In this article
What is colic?Colic is the term used when your otherwise healthy baby cries excessively and can't be soothed (CKS 2014, NICE 2014b).
All babies cry, of course. But crying is excessive if it totals three hours a day and happens more than three days a week for at least three weeks (NICE 2014a). This sort of crying is also called persistent crying, problem crying or part of the period of PURPLE crying®.
Whatever you call it, excessive crying can be upsetting. Trying to comfort an inconsolable baby over many hours is still hard work. At times you may feel helpless. It may be enough to drive you to tears of your own. But you're not doing anything wrong, and your baby usually won't be crying for any particular reason.
This phase of crying is very common and it will pass (NHS Choices 2014a, NICE 2014). It usually starts between two weeks and four weeks and will probably be over by the time your baby's about four months old (NHS Choices 2014a, NICE 2014a).
How can I tell if my baby has colic?If your baby cries excessively, but is otherwise healthy and feeding well, it's likely that he has colic (NHS Choices 2014a). Your baby may be diagnosed with colic or persistent crying if:
- he has frequent bouts of intense and inconsolable crying
- he pulls his legs up to his tummy and arches his back when crying
- he cries most often in the late afternoon or evening (NHS Choices 2014a, NICE 2014a)
Should I take my baby to the doctor?Yes, it's recommended that you seek advice from your GP if your baby cries excessively (NHS Choices 2014a). Try to keep a note of his bouts of crying and any other symptoms, and his feeds. Take this with you when you visit your doctor and whenever you see your health visitor (Public Health Agency 2014).
Your baby may have symptoms that indicate something more serious is causing his crying. You should seek immediate advice from your GP if your baby:
- has a high-pitched, abnormal-sounding cry
- vomits green fluid
- has blood in his poo
- takes much less fluids than usual or is having fewer wet nappies than usual (NHS Choices 2014a)
Read more about when to call your GP.
If your baby has any of these symptoms and your GP is unavailable, call 111 for advice (NHS Choices 2014a).
Even if your baby shows no obvious signs of illness apart from his excessive crying, it's still a good idea to see your doctor. She will either confirm colic, or she may diagnose another problem (NHS Choices 2014a) such as:
- An allergy or temporary intolerance to formula milk or breastmilk.
- Reflux, when your baby brings up feeds or vomits after feeding.
- Difficulty latching on properly. If your baby's breastfed, and he cries and pulls off during feeds, he may need a different breastfeeding position.
In these cases, your GP will advise the best course of action to help you ease your baby's symptoms.
Why does my baby cry so much?We still don't know why some babies cry so much more than others (NHS Choices 2014a, NICE 2014a). Experts have suggested that colic may just be at the extreme end of normal crying, which usually peaks in the first two months (St James-Roberts 2008).
So while some babies only cry a little, your baby may just naturally cry a lot more in the early weeks of his life. This phase will pass. If you have a colicky baby, you'll be relieved to hear that he should start crying the same amount as other babies of his age as the weeks pass (Barr et al 2005).
Colic is just as common in breastfed babies as in formula-fed babies. It affects girls and boys equally too (Deshpande 2009).
There are various theories about why colic happens. For example, your baby could be persistently crying because his gut is still maturing. So indigestion and wind are temporarily causing a problem (NHS Choices 2014a).
It's possible he may just need a cuddle too. Babies who have less physical contact from birth (less than at least 10 hours a day whether awake, feeding or sleeping), tend to cry and fuss more (St James-Roberts et al 2006).
There no proof that these or other theories about the cause of colic are true. Rest assured that it's unlikely your baby's in pain or that you've done something wrong (St James-Roberts 2008, NICE 2014a). While it may be hard to cope with, he may just cry for no obvious reason at all.
How can I soothe my colicky baby?The persistent nature of colic means that there are likely to be times when your baby cries, no matter what you do. Be prepared for soothing methods to work well one day, but not the next. If your doctor has ruled out a treatable cause for your baby's crying, you're back to coping with the colic however you can. Although this can be hard, there are plenty of tips to test out:
- Feeding your baby whenever he seems hungry, rather than trying to time his feeds. This is called feeding on demand.
- Allowing yourself time to tune in to your baby's signals may help you to recognise his pre-cry cues. You can then offer a feed or sleep before his crying gets more intense. However, your baby may move straight into full-blown crying without giving any signals. If so, try calmly holding him or giving him skin-to-skin contact before he settles to feed (Douglas and Hill 2011).
- Burping your baby after every feed. Hold him over your shoulder, sit him upright on your lap or place him face down on your lap. Then gently pat or rub his back to bring up wind.
- Massaging his tummy gently with clockwise movements to help move along trapped wind and poo.
- Using a dummy. He may be soothed by sucking. Some babies use their fingers or a thumb to suck on instead.
If you're anxious, your baby may pick up on this too (Cirgen Ellett 2003). If your baby gets very windy, you could try to prevent him from getting indigestion:
- If you're breastfeeding, try to keep your baby as upright as possible. Make sure he is fully emptying one breast before moving on to the other, especially if he's producing green poos.
- If he is bottle-fed, make sure he isn't swallowing air from the bottle. Try to sit him upright and tilt the bottle enough so that the milk covers the entrance to the teat. You could try an anti-colic bottle.
- Ask your health visitor about a simple over-the-counter treatment. You could try an anti-gas medication (drops containing an ingredient called simeticone), gripe water, or lactase drops (NHS Choices 2014a)..
- Some parents have found probiotic drops containing lactobacillus reuteri helpful (Douglas and Hill 2011). However, the evidence is mixed about their effectiveness (NHS Choices 2014b, Sung et al 2014).
If you do use anti-gas remedies, try each remedy one at a time so you know what works and what doesn't work for your baby (Lucassen 2010). If you've tried something for a week and not noticed a difference, it's fine to stop using it.
Other soothing approaches often recreate feelings and sensations that your baby had while in your womb (uterus). Your baby may feel comforted if you:
- Hold him close to you so that he can hear your heartbeat. Sit down, relax and take long, slow, breaths so that your heartbeat becomes slow and regular.
- Swaddle him, if he's less than a month old.
- Quieten things down and dim the lights. Lots of activity or being passed from person to person could over-stimulate your baby. He may also find it difficult to stop gazing at bright lights.
- Play white noise to him. Repetitive noise may recreate the whooshing sounds in your womb. The sound of a vacuum cleaner, your hair dryer, a ticking clock or a white-noise CD may work.
- Take him for a drive in the car or a walk in a pram. The vibrations from the road or pavement will soothe some babies.
- Rock your baby. Recreate the swaying motion he enjoyed in your womb by babywearing or rocking him in a bouncy chair.
- Try a warm bath. Your baby spent months immersed in warm amniotic fluid.
Always following the same pattern of care may also help. Then your baby will become used to what happens next and be more settled in general (Blom et al 2009, Keefe et al 2005).
You could try offering a feed every time your baby wakes then spend some time cuddling or playing. Follow this with letting him play on his own, maybe under a baby gym or mobile. Put him down to sleep as soon as you spot signs of tiredness such as yawning, whining, rubbing his eyes or becoming over-active (Blom et al 2009). However, it's possible that the same routine won't be helpful every time. See other parents' daily routines for their babies.
Friends and family are bound to be concerned for you and your baby. You're likely to hear lots of theories and advice about what to do. Some suggestions can be hard to follow, such as excluding certain vegetables if you're breastfeeding. Others, such as cranial osteopathy, can be expensive.
There isn't strong evidence that any particular soothing technique or "colic treatment" makes much difference to the amount your baby cries (Despande 2010, Lucassen 2010). By the time most parents have tried everything, their baby has outgrown his colic anyway!
If you feel that nothing is helping and you're getting stressed, put your baby in his cot or Moses basket and take a break for a few minutes.
Set the kitchen timer if it helps you to be disciplined about giving yourself time out. Looking after your own wellbeing is a vital part of coping with colic.
Is colic harmful?No. Colic won't harm your baby. It may actually be more painful for you and your partner to cope with your baby's constant crying. The best thing to do is to stay as calm as possible and remind yourself that he'll grow out of this phase.
High-pressured situations caused by relentless crying can lead to frustration and anger or depression. In rare cases, some parents have been known to take actions that they regret, such as shaking their baby (Barr et al 2006, Reijneveld et al 2004).
If you're struggling to cope, don't be afraid to seek help from your GP or talk to your health visitor. Remind yourself that your baby's crying is not your fault, and that he won't hurt himself. This phase will pass. Just give it time.
You aren't alone. Talk to other mums coping with colic in our community and discover tried-and-tested ways of comforting your baby.
Watch this video to see how massage can help your baby's digestion.
Last reviewed: March 2015
Next review: March 2018
ReferencesBarlow KM, Thomson E, Johnson D, et al. 2005. Late neurologic and cognitive sequelae of inflicted traumatic brain injury in infancy. Paediatrics 116(2):e174-85
Barr RG, Paterson JA, MacMartin LM, et al. 2005. Prolonged and unsoothable crying bouts in infants with and without colic. Dv Behav Pediatr 26(1):14-23
Barr RG, Trent RB, Cross J. 2006. Age-related incidence curve of hospitalized Shaken Baby Syndrome cases: convergent evidence for crying as a trigger to shaking. Child Abuse Negl 30(1):7-16
Barr R. 2007. What is all the crying about? Early Childhood Development 6(2):1. dontshake.org [Accessed March 2015]
Blom MA, van Sleuwen BE, de Vries H, et al. 2009. Healthcare interventions for excessive crying in infants: regularity with and without swaddling. J Child Health Care 13:161
Canivet CA, Ostergren PO, Jakobsson IL, et al. 2008. Infantile colic, maternal smoking and infant feeding at 5 weeks of age. Scand J Public Health. 36(3):284-91
Cirgin Ellett ML. 2003. What is known about infant colic? Gastroenterol Nurs. Mar-Apr;26(2):60-5
Deshpande PD. 2014. Colic. eMedicine. emedicine.medscape.com [Accessed March 2015]
Public Health Agency. 2014. Birth to five: Getting to know your baby. Public Health Agency publichealth.hscni.net [Accessed March 2015]
Douglas P, Hill P. 2011. Managing infants who cry excessively in the first few months of life. BMJ 343:7772
Keefe M, Barbosa GA, Froese-Fretz A, et al. 2005. An intervention program for families with irritable infants. MCN Am J Matern Child Nurs 30(4):230-6
Lucassen P. 2010. Colic in infants. BMJ Clinical Evidence Online: 03 September. ncbi.nlm.nih.gov [Accessed March 2015]
NICE. 2014a. Colic – infantile National Institute for Health and Care Excellence, Clinical Knowledge Summaries. cks.nice.org.uk [Accessed March 2015]
NICE. 2014b. Postnatal care. National Institute for Health and Care Excellence, Clinical guidelines. London: NICE, pp. 32-33. [Accessed March 2015]
NHS Choices. 2014a. Colic. NHS Choices, Health A-Z. nhs.uk [Accessed March 2015]
NHS Choices. 2014b. Probiotics ‘no good’ at treating infant colic. NHS Choices, Health news. nhs.uk [Accessed March 2015]
Reijneveld SA, van der Wal M, Brugman E, et al. 2004. Infant crying and abuse. Lancet 364:1340-2
Sung V, Hiscock H, Tang MLK, et al. 2014. Treating infant colic with the probiotic Lactobacillus reuteri: double blind, placebo controlled randomised trial. BMJ. 348:g2107. bmj.com [Accessed March 2015]
St James-Roberts I, Alvarez M, Csipke E, et al. 2006. Infant crying and sleeping in London, Copenhagen and when parents adopt a proximal form of care. Pediatrics 117:e1146-55. Pediatrics.aappublications.org [Accessed March 2015]
St James-Roberts I. 2008. Infant crying and sleeping: helping parents to prevent and manage problems. Primary Care 35(3):547-67. eprints.ioe.ac.uk [Accessed March 2015]