One of the biggest challenges for a new parent is dealing with a baby that is constantly irritable. Many parents simply don’t know what to do when their baby starts crying in the middle of the night and won’t stop for more than a few minutes no matter what you do. Many people call this stage when your baby is “colicky.”
Colic is still a mystery in terms of babies and experts think that 8 to 40% of babies are colicky at some point. This condition is just as common across all groups, including first born vs. later babies, boys vs. girls, and formula-fed vs. breastfed babies. Despite not knowing why some babies are more likely to develop colic, there are still many theories.
What Is Colic and How Long Does It Last in Babies?
People use the term colic to describe when a healthy baby has uncontrollable crying. Babies are considered colicky if they are under five months and cry for over three consecutive hours during at least three days of a week and this lasts three weeks. This is not a disease and your baby won’t have any long-term consequences, but it can still be very difficult on both the parents and the babies.
Signs of Colic
After figuring out what is colic, there are some signs of colic you may need to know. Colic will usually show up when your baby is between two and three weeks old. It is normal for a baby to cry when tired, hungry, frightened, or wet, but babies with colic will cry excessively and frequently during the same part of the day (usually late afternoon to evening). Some colicky babies will have higher pitched and louder cries during these periods of time (when compared to his normal crying) and these colicky episodes start and stop suddenly.
In some cases, a colicky baby will also have signs of gassy tummy. The gas is a consequence of the colic, not a cause. Your baby may swallow air while crying. It is also possible for a colicky baby to pass gas, become flushed, arch his back, and clench his fingers while crying. Sometimes he will also feel better after he has a bowel movement or passes gas.
How Long Does Colic Last?
The good news is that colic usually peaks around 6 weeks of age before significantly improving between 3 months and 4 months of age. At 4 months, 80 or 90% of infants are no longer colicky and the rest will only take a month or so more time to return to normal.
In the meantime it can be stressful to care for a colicky baby, but it is doable. Be sure to take regular breaks for your own mental health. Ask a relative or friend to watch your baby for a little bit so you can take a break or simply nap.
What Causes Colic in Babies?
Experts are still unsure about what exactly causes colic in babies. The following things, however, may cause or increase the chances of developing colic:
- Acid reflux
- Low birth weight
- Incorrect positioning or not burping after having a feeding
- Intestinal gas
- Infants of moms who smoked have twice as high of a risk
- Overfeeding or feeding the baby too quickly
- Some bottle-fed babies might be intolerant of proteins in the formula
- Breastfed babies might find certain foods in their mom’s diets bothersome (such as cow’s milk)
- Being unusually sensitive towards stimulation
- An immature nervous system
- A sensitive temperament which simply needs more attention
Watch a video to learn more about colic causes and symptoms in newborns:
Does My Baby Need to See the Doctor If He Has Colic?
It can be helpful to talk about your baby’s crying with your doctor. This will allow him to rule out other possible causes including urinary infections or intestinal problems. Additionally your doctor will want to be sure your baby is growing and feeding normally. She can even help you figure out how to help your baby’s colic. In cases where your baby has additional symptoms (bloody stools, vomiting, or fever), then you should always contact his doctor immediately as these symptoms aren’t due to colic.
How to Treat Colic in Babies
- Hold your baby upright while feeding. Take the time to pause while feeding your baby and go with more-frequent feedings as opposed to less-frequent larger ones. Also let your baby finish feeding at one breast before switching to the other side.
- Change your diet. If you are breastfeeding, it is possible (although unlikely) that your diet is affecting your baby’s colic. If you have a family history of allergies, avoid potential allergens. Always talk to your baby’s doctor before you change your diet.
- Switch formula. Although the formula probably isn’t causing the colic, it may be in cases where your baby is intolerant to milk or allergic to cow’s milk. In this case you can switch to hydrolysate infant formula as the proteins in it are easier to digest. If there isn’t a change within two days or so, feel free to switch back as the formula probably wasn’t the cause.
- Switch bottles. Sometimes simply trying a different bottle type or nipple type will ease symptoms by limiting the quantity of air that your baby swallows.
If your baby is already crying, try these soothing techniques:
- Give a pacifier. Sucking can be soothing to babies.
- Hold your baby. Some babies calm down when cuddled or wrapped in a light blanket. You can also try using a baby sling.
- Rock your baby. Sometimes it helps to keep your baby moving by rocking him, putting him in an infant swing, or even going for a drive or walk.
- Sing: Your voice may soothe your baby or you can try recorded music.
- Background noise. Some babies will quiet down with a steady background noise so try making a continuous sound such as “shsss” or play a CD with environmental sounds.
- Try touch or gentle heat such as in a bath.
- Private time: Leave your baby in his crib for five to ten minutes.
Learn more home remedies to soothe a colicky baby:
- Gas-Relief Medicine. Although considered generally safe, gas-relief medications don’t usually relieve the symptoms to a large extent, but they can help a little in some cases.
- Probiotics. Probiotics help balance the good bacteria in your digestive tract. Giving babies these probiotics has shown mixed results in terms of decreasing colic. There currently isn’t enough evidence to indicate it will work, but it can be worth a try.
- Massage therapy
- Gripe water (herbs and water)
- Sugar water
- Homeopathic remedies
- Herbal remedies like fennel oil
- Herbal teas
Always talk to your baby’s doctor before trying any treatment for colic, especially medical or alternative therapies.