Colic is a frustrating condition marked by predictable periods of significant distress in an otherwise well-fed, healthy baby. Babies with colic often cry more than three hours a day, three days a week for three weeks or longer. Nothing you do to try to help your baby during these episodes seems to bring any relief.
Colic can be distressing for both you and your baby. But take comfort: Colic is relatively short-lived. In a matter of weeks or months, the colic will end, and you'll have weathered one of the first major challenges of parenthood.
Fussing and crying are normal for infants, and a fussy baby doesn't necessarily have colic. In an otherwise healthy, well-fed baby, signs of colic include:
- Predictable crying episodes. A baby who has colic often cries about the same time every day, usually in the late afternoon or evening. Colic episodes may last from a few minutes to three hours or more on any given day. Your baby may have a bowel movement or pass gas near the end of the colic episode.
- Intense or inconsolable crying. Colic crying is intense, sounds distressed and is often high pitched. Your baby's face may flush, and he or she is extremely difficult — if not impossible — to comfort.
- Crying that occurs for no apparent reason. It's normal for babies to cry sometimes. But, crying usually means your baby needs something, such as food or a clean diaper. Crying associated with colic occurs with no clear cause.
- Posture changes. Curled up legs, clenched fists and tensed abdominal muscles are common during colic episodes.
Colic is common. It usually starts a few weeks after birth and often improves by age 3 months. By ages 4 to 5 months, the majority of babies with colic have improved.
When to see a doctor
Seek immediate medical attention if your baby's crying could be the result of a fall, injury or illness.
Contact your baby's doctor if:
- You notice a bluish-cast to your baby's lips or skin during a crying episode.
- You're concerned about your baby's crying, especially if you notice changes in your baby's eating, sleeping or behavior.
You can help your baby's doctor by tracking in a diary when your baby cries and for how long. Also record your baby's sleeping and eating patterns.
The cause of colic is unknown. Researchers have explored a number of possibilities, including allergies, lactose intolerance, changes in the normal bacteria found in the digestive system, a digestive system that hasn't fully developed, anxious parents, and differences in the way a baby is fed or comforted. Yet it's still unclear why some babies have colic and others don't.
Infants of mothers who smoke during pregnancy or after delivery have a greater risk of developing colic.
Many other theories about what makes a child more susceptible to colic have been proposed, but none have been proved. For instance:
- Colic doesn't occur more often among firstborns or formula-fed babies.
- A breast-feeding mother's diet probably doesn't trigger colic.
- Girls and boys — no matter what their birth order or how they're fed — experience colic in similar numbers.
Although colic can be difficult to live through for the whole family, colic doesn't appear to have any lasting medical consequences. Babies who have colic grow and develop normally.