What is colic?

Colic is the term used when your otherwise healthy baby cries excessively and can't be soothed. It originates from a medical description for intestinal pain, when there are cramps and wind in the digestion, but in babies, there could be crying without physical cause, and it could go on for some time.

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. This sort of crying is also called persistent crying or problem crying – whatever you call it, it’s especially upsetting for a parent, and you can feel helpless, stressed, tearful and even angry as a result. Trying to comfort an inconsolable baby is hard work.
The first thing to understand is that you're not doing anything wrong. With colic, your baby usually won't be crying for any particular reason. This phase of crying – which starts between two and four weeks old – is very common and will pass. The problem has usually disappeared by the time baby is about four months old.

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. 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

Should I take my baby to the doctor?

Yes, seek advice from your GP if your baby cries excessively. 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

Try to keep a note of crying bouts and any other symptoms, and of feed times and amounts, especially if you feel your baby isn’t feeding as well as usual. Take this with you when you visit your doctor and whenever you see your health visitor.

Read more about when to call your GP. If your baby has any of these symptoms and your GP is unavailable, call NHS 24 on 111 for advice.

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 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?

There are various theories about why colic happens, but in reality, we still don't know why some babies cry so much more than others. Experts have suggested that colic may just be at the extreme end of normal crying, which usually peaks in the first two months. While some babies only cry a little, your baby may just naturally cry a lot more in the early weeks of life. You'll be relieved to hear that baby’s crying should revert to a normal pattern as the weeks pass.

Colic is just as common in breastfed babies as in formula-fed babies. It affects girls and boys equally too. Your baby could be persistently crying because the new digestive system is still maturing, so that indigestion and wind are temporarily causing a problem. Its possible baby may just need a cuddle too – babies who have less than 10 hours a day of physical contact from birth do tend to cry and fuss more.

There no proof that any current theories about colic are true. Once you have taken baby to a health professional for advice, you should feel reassured that your baby is not in pain and you've done nothing wrong. While it may be hard to cope with, he may just cry for no obvious reason at all.

How can I soothe my crying baby?

The persistent nature of colic means that there are likely to be times when your baby cries, no matter what you do. Some soothing methods work well one day and are completely ineffective the next. If your doctor has ruled out a treatable cause for your baby's crying, you're back to coping with the colic as best you can at home.

We know this can be hard, so here are some of the tips that sometimes work:
  • Feed your baby whenever he seems hungry, rather than trying to time feeds. This is called feeding on demand.
  • Allow time to tune in to baby's signals, so that you learn to recognise pre-cry cues. Then you can offer a feed or sleep before the crying really sets in. Unfortunately, some babies give no signals.
  • Try calmly holding her or giving skin-to-skin contact before she settles to feed.
  • Burping after every feed can head off tummy pain. Hold baby over your shoulder, sitting upright or face down on your lap. Then gently pat or rub the back to bring up wind.
  • Massage baby’s tummy gently, in clockwise circles, to help move along trapped wind and poo.
  • Some babies are soothed by sucking their fingers or thumb. Try a dummy, too.
  • Try to stay calm. If you're anxious, your baby may pick up on this.

If your baby gets very windy, there are a few ways to reduce the chance of indigestion:
  • When breastfeeding, try to keep baby as upright as possible and make sure one breast is empty before moving on to the other, especially if there are green poos in the nappy.
  • If bottle-feeding, try to sit baby upright and tilt the bottle to keep the milk covering the entrance to the teat. This should prevent baby swallowing air while feeding. 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. Weleda Chamomilla 3X Granules can be given from birth onwards to babies and young children who suffer from colic and teething pain. They can be crushed up and given in a little boiled water to drink, and are sucrose-based so they don’t cause problems for lactose intolerant babies.

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. If you've tried something for a week and not noticed a difference, stop using it.

Other soothing approaches recreate sensations that your baby had while in your womb. These are a few of the ways you can help bring back that sense of security:
  • Hold baby 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 baby, if she is less than a month old. More advice on swaddling comes from NCT.
  • Quieten the room and dim the lights. Lots of activity or being passed from person to person could over-stimulate your baby, who may also be unable to stop gazing at bright lights.
  • Repetitive noise can recreate the whooshing sounds in your womb. Some parents find the sound of a vacuum cleaner, hair dryer, a ticking clock or a white-noise CD can have a calming effect.
  • Go for a drive in the car or a walk in a pram. The vibrations from the road or pavement will soothe some babies.
  • Rock-a-bye-baby. For many ages, people have rocked or swayed babies in cradles and prams. It may recreate the swaying motion enjoyed before birth.
  • Try a warm bath. Your baby spent months immersed in warm amniotic fluid.

Whichever routine you have adopted for feeding, bed and bathtime, try to keep to the same pattern of care. A baby who is used to what happens next will be more settled in general.

Some, all or none of these techniques may be effective for you and your baby at different times. Sadly there isn't strong evidence that any particular soothing technique or "colic treatment" makes much difference to the amount your baby cries. By the time most parents have tried everything, their baby has outgrown his colic anyway!

Look after yourself

Trust your own judgement and make sure you include time to care for yourself. Friends and family are bound to be concerned and will offer 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.

If you feel that nothing is helping and you're getting stressed, put your baby in his cot or pram and take a break for a few minutes. Set the kitchen timer if it helps you to be disciplined about giving yourself a timeout. Looking after your own wellbeing is a vital part of coping with colic.

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. 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 won’t cause any long-term harm. This phase will pass. Just give it time.