Colic in babies: causes, symptoms and treatment

colic symptoms and treatment

by Emily Gilbert |
Updated on

Working out why your baby is crying can be tough for any parent, but if your baby has colic, then you’ll know how tricky it can be to soothe them. And that’s because colic has many causes, and not all of them are fully understood yet. It might be that there are several causes contributing to your baby’s colic.

Thankfully, there are steps you can take to tackle the condition. Below we take a look at everything you need to know about colic including the symptoms, types and natural ways to help colic.

What is colic?

The NHS defines colic as repeated episodes of excessive and inconsolable crying, for at least three hours a day, at least three days per week, for at least three weeks in an otherwise healthy and well-cared-for baby.

Colic tends to occur in the first three months of your baby’s life and generally strikes in the afternoon or evening.

What causes colic?

Up to half of the babies will suffer from colic at some point, but despite being such a common condition, there’s no conclusive cause – hence no single cure.

Many colic symptoms point to abdominal discomfort, leading some experts to theorise that colic is related to reflux (milk in the stomach coming back up into the oesophagus).

It’s also been linked to a milk-protein allergy, lactose intolerance, and wind.

Many experts agree, in some cases, it’s likely to be related to stress rather than abdominal pain.

Symptoms of colic in babies

Although the symptoms vary from baby to baby, a colicky baby will display the following symptoms:

• Crying: The main indicator of colic in babies, your child will cry furiously, as if they are in pain, with a red and flushed face. These crying episodes will occur around the same time every day: late afternoon or evening. Crying can start suddenly and for no obvious reason and can last just a few minutes to much longer. There will not be much you can do to comfort them

• Position: As well as arching their back, your baby may have clenched fists, a tight stomach, stiff limbs and have their knees pulled up to their chest

Sleep: Your baby's sleep may be irregular and is often interrupted with crying episodes

Feeding: As with sleep, you may find your baby's feeds are interrupted because of crying. This should not impact how much they are eating, however

Wind: During an intense crying episode, your baby may pass wind

The difference between colic and normal crying

Crying is crying, right? Well actually, colic is a certain pattern of crying. As well as usually happening primarily in the afternoon or evening, it's generally quite high-pitched and baby is hard to soothe, compared to when baby usually cries.

Types of colic in babies

Maternity nurse and colic consultant Fe Baker has worked with hundreds of babies and believes there are four different types of colic, each with its own set of specific symptoms and causes.

• Digestive

• Physical

• Intellectual

• Emotional

How to soothe colic

Digestive colic

A young baby’s digestive system isn’t fully developed so they may feel pain in their stomach or abdomen. This is the traditional medical view of colic and it’s what most people mean when they talk about it.

Your baby may seem uncomfortable and cry a lot around an hour after feeds, and especially in the evening. These cries can sometimes sound like more of a groan. Often the crying isn’t that bad to start off with, but then it escalates.

It can take a long time for baby to burp, but when they do, they bring up a lot of milk. You might notice your baby pulls their knees up to their chest and their tummy gurgles and feels quite hard. Baby may seem uncomfortable right before they do a poo.

dad feeding baby

How to treat digestive colic

If your baby has digestive colic, it’s time to turn detective. There may be several possible causes, such as an imbalance in stomach acid levels, reflux or milk intolerance.

Sift through the possibilities to rule out possible causes, and you should be able to figure out the problem and take action to solve it.

Look for clues: Does your baby have diarrhoea, constipation, foul-smelling poos, a white tongue or severe nappy rash? If you spot any of these, talk to your GP to see if there is anything else going on that might be causing the crying.

Feed with care: If your baby has digestive colic, they are likely to benefit from a feeding pattern every three to four hours. When you can, ensure your baby has time between feeds to properly digest their food. It’s also a good idea to calm your baby before you feed them, rather than calming them by feeding them. Otherwise, the air they’ll swallow can make the colic symptoms worse.

Check your feeding position: Whether you’re bottle or breastfeeding, baby's chin must be up so they can suck, breathe and swallow without gulping air.

Empty one breast at a time: If you’re breastfeeding, let baby empty your first breast before offering the other, as snacking from one side to the other provides only the foremilk. This is high in protein and sugar, but low in fat, so it relieves hunger but adds to colic.

Carry out checks if you’re bottle-feeding: If you’re bottle-feeding, check you’re using the right-sized teat for their age, and that you’re holding the bottle so there’s no air in the teat. Take an extra minute at every feed to check the formula is always thoroughly mixed and at the right temperature.

You could also try gripe water for colic as many mums swear by it. Many parents keep some in their family medicine cabinet as an essential.

Physical colic

During the first few weeks of life, areas of your baby’s body may be slightly misaligned. And it’s understandable why – perhaps if your natural birth was very quick or less than smooth, or you’ve had a c-section.

Sometimes, nothing needs to have happened to have caused physical colic – your baby may simply be feeling the effects of being in a cramped position in your womb.

They might be experiencing muscular, skeletal or joint discomfort, usually in their neck, back or pelvis. It’s similar to how you feel if you’ve put your back out: there’s a constant ache and you can’t get comfortable.

You'll notice that your baby seems constantly uncomfortable. They cry a lot, but it's most likely worse in the evening. Even when you cuddle them, they feel tense, no matter how you hold them.

While your baby doesn't have a problem bringing wind up, and their poos are normal, occasionally after a feed, they might posset but never vomits the whole feed.

Your baby may cry as soon as you put them on their tummy. If you wind them on your shoulder, you may notice they arch their back and get upset.

baby's back

How to treat physical colic

If you think your baby has physical colic, gently stretching their body can help to get everything back aligned and make them feel more comfortable.

Gentle movement: Incorporate gentle movement into your routine – move your baby slowly and gently.

Upper body stretch: Lie your baby on their back with their arms wide open. Slowly bring their hands together to clap, then open them again. Then bring their arms in and pass them across their body, as if they're giving themself a cuddle, then open them again. Move their arms so they’re lying down by their side, then lift them alternately up over their head. Finally, lift both arms together above their head and bring them down again.

Lower body stretch: Lie your baby on their back. Holding their ankles with both your hands, gently lift baby's legs, so their bottom raises slightly, but keep their shoulders on the floor. Lower and repeat. Next, holding their feet, slowly bend their knees, then let their knees drop outwards and clap the soles of their feet together. Repeat. Now hold their legs just below their knees, bringing their knees together and bending them up to their tummy. Hold, then repeat. Finally, hold one leg straight on the floor, then bend the other, bringing baby's knee towards their opposite shoulder. Hold and repeat.

Baby massage has lots of benefits and is a great way to help with physical discomfort.

Intellectual colic

A baby who’s over-stimulated can become upset when there’s just too much going on for them to cope with. This seems to happen more after the first month, with babies who are alert, observant and very intelligent.

Your baby may often cry randomly for no apparent reason, especially at night. Sometimes they may go from being happy and interested to high-pitched inconsolable crying.

Your baby doesn’t seem to sleep for long periods, often just 20 minutes at a time, even if you do lots of activities to tire them out. Sometimes baby may wake up and cry immediately.

How to help your baby with intellectual colic

Soothing a baby with intellectual colic is all about making it easier for them to adjust to this crazy new world.

Play baby white noise: A constant hum of noise often soothes this type of colic, as it’s similar to what they would have heard in your womb.

Fine-tune your routine: Introduce a balanced daily pattern of regular activities in short time-slots.

Emotional Colic

Sometimes it’s hard to see any real reason for this type of colic: baby simply feeling insecure in this new world, and needs reassurance from you that it’s all OK.

Or it could be that baby may be picking up on your emotions if you’re worried about doing the best job that you possibly can, or if their crying upsets you.

It may feel like your baby cries at the worst possible moment – at the end of the day when you're exhausted, or when they are about to go in the bath.

Sometimes you may feel like you just don’t know what your baby wants, which makes you feel upset too.

You may notice that if you stop what you're doing and pick them up, baby is happy again, but if you put them down, baby will get upset.

curled up baby

How to help your baby with emotional colic

The most effective treatments are for you, not your baby. The more confident you become, the more they'll relax.

Be positive: You’re doing a great job! Listen to your intuition and remember it’s normal for new mums to worry about getting things right.

Take some time out: When your baby is having a colicky evening, let your partner cope on his own for 10 minutes while you take a short walk outside. You’ll come back in a better frame of mind and will be better able to help her calm down.

Swaddle your baby: Swaddling an oversensitive baby can create a feeling of security through the familiarity of womb-like boundaries. And this reassurance can help them to relax.

Colic FAQ

How long does colic last?

In most cases, colic will last for a few months and will settle when your baby reaches the age of four to six months.

Is colic harmful to my baby?

Your baby may seem to be in pain, but usually, there is no harm made to their body. In fact, colic is actually more stressful for you than it is for your baby. It's important that you stay as calm as you can and remember that it's not your fault.

What can be mistaken for colic?

Just to make things even trickier, it's easy to mistake colic for other conditions such as lactose intolerance, an infection or gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), aka silent reflux. Other than crying, possible symptoms that may mean your child is experiencing something other than colic can include a fever, rash, cough or struggling to eat.

baby with a high temperature

When should I seek advice for colic?

Seek advice if your baby shows signs of being ill as well as crying – if they are vomiting, has a high temperature (above 38C), is floppy or unresponsive, has a rash that doesn’t turn white if pressed with glass or refuses to feed for several hours.

If you feel overwhelmed, visit for support and advice.

About the expert

This article contains expert advice from Fe Baker, a specialist maternity nurse and colic consultant.

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