may sense anxiety. This can make things worse. If possible, the mother should have some rest and a meal before the colic begins (usually in the evening). The more rested and relaxed sheis, the better she will be able to cope.

Colic happens more frequently when the mother has postnatal depression or feels very down after the baby was born. If this is the case, a doctor should be consulted.



It is natural to try to soothe a crying baby. Holding a baby through the crying episode may help to soothe. However, a colicky baby may simply not be comforted or soothed. At such times it is acceptable to leave a baby to cry for short periods if the parents are satisfied that he or she is not hungry, too cold, too hot, wet, or unwell. Remember – never shake a baby.

Time out

Friends or other family members may be willing to help. However, try to avoid several people fussing at once, as this may cause anxiety. Take it in turns if you have help.

Lactose intolerance

Research suggests that some babies with colic may be intolerant to lactose which is a sugar found in milk. This is quite rare. More commonly babies become intolerant after a tummy bug (gastroenteritis). This is usually a short lived phase. Changing from ordinary baby formula milk to a baby formula milk that is free from, or low in, lactose is an option. However, a doctor should be consulted before trying this. Once things settle down the baby should be given ordinary formula milk again, as lactose may play a part in keeping the bowel healthy in the long term.

Soy-based formula milks are not recommended and should not be given to babies with colic.



The diet of breast-feeding mothers

If a mother breast-feeds her child, there’s some evidence that it may help if she does not have cows’ milk, dairy products, eggs, wheat, nuts and caffeine (which can also be found in some painkillers). Some women find cutting out spices or garlic is also helpful, although there’s little scientific support for this. If there’s no improvement after the changes for a week, a mother should go back to her normal diet.

What about medicines?

Some people find gripe water helpful, but its use is not supported by research.

Complementary and alternative remedies

Many alternative therapies are promoted and advertised for colic. There is no firm evidence that any of these are beneficial.

The parents’ feelings

Sometimes parents become angry, tearful, or resentful towards a baby with colic. These are normal and common emotions. The crying can seem distressing, intolerable and very frustrating.


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