A healthy living blog from Marshfield Clinic Health System

Colic in babies: What parents need to know

An infant crying for prolonged periods of time can be frustrating for parents because there’s often no known cause for it starting and nothing seems to bring relief.

The frequent and intense crying in babies is usually identified as colic, and it is common in healthy babies.

What causes colic?

No exact cause is known for colic. Possible reasons your baby may become colicky include sensitivity to the environment that your baby is learning for the first time, over-stimulation or an immature nervous system. For some babies, they just haven’t learned how to console themselves yet. It also could be caused by gastrointestinal disturbance, such as underfeeding, overfeeding or immaturity of the gut.

“Colic can occur in any baby who is two to five weeks old and generally improves on its own when they are three to four months old. In some circumstances, it may last up to six months,” said Dr. Annie Novak, pediatrician with Marshfield Clinic Health System. “Unfortunately, some babies just cry more than others and we don’t have a great cause or reason.”

Picture of baby under a blanket

Colic is defined as crying that lasts three or more hours daily, for three or more days a week and lasts three or more weeks.

How do you know if the crying is colic?

Crying is normal in infants, especially throughout their first few months. Colic is defined as crying that lasts three or more hours daily, for three or more days a week and lasts three or more weeks.

“Infants with colic are generally happy at certain times, and then have very fussy periods and tend to occur as episodes in the evening hours,” Dr. Novak said. “The sound of the cry can seem more high-pitched and scream-like. Some infants may demonstrate signs of tenseness in the arms, arching of the back and clenching of the fingers.”

Other common signs of colic include:

  • Crying for no obvious reason.
  • Crying around the same time daily.
  • Crying like they are in pain.
  • Turning bright red when crying.

Colic is diagnosed by having a discussion with your pediatrician and describing your baby’s behaviors and allowing your pediatrician to examine your baby. If your baby is healthy on exam with normal development, but shows periods of crying one to two times daily that are not caused by hunger and is between ages two to four weeks, the most likely diagnosis is colic. Your pediatrician will examine your baby to ensure they are happy and healthy when not crying.

What can you do?

If you suspect your baby has colic, let your pediatrician know right away. They will examine your baby and make sure a serious medical condition is not causing the crying. Colic, on its own, does not usually cause health problems. The crying is part of the baby’s adjusting to and learning their new environment.

“Infants with colicky episodes should improve on their own and grow out of it. If they do not, have a discussion with your pediatrician about what could be causing the crying and any other symptoms occurring,” she said.

While there is no treatment for colic, there are things you can do that may help when your baby is crying, such as:

  • Soothing your baby by rocking or walking around.
  • Using white noise, such as a fan, white-noise machine or running the clothes dryer.
  • Allowing the baby to suck on a pacifier to soothe.
  • Laying your baby tummy-down and rubbing their back.
  • Swaddling the baby to help them feel more secure and warm.

For further information about colic, talk with your child’s pediatrician.

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