Colic and Newborn Crying

Colic describes a newborn baby that cries for more than 3 hours a day with no other medical cause.

A baby with colic may suddenly cry inconsolably, often screaming while extending or pulling up his or her legs and passing gas. The baby's stomach may appear enlarged or distended with gas. The crying episode may last for minutes or hours. The colic episode winds down when the baby is exhausted, or when gas or stool is passed. Despite apparent stomach pain, infants with colic eat well and gain weight normally.

Almost all babies can be fussy and have periods of prolonged crying. In fact, fussiness in newborns usually increased after 2 weeks of age and peaks at about 4-6 weeks of age. Colic most often begins at the same time every day, usually between 5pm and midnight, just when the baby's parents may feel worn down from the day's work.

It can be very frustrating to deal with a colicky baby, especially with a demanding job and/or other children at home. Fortunately, colic goes away. The fussiness tends to decline to 1-2 hours a day by 3-4 months. There is no cause for concern as long as the baby calms within a few hours and is relatively peaceful and eating well the rest of the day.

Consult your doctor to make sure that the crying is not related to any serious medical condition that may require treatment. A baby with colic after 3 months of age may be evaluated for other medical conditions, such as reflux or hernia.

Causes of Colic

There is no clear explanation for why some babies get colic. Some babies seem to have more discomfort from intestinal gas. Some babies cry from hunger, others from overfeeding. Some cannot tolerate certain foods or proteins in breastmilk or formula. Sometimes, anxiety or depression among adults in the child's life can lead to more crying.

Babies with colic tend to be unusually sensitive to stimulation and have difficulty consoling themselves. This suggests that the problem may be due to an immature nervous system and the babies difficulty with controlling stimuli, such as sound and touch. As the baby matures, he or she acquires the ability to process the outside world and "self-console".

Tips for Comforting a Colicky Baby

Although you simply may have to wait for your baby to grow out of colic, several steps can be attempted to soothe the baby. What comforts one child, may not calm another. Some babies like to be swaddled tight in a blanket, while others prefer to be free. Try many different things, and pay attention to what seems to help, even just a little bit.

Possible steps you might consider include:

  • Hold your baby. Holding your baby is very helpful. The more hours a baby is held, even early in the day, the less time the baby will be fussy in the evening. This will not spoil your child. Infant carriers that you wear on your body can be a great way to keep your baby held tight. Hold your child in an upright position. A warm towel or warm water bottle on the baby's stomach may be soothing.
  • Swaddle your baby. Swaddle her in a large, thin blanket so that she feels secure and warm. If this does not work, you can try allowing the baby to lie on a soft blanket with just a diaper. If left unswaddled, be sure the room is warm so that the baby does not get cold.
  • Walk with your baby. Walking with your baby in a baby carrier provides motion and body contact that will reassure her, even if her discomfort persists.
  • Rock your baby. Gently rocking is very calming. An infant swing may be an alternative for babies at least 4 weeks old who can hold their head up.
  • Sing to your baby. Singing lullabies to your baby can be very soothing.
  • Provide "white noise". "White" noise may soothe some babies. You can buy white noise machines, or try the sound of a fan, vacuum cleaner, washing machine, or dishwasher. Steady rhythmic motion and a calming sound may help him or her fall asleep.
  • If breastfeeding, try eliminating certain foods from your diet, such as caffeine, chocolate, milk products, brocolli, onions, cabbage, and any other potentially irritating foods (spices, garlic) from your own diet. You might also allow the baby to finish the first breast before offering the second. This provides the baby with the hindmilk at the end of feeding which is richer in fat and more be more soothing. If the baby still seems uncomfortable or is eating too much, then offer only one breast (as often as desired) over a 2-3 hour period to give the baby more hindmilk.
  • If bottle feeding formula, talk with your doctor about a protein hydrolysate formula. If food sensitivity is causing the discomfort, the colic should decrease within a few days of these changes. If a bottle feeding takes less than 20 minutes, the hole in the nipple may be too large. Do not overfeed your baby, this could make him or her uncomfortable. In general, try to wait at least two to two and a half hours from the start of one feeding to the start of the next one.
  • Introduce a pacifier. While some breastfed babies will refuse a pacifier, it may provide relief for others.
  • Lay tummy down for a massage. Lay your baby tummy-down across your knees and gently rub her back. The pressure against her belly may help comfort her. Never place your baby to sleep on the stomach. Babies who sleep on their stomachs have a higher risk of SIDS.
  • Ask for help. When you are feeling tense and anxious, have a family member or a friend look after the baby-and get out of the house. Even an hour or two away will help you maintain a positive attitude.

No matter how impatient or angry you become, a baby should never be shaken. Shaking an infant hard can cause blindness, brain damage, or even death.

Let your doctor know if you are depressed or are having trouble dealing with your emotions, as there are approaches that may help.

When to Contact Your Doctor

Call your baby's doctor if your baby is crying a lot. It is important that other, more serious, conditions are ruled out. Call your baby's health care provider immediately if:

  • Your baby's behavior or crying pattern changes suddenly
  • The crying baby also has a fever, forceful vomiting, diarrhea, bloody stools, or other stomach problems

Do not be afraid to seek help immediately if you feel overwhelmed or have thoughts of harming your baby.

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Last updated: 5/13/2022