What is colic?

Colic is when a healthy baby cries for a very long time, for no obvious reason. It is most common during the first 6 weeks of life. It usually goes away on its own by age 3 to 4 months. Up to 1 in 4 newborn babies may have it. 

Colic is defined as when a baby’s crying:

  • Lasts for more than 3 hours a day
  • Happens more than 3 days a week
  • Occurs for more than 3 weeks

Colic often begins suddenly, with loud and mostly nonstop crying. This constant, extreme crying can be very stressful and difficult for parents.

Babies with colic are often fussy, gassy, and don’t sleep well. But in most cases they grow and gain weight normally.

Colic will go away on its own. This often happens by age 3 months, and in most cases by age 6 months.

What causes colic?

Experts don’t know for sure what causes colic. There are a few theories about why it happens.  Colic may occur when babies:

  • Are sensitive and have trouble adjusting to the world. After birth, newborns must get used to lights, loud noises, and other new things around them. But babies have different personalities (temperaments). Some infants can handle these things well. Other babies don’t adapt as easily. Crying may be one way for a baby to show his or her feelings while getting used to the world.
  • Are unable to calm themselves. Some babies seem very sensitive to stimulation. They can’t calm themselves (self-soothe). Their nervous system is still developing (is immature). As babies get a little older, they are better able to control their nervous system. As this happens, colic goes away.

Other theories about what causes colic are less likely. These include:

  • Being sensitive to gas. Some people think that gas may be to blame for colic. But there isn’t much proof to support this. In fact, treating gas has no effect on colic. Health experts also don’t think that colicky babies make more gas than other infants. Sometimes a colicky baby may seem to pass more gas than other babies do. But that is likely because he or she swallows more air while crying for longer periods of time.
  • Having a milk allergy or intolerance. Having a milk allergy, or an intolerance to cow’s milk protein, may cause belly pain. But often these also cause loose stool (diarrhea). A baby may have a milk allergy if he or she can’t handle cow’s milk and reacts to a change in formula. But there is no proof that changing to a nonmilk formula has any effect on colic.

Which children are at risk for colic?

All families are at risk for having a baby with colic. Any baby can become colicky.

What are the symptoms of colic?

A healthy baby may have colic if he or she cries or is fussy for several hours a day, for no obvious reason. Colicky babies often cry from 6 p.m. to midnight.  

Colicky crying is louder, more high-pitched, and more urgent sounding than regular crying. Colicky babies can be very hard to calm down.

Babies who have colic may show symptoms such as:

  • Burping often or passing a lot of gas. This is likely because of swallowing air while crying. It doesn’t cause colic.
  • Having a bright red (flushed) face 
  • Having a tight belly
  • Curling up their legs toward their belly when crying
  • Clenching their fists when crying

The symptoms of colic can be like other health conditions. Make sure your child sees his or her healthcare provider for a diagnosis.

How is colic diagnosed?

The healthcare provider will ask about your child’s symptoms and health history. He or she will give your child a physical exam. You may be asked questions such as:

  • How long and how often does your baby cry?
  • Have you found anything that seems to trigger the crying?
  • What comfort methods help to calm your baby, if any?

Blood tests and X-rays or other imaging tests may be done. These can help find out if your baby has other health problems.