Is It Colic or Something Else?

Medically Reviewed by Dan Brennan, MD on April 05, 2016
4 min read

Mother’s intuition told Nikki Leith that something was wrong with her baby girl.

At just 2 weeks old, baby Madilyn spent most of her waking hours wailing. “She cried all day. If she wasn’t nursing or sleeping, she was crying, screaming, or just unhappy,” recalls the 31-year-old mother of two from Owen Sound, Ontario, Canada.

“I was told by pretty much everyone, from medical professionals to other moms, that it was just colic,” she says.

Up to 40% of infants get colic -- high-pitched screaming and crying that lasts for over 3 hours a day on more than 3 days a week. It begins between 3 and 6 weeks of age and usually ends when the baby is 3 or 4 months old.

But most babies who have it fit a typical profile, and Madilyn didn’t match it.

Colicky babies normally have predictable periods of fussiness and crying, says Stan Spinner, MD, chief medical officer of Texas Children’s Pediatrics and Urgent Care in Houston. For example, they may cry from 10 at night until 3 in the morning on most days, so parents know when it’s coming, he says.

They’re nearly impossible to soothe during a crying spell, but between those fussy periods, they eat normally and are healthy, Spinner says.

On top of the constant crying, Madilyn was projectile vomiting. “The amount she puked was unreal. It was full of mucus, sometimes so thick that I had to pull it out of her mouth,” Leith says. Madilyn also had strange poops: green, frothy, and full of mucus.

Doctors ruled out medical conditions, but Leith still wasn’t convinced it was colic. She did some research online and found that Madilyn’s symptoms pointed to an allergy to a protein in cow’s milk.

Signs of one include crying all day, vomiting, diarrhea, and blood or mucus in their poop, says Ellen Schumann, MD, a pediatrician at Ministry Health Care in Weston, WI.

Leith was breastfeeding, so she stopped eating all dairy to see if it would help Madilyn.

“Madilyn was almost a different baby in just 2 days. She was no longer crying in pain constantly, and the amount of puking went down to a normal amount,” Leith says. She also went back to “normal baby poops -- no more mucus or foam.”

Spinner says it’s uncommon for a breastfed baby to react to dairy in her mom’s diet. But it’s possible if she eats a lot of it and the baby is very sensitive. It’s more of a problem for infants who eat formula made with cow’s milk. Doctors can recommend different brands that are easier to digest.

Most kids outgrow a milk allergy in early childhood. Madilyn did. At 4 years old, she now eats just about everything but is a big fan of ice cream, Leith says.

Outside of a baby’s crying and fussing, other signs that a little one has something more than colic include:

  • Fever
  • Rash
  • A nagging cough
  • Trouble eating

In addition to a milk allergy like Madilyn’s, other conditions that might mimic colic include:

GERD (gastroesophageal reflux disease): Stomach acid can back up into your baby’s esophagus, causing painful reflux. Spitting up a lot and crying during feedings are signs, Spinner says. If your baby pulls away from a breast or bottle and isn’t eating well, talk to your doctor. 

Infections: If your baby is fussy, running a fever, or just looks sick, she could have an infection in her blood, bladder, or somewhere else. They can get dangerous quickly in a very young baby, so call your doctor right away, Spinner says.

A heart problem: Your baby can get fussy if her heart isn’t pumping right, Spinner says. One in 100 babies is born with a heart defect. Watch for blue lips, very fast breathing, and poor feeding.

Lactose intolerance: It’s very rare, but some babies can’t digest milk sugars in formula, so they get extra gassy and upset. Children with a family history of lactose intolerance have a higher risk, Spinner says. The problem usually clears up in a few days when you switch to a lactose-free formula.  

Rarely, some bowel problems can trigger colicky-like crying.

Make sure the doctor sees the baby: Sometimes a call into the office for advice just won’t cut it. Spinner says if you’re worried, bring the baby in. Doctors often can tell if something’s wrong by just looking at an infant.

Trust your instincts:  Parents have a sixth sense about their children, Schumann says. Tell your doctor if you think your baby has something other than colic. She may go over the child’s medical history again, do another exam, or get a second opinion.

Share what you think the problem might be. Your doctor may put your mind at ease by ruling out what you’re worried about.

And, Schumann adds, there’s no such thing as “just colic.” It takes a toll on families. If it turns out your baby has it, talk to your doctor about ways to get through the next few months a little easier.