Colic: A-to-Z Guide from Diagnosis to Treatment to Prevention

When crying lasts for longer than three hours a day, and is not caused by a medical problem (such as a hernia or an infection), it is called colic.

It usually strikes toward the end of a long day, when your baby is just about at the age when your sleep deprivation has really begun to set in. Your baby stops being the quiet, peaceful, miracle baby and begins screaming every evening. It is no wonder that parents become frustrated, discouraged, and depressed. It’s the dreaded colic.

What is colic?

All babies cry, but colicky babies cry more. When crying lasts for longer than three hours a day, and is not caused by a medical problem (such as a hernia or an infection), it is called colic.

I have met with countless parents who are overwhelmed by the difficulty of soothing their new baby. The joy of being a parent is overshadowed by the frustration of not understanding what is bothering this tiny new being. With time, I have come to agree with other physicians and researchers who believe that colic is part of the spectrum of normal infant behavior. As Ronald G Barr, Professor of Pediatrics at the University of British Columbia, wrote, “colic is something normal infants do, rather than a condition they have.”

I believe that the fussy period exists in order to change deeply ingrained relationship habits. Even after the miracle of a new birth, many parents and families would revert to their previous schedules and activities within a few weeks – if the new baby would only remain quiet and peaceful. It would be easy to continue reading what you want to read, going where you like to go, doing what you like to do as before, if only the baby would happily comply. Instead, the baby’s exasperating fussy period forces families to leave their previous ruts and develop new dynamics that include this new individual. Colic demands attention. As parents grope for solutions to their child’s crying, they notice a new individual with new needs. They instinctively pay more attention, talk more to the child, and hold the child more – all because of the colic. Colic is a powerful rite of passage, a postnatal labor pain where new patterns of family life are born.

Who gets colic?

Almost all babies will develop a fussy period. About 20 percent of babies will cry enough to meet the definition of colic. The timing varies, but colic usually affects babies beginning at about three weeks of age and peaking somewhere between four and six weeks of age.

What are the symptoms of colic?

For most infants the most intense fussiness is in the evening. The attack often begins suddenly. The legs may be drawn up and the belly distended. The hands may be clenched.

Is colic contagious?

Colic is not contagious, but babies do respond to the emotions of those around them. When others are worried, anxious, or depressed, babies may cry more, which can make those around them more worried, anxious, or depressed.

How long does colic last?

Colic will not last forever! After about six weeks of age, it begins improving, slowly but surely, and is generally gone by twelve weeks of age. When colic is still going strong at 12 weeks, it’s important to speak with your child’s doctor and to consider another diagnosis (such as reflux).

How is colic diagnosed?

Colic is usually diagnosed by the history. A careful physical exam is wise to be sure the baby does not have a hernia, intussusception, a hair tourniquet, a hair in the eye, or another medical problem that needs attention.

How is colic treated?

Helping a child with colic is primarily a matter of experimentation and observation. Different children are comforted by different measures. Some prefer to be swaddled in a warm blanket; others prefer to be free. The process of treating colic involves trying many different things, and paying attention to what seems to help, even just a little bit.

Holding your child is one of the most effective measures. The more hours they are held, even early in the day when they are not fussy, the less time they will be fussy in the evening. Body carriers can be a great way to do this. This will not spoil your child. After the colicky phase is over, a child can be weaned from the carrier.

Some babies are only happy when they are sucking on something. A pacifier can be like a miracle for some.

Singing lullabies to your baby can be powerfully soothing. It is no accident that lullabies have developed in almost every culture. The noise of a vacuum or clothes dryer is also soothing to many babies.

As babies cry, they swallow air, creating gas, which may lead to abdominal pain, which causes more crying. This vicious cycle can be difficult to break. Gentle rocking can be very calming (this is directly comforting and seems to help them pass gas). When you get tired, an infant swing is a good alternative for babies at least 3 weeks old with good head control.

Holding your child in an upright position may help (this aids the movement of gas and decreases heartburn). A warm towel or a howarmt water bottle on the abdomen can help. Some babies prefer to lie on their tummies, while someone gives them a backrub. The gentle pressure on the abdomen may help.

Some children seem to do best when they are going for a ride in the car. If your child is one of these, you might try a device developed by a pediatrician to imitate car motion and sound.

Some parents report an improvement by giving simethicone drops, a defoaming agent which reduces intestinal gas. It is not absorbed into the body and is therefore quite safe. Sometimes doctors will prescribe stronger medicines for severe colic (but this should only be done after a physical exam).

There are many stories about foods that breastfeeding moms should avoid. Most often, I hear about abstaining from broccoli, cabbage, beans, and other gas-producing foods. The scientific evidence is strongest for avoiding stimulants such as caffeine and caffeine-related compounds (those found in chocolate). I recommend a discussion with your child’s pediatrician before eliminating multiple foods from your diet, as adequate nutrition is essential for both you and your baby.

Switching formulas is not helpful for most babies, but may be useful for some babies. Your pediatrician can help guide you on possible alternatives, if warranted.

Taking a break is a good idea. Find relatives or friends who can help care for the baby for short periods of time so that you can have some time to yourself. Time for oneself is an important part of the new family dynamic. You will be able to pay more loving attention to your baby when you’ve had a chance to get refreshed.

How can colic be prevented?

A fussy period is likely no matter what prevention techniques are undertaken. Good feeding techniques (as advised by a lactation consultant, if appropriate), good burping, and early identification of possible allergies in the baby’s or mother’s diet may help limit symptoms. Experimenting with the comfort techniques outlined above before colic develops can help you identify your baby’s needs and desires, and can help stop the fussy period from becoming so intense.

Last medical review on: October 30, 2013
About the Author
Photo of Alan Greene MD
Dr. Greene is a practicing physician, author, national and international TEDx speaker, and global health advocate. He is a graduate of Princeton University and University of California San Francisco.
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