What is colic? How to spot and treat colic in babies

Colic in babies often starts at a few weeks old and can cause alarm if you don't know what it is. Read all about colic in babies so you know when to act

baby colic

When your baby won't stop crying, it can be very alarming. Here you can find out what exactly colic is, how to spot it in babies, and how to treat it.

Colic can affect one in five babies, and although there is no official reason behind it, there are a number of ways you can help ease your little one.

What is colic?

Colic is the name given to a frequent and excessive crying in a baby, who doesn't seem to be showing any signs of bad health.

It often starts once a baby is a few weeks old, and usually stops by the age of four to six months.

Nobody really knows what exactly causes colic, but it's speculated that indigestion, trapped wind, or a gut sensitivity to proteins and sugars found in breast and formula milk might be to blame.

Colic occurs equally in both breastfed and bottle-fed babies.

It can be confusing and alarming trying to help a colicky baby, especially as it's difficult to tell what exactly is making them cry so much. Usually, the crying lessens and there's nothing to stress about.

Signs of colic:

  • Intense crying fits
  • Crying late in the afternoon and evening that lasts for several hours
  • A red or flushed face while they cry
  • If they clench their fists, draw their knees up to their stomach, or arch their back while crying

Caring for a colicky baby can be frustrating, especially if you're a first-time parent. However, it's essential to understand that it's not your fault, and the crying will pass. It's important to try and find friends and family members to step in and help whenever they can, so you can get a good rest.

When to seek medical help

If your baby is doing any of the following, you should seek medical help immediately:

  • If their crying is weak, high-pitched or continuous
  • If they seem floppy when picked up
  • They refuse to feed
  • They vomit green liquid
  • Their poo has blood
  • They have a fever of 38C or above (if less than three months old) or 39C or above (if three to six months old)
  • They have a bulging fontanelle (the soft spot on top of a baby's head)
  • They have a seizure or fit
  • They are struggling to breathe, or breathing quickly or grunting
  • They turn blue, pale or blotchy

How to ease colic

While there's no standard way to treat colic, as it's not a health issue, there are a variety of methods that parents believe can help:

  • Hold your baby while crying
  • Burp your baby after feeds
  • Rock your baby gently over your shoulder
  • Give them a warm bath
  • Burp them after feeding
  • Massage their stomach gently
  • Change the type of bottle teat you are feeding them with

It might also help to add some drops of anti-colic medicine to your baby's milk to help with digestion and gas, which could be making them cry so much.

My colic story: 'I just felt so helpless'

Sarah Cassidy tells us her story of how she coped with Emily's colic and how the crying just never seemed to stop 'Emily was around 6 weeks old when she first started getting colic, although we didn't know it was colic at that point. Those first few weeks after you come home from hospital are a bit of a whirlwind. I was just getting used to things when Jimmy, my husband, went back to work. Just being on my own was a shock, but not long after that Emily just started crying for no reason, it seemed.

The first time it happened I ran through all the things you're meant to if your baby cries: Was she tired? Was she hungry? Did she need burping? Need a clean nappy? It was none of them. It was my mum who suggested it was probably colic and then when I saw the health visitor for a check-up, she agreed.

The problem was that the crying just went on for hours. I managed to get her to stop for a while, but not long enough. From about 4-8pm every day, Emily would just wail and I just felt so helpless. It started at almost exactly the same time every day like clockwork. As soon as Jimmy came home, I'd give Emily to him almost immediately, because I'd be tearing my hair out by then. Emily's crying meant that we didn't eat dinner together for weeks, because one of us always had to try and calm her down.

I discovered that colic doesn't really have any cause and is also difficult to treat. Over the next 6 weeks, I got more used to Emily's crying and found that some things worked better at easing the colic. Walking around with her, singing and jiggling her worked well, but as soon as I stopped she'd start again. Massaging her tummy helped a little as well. And obviously, she couldn't cry if she was feeding, but doing that constantly for 4-5 hours isn't really possible.

Then suddenly one day when Emily was about 13 weeks old, she just didn't cry one afternoon. I couldn't believe it. It was as if someone had flicked a switch. Now when I talk to a new mum and she tells me her baby has colic, I really feel for her. It's just so tough, but the good news is that it doesn't last forever.

Colic advice from real mums

Try a different bottle

If you're bottlefeeding, try a bottle that helps reduce the amount of air your baby swallows when she feeds. Look out for the anti-colic stamp on the packaging. Mothercare have an Innosense range; it has a teat that's off centre, so the idea is that there is less air in the bottle and you can hold it at a more shallow angle when feeding. Bottles designed for colicky babies are meant to reduce the amount of air your baby swallows and seemed to work for my daughter, Ruby. Sonja Hussein, 34, mum to Ruby, 19 months

Have a shower

Taking a tepid shower together is a good trick. I always set the shower water onto barely lukewarm, take Joseph in with me, and it works instantly! Susie Whittaker, 32, mum to Joseph, 14 months

Go for a drive

When our daughter had colic, the only way to calm her down was to take her for out in the car. I came to really look forward to those evenings driving around the streets, with Lila quite at last and dropping off to sleep. Stacy Middleton, 29, mum to Lila, now 2

Good vibrations

I discovered this by accident when I sat Stanley on my knees one night when I had my foot-massage bath on. It seemed to soothe him instantly. I think it's the gentle vibration and the sound of the machine. It means I get a relaxing soak and some peace too - we're both happy! Deborah Jones, 36, mum of Stanley, now 3

Although not all breastfed babies are windy because of poor latching on, it's worth investigating. Some symptoms of colic in a breast-fed baby, such as tummy pain and excessive wind, may be explained by the foremilk/hindmilk ratio he receives. When a baby isn't latched on properly, he may not be getting the fat-rich hindmilk that contains the calories. He'll be hungry sooner, and frequent feeding provides higher levels of lactose than a baby can digest, leading to colic symptoms. Ask your breast-feeding councillor or health visitor for advice. Annette Maloney, health visitor.


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