What is Colic in Babies?

Colic can be very distressing, both for babies and their parents. Listening to endless crying wears out even the most patient of us. Sometimes, it can be almost impossible to know how best to soothe a colicky baby. Fortunately, there are a range of strategies which often help.

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Colic is often given as the reason for crying in a young and otherwise healthy and thriving baby. Where there does not seem to a physical reason for a young baby to cry and fuss, colic can be a fair assessment for what they’re experiencing. There are many reasons why babies cry. The truth is that lots of times we don’t know the true reason for their distress.

Remember, every baby is an individual and has their own personality and temperament. Some babies are just calmer and more at ease than others, and it seems that not much bothers them. Others are more sensitive and react to the slightest change in their feeding and care. Young babies cry for all sorts of reasons. Their temperament, sleeping and feeding patterns as well as how they are cared for, all influence how frequently they cry. As babies mature their crying becomes more about communication, and wanting to relate to people around them. Bouts of crying evolve to spread over the whole day, rather than concentrated in one intense period of time.

First it’s important to rule out other causes for crying. Crying can be a sign of illness, so have your baby checked by a doctor to rule out a physical cause for their crying. If they are vomiting, have a rash or aren’t feeding well, it’s especially important they are examined. Try not to worry though, healthy babies with colic rarely have a medical condition.  

What's Normal? 

It’s estimated that around one in five babies experiences colic in their early months of life. Colic is more common in babies aged between 2-4 weeks of age. It peaks at around 6-8 weeks and gradually settles by 3 months of age. It’s fairly normal for newborns to fuss and cry for up to three hours each day. For parents to feel unsure. A certain amount of guesswork, as well as trial and error, is required in parenting. Sometimes we can feel pretty certain about the reason for our baby’s crying, and others times it’s a mystery. In the newborn period it’s normal for babies to go through periods of unexplained and regular crying each day. This usually happens between the ages of about two weeks and 12 weeks. Bouts of crying may last for three hours or more, and occur mostly in the afternoons and evenings.

What are the Causes of Colic?

The true answer is that we don’t really know. There are many theories for colic but the true cause is still unknown.

Perhaps colic is caused by:

  • The baby feeling overwhelmed by stimuli. The nervous system of a young baby is very immature and they can’t verbalise their distress. Crying is the only way they can verbally communicate. Varying the pitch and intensity of their cry sends different messages of distress.
  • A mother’s diet may contribute to colic symptoms. There is some disagreement about this. However, some foods seem to trigger symptoms in individual babies, suggesting food allergy or intolerance. Particular foods, when eaten by a breastfeeding mother, can be culprits when it comes to influencing infant colic. These are cabbage, broccoli, bran and onions.
  • Medications and drugs in the mother’s diet may also contribute to infant colic. Caffeine and nicotine, as well as illicit drugs, can all impact.
  • The baby adjusting to feeding, digesting and eliminating milk. During the long months of pregnancy, all their nutrition was being supplied via the mother’s bloodstream. The baby passively received all the goodness they needed to grow. Once they are born babies become independent. Adjusting to life outside the womb can take a while.

What we Know to be True about Colic

Crying in the first 3 months of life is common and normal. In otherwise healthy and thriving babies, it’s fair to expect them to cry for up to three hours each day.  This usually happens in the late afternoon and evening.  Colic is actually defined by the ‘rule of three - crying for more than three hours each day, for more than three days each week, and for longer than three weeks in a baby who is well fed and otherwise healthy.

It doesn’t matter whether a baby is breast or bottle fed, or a boy or girl: colic occurs in equal numbers. However, it is thought to be more common in babies whose mothers are smokers, or who smoked while they were pregnant. The research around this is still being proven.

Most babies ‘outgrow’ colic by the age of three months. By then they generally become more settled and their feeds and sleep times more predictable. They also have a bigger range of social responses than purely crying. This means they can communicate by smiling, cooing, frowning and grimacing.

Crying outbursts caused by colic are not harmful. Although the baby may look truly distressed with a flushed face and clenched fists, this does not impact on their physical development or mental health. As long as the baby continues to gain weight and feed normally, short, intense periods of colicky crying do no harm.

How Can I Deal With My Baby's Colic?

Despite all the patting, rocking and soothing, it can be very difficult to calm a baby who’s going through a bout of colic. Colic also tends to peak at the end of the day, when there’s a lot for parents to do and less energy for them to expend.

It’s easy for parents to become frustrated by their baby’s crying, especially when it’s happening day after day.

Tips to Manage Baby Colic

  1. Care well for yourself. There will be many times when you don’t know what is wrong with your baby or how to comfort them. Be mindful that just being physically and emotionally close may sometimes be all that you can do.
  2. Plan for times when colic is likely to happen. Make dinner ahead of time and organise older children to keep busy so they’re not too demanding. 
  3. Remind yourself that most babies outgrow colic by 3 months of age. This is a short period of time and will pass.
  4. Ask for help. There will be times when you need to hand your baby over to another trusted adult, walk away and just have a break. Most people are reasonable and keen to offer support if they can.
  5. Get out of the house if you can. Put your baby in a pouch/sling or pram and go for a walk. The movement will help you both.
  6. Check in regularly with your child health nurse. If you’re struggling, it may be helpful for you to receive support from an early parenting centre.

Would Changing My Diet Help?

Some babies are particularly sensitive to foods in their mother’s diet. Cow’s milk protein can cause symptoms of tummy upset in a breastfeeding baby, as can lactose intolerance. Before changing your diet or eliminating particular foods, it’s important you speak with a healthcare professional. 

Lactating mothers have unique needs for specific nutrients and deficiencies can cause problems with themselves and/or their baby.

What Can I Do for My Baby’s Colic?

  • First, check the basics. Is your baby comfortable, hungry, too hot or cold or just wanting some cuddles? Look for  simple solutions before progressing onto more complicated possibilities.
  • Try to settle your baby for a sleep. Crying is a tired sign and frequently peaks when babies need to have a nap.
  • Hold, rock and soothe your baby.
  • Try using white noise as a distraction for you both.
  • Swaddle your baby in a light muslin or cotton wrap. Remember to always follow the safe sleeping guidelines recommended by experts.
  • Give your baby a deep, warm bath.
  • Massage their tummy in a clockwise direction and bicycle their legs whilst holding gently onto their ankles.
  • Offer your baby extra breastfeeds. If you’re formula feeding, consider if they are hungry and want an extra feed.
  • Offer your baby a dummy if you feel this won’t interrupt their breast or formula feeding.
  • Think creatively about what your baby may need. You know your little one better than anyone else, so feel confident about the decisions you make to soothe them.


Always speak and check with a qualified nurse or healthcare professional about your baby’s colic or behaviour to understand what your baby’s individual needs are.

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