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Baby Colic: A Survival Guide for Parents

What if baby starts crying regularly and loudly for no reason, and you can't soothe them? Your baby may have colic. Today, we'll cover what colic is, and offer tips to help parents survive baby's colic periods.

Normally, babies cry to communicate. If they're tired, hungry, or need a diaper change, they'll let you know by crying, because they have no other way to alert you. 

But what if baby starts crying regularly and loudly for no reason, and you can't do anything to soothe them? Your baby may have colic. Today, we'll cover what exactly colic is, and tips to help parents survive baby's colic periods.

What is colic?

Colic isn't a specific health issue in babies.  Doctors use the term "colic" for any prolonged crying that starts for no apparent reason, lasts for long periods, and can't be soothed, from a baby who is otherwise healthy. Often this crying lasts for one or more hours at a time. Sometimes, it starts--- and persists---late into the night.

Colic is relatively common. Around 1 in 5 babies suffer from colic. So, although baby colic may be frustrating, remember that you're not alone.

How can I tell if my baby has colic?

Doctors usually diagnose colic using the "rule of three:"

  • Daily crying periods total 3 hours or more
  • Baby cries this frequently at least 3 days a week
  • Crying patterns persist for at least 3 weeks in a row

If baby's crying follows these patterns, and can't be soothed out of these patterns, your baby probably has colic.

Colic crying also starts for no reason at all (not because a baby is tired, hungry, or needs their diaper changed).

In addition, colic crying is louder, higher-pitched, and more intense than standard crying. Sometimes, it might sound more like a scream than a cry.

And colic crying usually happens daily, around the same time each day (although baby might have an occasional day without crying). Many babies with colic start to cry in the evening, into the night. 

Besides the intense crying, other signs and symptoms of baby colic include:

  • Gas
  • Bloating
  • Burping often
  • Spitting up (reflux)
  • Increased bowel movements
  • Pulling up the legs more often
  • Increased leg and arm movements overall
  • Abruptly stopping eating to cry (rejecting the breast or bottle nipple right after starting to suck)
  • Abruptly waking up to cry

How can you tell if baby's excessive crying is colic or a sign of another health problem?

According to Johns Hopkins Medicine, the symptoms below may indicate that your baby suffers from another health problem (like reflux or an infection), and not colic. If baby shows any of these symptoms in addition to excessive crying, call your pediatrician.

  • Trouble sucking on the breast or drinking from the bottle
  • Drinking less milk/formula than usual
  • Vomiting
  • Loose stools
  • Strange-sounding cry
  • Fever (100.4° F or more)
  • Trouble breathing or change in breathing rate
  • Excessive sleepiness/ being more sluggish than normal

How long does colic last?

Fortunately, baby's colic doesn't usually last long. Babies usually start to have colic at around 2 to 4 weeks of age. Colic tends to get worse around 6 weeks of age, but then usually tapers off between 10 and 12 weeks of age. 

Between 3 and 4 months of age (and almost always by 6 months of age), baby's colic will usually disappear, either suddenly or gradually.

What may be the hidden cause of colic?

We don't know exactly what causes colic, but we do know that it isn't genetic. We also know it isn't caused by anything that could happen during pregnancy or birthing.

That being said, here are some possible causes of colic: 

Overstimulation: When babies are born, it is thought that they naturally tune out their surroundings, so they can eat and sleep uninterrupted. But starting around 2 to 3 weeks of age, babies supposedly lose this ability to block out the sights and sounds around them. This new stimulation may overwhelm baby, and this may cause them to cry intensely. Or, baby might cry because they have trouble calming themself after stimulation. As the theory explains, colic then ends when baby's nervous system matures, and baby learns to process and filter the sights and sounds around them.

Medical condition: Baby's excessive crying might be a sign of something more serious, so be sure to talk to your pediatrician if you have any concerns.

Food sensitivity (allergy or intolerance): In particular, a formula-fed baby might be colicky because they have an allergy or intolerance to the cow's milk in their formula. 

Colic soothing tips for parents

Here are some tips on how to soothe your baby's colic, including some that the AAP has recommended.

Try rocking your baby or walking them in a baby carrier. The motion and close contact may help calm them. In fact, holding your baby close might help on it's own, because your baby might be longing for the closeness they felt constantly in the womb.

Turn on a fan or a white-noise machine, sing a lullaby, or play soothing music, to surround your baby with calming sounds. 

Put baby in a room where they can hear the dryer or the vacuum next door. Strange as this may sound, these noises may remind your baby of the womb.

Try to reduce the new stimuli in baby's environment, especially during the times of day that baby becomes colicky. 

If certain stimuli seem to bother baby, try to avoid exposing baby to them, or remove them from baby's environment.

Swaddle your baby in a warm blanket, to help them feel secure.

Change your baby's position, or take them outside. The variety might help soothe baby. 

If your doctor approves, try introducing a pacifier. Your colicky baby may want to eat constantly, but not because they're hungry---rather, they find sucking soothing.

If baby appears to have GI issues and if you’ve consulted with your doctor, apply pressure to their stomach and rub their back. Again, the closeness and touch from you might also help relieve colic on their own. Place baby on your lap with their stomach down, hold them upright and press their stomach against your shoulder, or carry baby and let their stomach rest on your arm. Burping baby may also help.

Don't overfeed baby, as overfeeding can make existing colic worse.

If baby drinks from a bottle, choose a bottle with an "anti-colic valve." This valve cuts down on the air baby takes in. Taking in too much air can lead to gas and increased stomach discomfort, which may contribute to colic.

If baby consumes formula, talk to your doctor about a possible allergy or intolerance, and ask if you should switch to a formula that doesn't contain cow's milk. Changing formulas may make a difference. (Don't switch formulas, or make any similar changes to baby's diet, before consulting your doctor.)

Talk to your pediatrician about other ways to soothe your baby's colic.

Colic survival tips for parents

These tips will help you relieve stress during the challenging period of baby colic. 

Don't be afraid to step away once in a while. Yes, it's important to respond to crying as that's baby's way of communicating. But if baby can't be consoled for a long period of time and you're frustrated, it's perfectly fine to take a 10 to 15 minute break after you've tried your best to tend to them. 

Noise canceling headphones might help you step away for a little bit. Just make sure you can still hear baby through the headphones, and that you don't wear the headphones too long. 

If you need a longer break, you also shouldn't be afraid to have others care for your baby from time to time. Reducing your own stress might also help soothe your baby. 

If you have a spouse or other carer at home during baby's colicky hours, split the colic care duties evenly. This won't just help lessen your stress. The variety in careers may also help calm baby down.

If you feel overwhelmed constantly, please reach out to your doctor. They're here for you and ready to listen to your concerns.

And remember---colic will go away eventually. You won't have a colicky baby forever!

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All health-related content on this website is for informational purposes only and does not create a doctor-patient relationship. Always seek the advice of your own pediatrician in connection with any questions regarding your baby’s health.

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