Is your baby crying around the clock and you don’t know what to do about it?
Colic can be a bitter pill to swallow as a new mom, but you can get through this challenging phase, with your sanity still mostly intact too.
In this article, we’ll discuss what colic is, how long you can expect colic to last, and coping strategies to get you and your baby through the worst of it.
What Is Colic
The medical definition is that colic is a common condition in which babies have inconsolable crying, sometimes seeming to have abdominal discomfort and pain (1).
It further defines colic as crying that extends:
- More than three hours a day.
- More than three days a week.
- More than three weeks in a baby who appears to be healthy if it weren’t for all that crying.
It’s commonly called the Rule of 3’s.
But my definition is a little different — it’s a medical condition that tortures new moms in every way imaginable.
The thing about colic is it attacks you in every area you’re weakest in. As a mom, you want to be able to soothe your baby when they’re upset. It’s ridiculously hard to soothe a baby suffering from colic.
That can leave you feeling inadequate and even cheated as you look around at all the other happy babies and moms you see.
When your baby is crying, it means it’s not sleeping. And if baby isn’t sleeping, neither are you. It can leave you feeling exhausted 24/7.
Also, colic preys on your feelings of worry about your baby. Even if your doctor tells you it’s just colic that’s causing your baby’s crying fits and pain, you’ll still wonder if that’s correct. You’ll worry it’s caused by some underlying condition or that you’re doing something wrong.
In short, colic just sucks. And it can be far more challenging and heartbreaking than the medical definition makes it sound.
As soon as colic begins, moms start to wonder how long it will stick around. And can you blame us?
It’s exhausting, soul-crushing, and heartbreaking for us. So we can’t wait for this phase to be over as quickly as possible. We want the happy mothering moments we envisioned during the nine months we were carrying our babies.
For some unlucky mommas and babies though, colic does come back once it has been gone for a while. You may think you’re in the clear for a few days and that crying starts back up.
How Common Is It?
Colic is far more common than you might imagine it is. It happens to 20 to 25 percent of babies (2).
Some doctors even think all babies suffer from colic to some degree. But because of the parameters set for diagnosing colic decades ago, only that 20 to 25 percent fall into a clinical diagnosis category.
If your baby is experiencing colic, at least you can take comfort in the fact it’s a common problem that disappears on its own within weeks or months.
Symptoms and Signs of Colic
If you’re still wondering if your baby truly has colic and you want to look for other signs in addition to the crying, there are a few symptoms many babies with colic display.
These symptoms aren’t always noticeable to parents because they can be pretty ambiguous. But when you start seeing a number of these symptoms in a baby, the evidence begins to point to colic, especially you notice the Rule of 3’s applies to your baby.
Keep in mind, not all babies will show these symptoms and if your baby does have one or more of these, it doesn’t mean they necessarily have colic — they could just be having a rough day or two.
- Babies who pull up their legs or extend their legs — that can be a sign of their abdominal distress.
- Clenching fists — that can be a sign of stress and discomfort.
- Passing gas.
- Inconsolable during the evening hours — during the evening, colic is often worse.
- Red face.
- The crying happens mostly at the same time each day.
- You can’t pinpoint a reason for the crying — your baby doesn’t need a diaper change, isn’t sleepy, and isn’t hungry.
- Your baby may begin pooping more.
- Your baby may look wide-eyed or may close them.
- Neither eating or sleeping can distract your baby from crying.
If you notice your baby seems to be constipated instead of pooping more and you’re wondering if constipation and colic are linked, the answer is no. Your baby’s colic isn’t caused by constipation.
But your baby may be experiencing an upset tummy or some discomfort because of constipation. And if your baby suffers a lot from constipation, it can sometimes be difficult to distinguish whether they have colic or are just constantly uncomfortable because of constipation.
What Causes Colic
While doctors used to think colic was caused by gas, they aren’t as certain about that these days.
Kids with colic do seem to be gassier, but that gassiness may be caused by colic instead of being the cause of it. When babies cry, such as they do for an extended amount of time with colic, they swallow more air — swallowing that excess air can cause gas.
So even though some doctors no longer think colic is caused by gas, they still aren’t sure what actually causes it (3). It’s hard for doctors and scientists to help find a solution when they don’t know what’s causing colic to begin with. There are several theories out there, with no clear-cut answer.
Here are some of the top theories.
- It’s just a normal stage some babies go through.
- It’s caused by an imbalance of healthy and unhealthy bacteria in the gut.
- An imbalance of melatonin and serotonin, chemicals in the brain, are to blame.
- That some babies just have reactive and sensitive temperaments that make them prone to having fits that take them a long time to get over.
- Some babies may have a slower development when it comes to their stress response. That means they might not know how to stop crying as easily when they get upset or worked up.
- They just might be babies that need more hands-on attention than they are getting from their parents or caregivers.
- The babies who suffer from colic may be experiencing symptoms like adults would with migraines. Babies have higher rates of colic when migraines run in the family (4).
- Although it doesn’t cause colic per se, making sure there is no cigarette smoke around your baby can help lower their risk of colic.
While doctors don’t know for certain what does cause colic, they do know what isn’t causing it.
- Overstimulation: Babies aren’t displaying colic because they are over-stimulated. While they were in your womb, it was dark, but there was plenty of noise, both from your body and from the outside world. Taking your baby to a louder, crowded setting like a basketball game isn’t going to cause colic to develop or worsen.
- Your parental anxiety: New parents are nervous and anxious about a lot of their decisions and actions, but that isn’t going to cause your baby to develop colic. While they may be able to sense your stress level a bit, it isn’t going to be enough to throw them into a complete tailspin. Babies are a bit tougher than that.
Remedies to Soothe Colic
While helping yourself with the stress of colic will give you a clearer mind so you can better deal with your situation, you’ll also want to focus on ways you can help your baby. It’s hard on you, but as a mom, your baby is obviously your first concern.
Here is what you can do to help ease your baby’s discomfort at a time when it seems like nothing will help:
1. Reduce Dairy Intake
Your baby might be crying because of their tummy pains from having a milk protein allergy. Their reaction can be eased by you laying off the dairy in your diet while you breastfeed.
Give it a couple of weeks of eating no dairy before you determine if it’s helping or not.
To help you determine if it might be dairy-related, start keeping a journal of what you eat, and when your baby’s symptoms come on. If you notice them after your baby eats or that the symptoms ease up or go away when you avoid dairy, it could be related.
2. Use a Different Formula
If your baby is formula-fed and they’re suffering from colic, you need to check with your doctor about changing the formula you use. Sometimes babies have an issue with one particular formula, but they’re just fine with another.
While it may not be enough to eliminate their colic symptoms, if it can give you both a little relief it’s worth a try.
If you happen to have bought what seems like a lifetime supply of formula already and envisioning it being wasted is like flushing a big chunk of money down the toilet, you can still use it.
Instead of using it for every feeding, try doing it every other feeding and substituting another kind of formula in there. While it isn’t an ideal situation, doctors say there is nothing wrong with switching back and forth formulas (5).
3. Watch to See How Much Air Your Baby Is Swallowing
If your baby seems to be swallowing more air than milk with the bottles or doesn’t seem to have a proper breastfeeding latch, colic may be worse. Gulping all that air may cause some major gas pain, which is just what your colicky baby doesn’t need.
Look for a faster-flow nipple to cut back on the air your baby is gulping and make sure that latch is right. Less air can mean less gas, which means less colic.
4. Watch for Acid Reflux
Ever had a bout of acid reflux? It isn’t pleasant for adults, let alone babies. Since acid reflux can make colic worse, you should pay attention to whether you think your baby might be suffering from reflux.
But recognizing acid reflux isn’t always easy because some parents still tend to think of this as a condition that affects adults primarily. Symptoms of reflux include:
- Extended crying.
- Being irritable or fussy right after eating.
- Vomiting, especially forcefully and frequently.
- Not wanting to eat.
There are some steps you can take to help your baby if it does have acid reflux.
- Burp your baby often when you are feeding it, as frequently as once every one or two ounces (6). This will help keep the air from building up too much and may help cut down on how much they are spitting up.
- After feeding is done, keep your baby upright for a minimum of 30 minutes instead of putting them down in their crib for their nap. Gravity may help the contents of their stomach stay down instead of bubbling up. Plus, it gives you an excuse to snuggle up with your baby longer.
- Make the addition of rice or oat cereal to your baby’s milk or formula. That will thicken it up and help keep it down better in your baby’s belly. You’ll need to find a nipple with a bigger opening to accommodate the rice cereal. Always talk to your doctor before thickening baby’s feeds with cereal, though.
- Don’t overfeed your baby. Overfeeding will aggravate their acid reflux.
5. Rely on That Pacifier
Pacifiers do more than cut down on the risk of SIDS — they may also help soothe your baby’s crying because of colic. If your baby isn’t feeding and starts a crying fit you can see is starting to spiral out of control, try a few times to see if they’ll take a pacifier.
Place it in their mouth. If your baby doesn’t seem interested, dip it in breast milk or formula, then try it again.
6. Work on Your Bedtime Routines
Babies thrive on routine — it helps them to settle down and eventually know what’s supposed to happen next. It makes them feel safe and calm.
Babies who have colic may benefit from simple nightly routines such as bath time followed by soft lullabies, and being rocked by their mothers. Start by developing your routine — after a couple of weeks, it may help.
You can develop the routine that works best for you and your baby. But here are some suggestions.
- A warm bath.
- Talking and interacting with your baby as you dress them in their sleep clothes.
- Dimming the lights and singing lullabies to your baby as you rock them.
That’s the night routine I followed with my babies, and they both loved it. And so did I. It calmed us both down at night and gave us some quality bonding time.
7. Reach for the Probiotics
Some doctors think infants with colic will benefit from taking probiotics while others aren’t convinced. You can talk to your baby’s pediatrician about introducing probiotics. The two of you can decide together whether it’s something you want to pursue.
If you decide to go ahead with probiotics, you’ll give them to your baby daily. You can mix drops in with your baby’s formula or breast milk. Or powdered probiotics can be rubbed on the inside of baby’s cheek with a clean finger.
8. Work on Your Bedtime Routines
Because holding your baby, or having skin to skin contact, will soothe your colicky baby more than anything else, you should consider using a baby carrier. Your baby will get to be by you all the time and you’ll get the luxury of having your hands free and less crying.
Strap on a baby carrier, even when you’re around the house when your arms need a break. You’ll be able to hold your baby close to you, while doing other things like light chores or paying bills. You’ll be able to have a bit of life, even when you’re with your baby almost every waking hour.
9. Rub That Tummy
Rubbing your baby’s tummy may help expel some of that excess gas, which should bring them comfort. At the very least, your soothing touch may help calm your baby down — and that should calm you down too.
To do it, rub the tummy in a circular, clockwise direction. You can do it several times a day for a few minutes at a time. In the beginning, it may take some time for your baby to get used to — some will love it and some might resist it at first.
10. Use a Warm Water Bottle or Bath
A warm bath can feel wonderful to a baby who is struggling with colic. Sometimes it can be enough to provide a change of pace and some comfort to a baby who just won’t stop crying no matter what.
If your baby has already had a bath for the day or you don’t have time for that, you can try a warm water bottle instead.
A warm bottle placed against your baby’s tummy might be enough to give it some soothing relief. You have to make sure it isn’t too hot though to be against their skin.
You can make it a bit hotter than their bath water because the bottle will block a little of the heat. The water bottle won’t feel hot to you, just warm — and that’s the right temperature for your baby’s sensitive skin.
11. Don’t Overfeed
Ever eat that extra piece of pizza you were eyeing and instantly regretted it? Babies can get overfull too — and a lot of times it’s the fault of their parents or caregiver.
An overfull tummy will be an uncomfortable one. There’s a difference between giving your baby enough and giving them too much.
If you’re having issues with your caregiver overfeeding your baby when you aren’t around, talk to them about the issue. Let them know you’re trying not to overfeed in the hopes that it helps with colic.
Here are some tips to help your caregiver.
- Keep bottles in two- to four-ounce increments. That way a caregiver won’t feel compelled to get your baby to take in the whole 8-ounce bottle you packed.
- Use a slower-flow nipple to slow the drinking speed, as long as it doesn’t cause extra gas.
- Teach your caregiver about reading your baby’s cues — pushing away the bottle and showing no interest in drinking more after one bottle is done. Respecting those cues can help avoid overfeeding.
12. Making Sure Your Baby Gets Hindmilk
If you’re breastfeeding, you’re making a healthy choice for your baby as it is. But knowing the difference between foremilk and hindmilk may result in less colic for your baby.
Unfortunately, there’s no set number of minutes when the foremilk turns to hindmilk – it’s a gradual shift during the feeding from less fatty milk at the beginning to more fat-rich milk toward the end.
Editor's Note:Michelle Roth, BA, IBCLC
Hindmilk is more filling for a baby because of the fat content and is believed to be easier on a baby’s belly when they’re struggling with colic.
To ensure you’re allowing your baby to get enough of this fat-rich milk, you can make sure you’re not switching breasts in the middle of a feeding session. If you do, your baby will miss out on the hindmilk because you’ll be leaving it in the breast.
While some experts say not to be overly concerned with foremilk and hindmilk, it’s worth a try if it helps with your baby’s colic symptoms.
13. Swaddle Your Baby
Babies are used to tight spaces that don’t have much room for them to move around. That’s how they lived in your womb right before they were born.
To recreate that sensation for them, you can try swaddling them. Although there are variations, here is how you do a basic swaddle.
- Place the swaddle blanket on the ground or changing table so it is positioned like a diamond. Then fold down the top corner.
- Next, put your baby on its back with its neck on the folded section of the blanket.
- Put your baby’s right arm at its side and pull the left side of the blanket over that arm. The blanket will go across its body, tucked under its left arm.
Some babies hate their hands to be swaddled in. If this is your baby, simply allow baby to keep their hands near their face, but swaddle their arm against their torso.
Editor's Note:Michelle Roth, BA, IBCLC
- Do the same thing on the other side, wrapping the excess blanket behind your baby, as far on its back as it will go.
Don’t be discouraged if your swaddling skills aren’t up to snuff right away. Keep practicing and make sure you have a blanket that’s big enough for your baby. You could be the best swaddler in the world, but if that blanket is too small it won’t matter. Even better – consider a swaddling wrap or sack specifically made for the purpose.
14. Put Your Baby on its Belly on Your Lap
This change of position may be enough to alleviate any discomfort a baby is having. At the very least, being in contact with you should be soothing to your baby.
While allowing your baby to sleep on its belly is a no-no, tummy time is still an important part of a baby’s development and it could even reduce colic symptoms. That’s two good reasons to try it.
Here is how you do it:
- Making sure to support your baby’s head, place it belly-down along the length of your legs.
- Your baby’s head will rest on your knees.
- Make sure you keep your hands on your baby at all times to guard against the possibility of falling.
With our colicky baby, my husband and I spent weeks of evenings holding him on our forearms, switching off when one of us got tired. We’d put his head on our inner elbow, with his belly against our forearm and our hand supporting his legs. We’d walk, bounce, sway, rock for hours this way.
Editor's Note:Michelle Roth, BA, IBCLC
15. Make a Shushing Sound
Babies got used to noises, including white noise, while they were hanging out in your womb. Some of those same noises may be comforting to your baby while they’re suffering from colic.
You can try putting your baby’s head against your heart so they can listen to the beating. And you can loudly make a shushing noise for your baby. They’ll have to be able to hear it over the sound of their own crying, so be prepared to turn up the volume while you’re doing it.
You might feel a little self-conscious at first if you do this one in public, but with a crying baby in your arms, you’ll probably be willing to try anything.
Other sources of white noise include a fan (just make sure you’re not making the room too cold), the car engine (take a car ride – the motion and noise may soothe baby), a vacuum cleaner (wear baby in a sling and get some housework done), or the washing machine (set baby beside it, not on it, as the vibration can jiggle a baby seat right off). Use your imagination. Or consider buying a white noise machine.
Coping With Colic
Colic can be very difficult. Remember, though, that it is relatively short-term and there are ways to help yourself and your baby feel better.
While nothing will get rid of all the crying 100 percent, if you can manage to grab some sleep here and there you’ll feel so much better.
Here is what you can do to help yourself deal with the stress of colic.
- Ask for help: No mother can do everything alone — we all need help sometimes. Count on your partner, friends, and family to get you through this rough phase. If they can give you an hour’s rest or break from the crying, you’ll return refreshed and able to handle a bit more.
- Seek professional help: If you start to have dark thoughts about hurting yourself or your baby, seek help as soon as you can. Call your doctor and tell them what you’re experiencing. They’ll refer you to someone who can help with your feelings and issues.
- Learn more: Whether it’s from talking to moms who have lived through this situation or reading countless books on the subject, you do whatever you have to do to bring yourself up to speed. The more you know about something, the better you can handle it. You’ll learn what has worked for other moms and you won’t feel as alone.
- Walk away: You’ve tried everything you can think of to get your baby’s crying to stop and nothing is working. You can feel yourself starting to feel hysterical or mad. Now is the perfect time for you to put your baby in its crib and walk away for five minutes. While it may feel wrong to do so — to just walk away while your baby is so upset — it may be the smartest thing you can do. It’s better to walk away, take a few deep breaths, and come back with a cool head.
- Be ready for the evening: Having some meals already prepared can make your evenings a lot easier. Since the evening hours can be the worst for a baby with colic, you might want to prepare a week’s worth of freezer meals on Sundays, so you’ll just have to pop them in the oven during the week.
- Sleep When Your Baby Sleeps: You probably heard that advice when you were leaving the hospital with your newborn, and it still applies now. You need to get some sleep — it will help you cope so much better with the stress of colic. As soon as your baby falls asleep, you should too. The dishes can wait — you need to put yourself first.
Myths About Colic
A lot of misinformation exists about colic. Let’s look at the top five myths surrounding colic.
The Bottom Line
Colic is a kick in the pants, no matter how you look at it. It’s not the kind of journey you envisioned for you and your child. The sooner you accept that the sooner you’ll be able to find workable solutions for both you and your baby.
With the tips listed in this article, you should be able to lessen the severity of your baby’s colic. That will help you both feel better.
When you start to feel down about your situation, remember that you’re a great mom! If you weren’t, you wouldn’t be here looking up this information right now. And as long as a mom cares, nothing is impossible.