Colic in Babies

Medically Reviewed by Poonam Sachdev on April 21, 2024
8 min read

Colic is when an infant who isn’t sick or hungry cries for more than 3 hours a day, more than 3 days a week, for more than 3 weeks. The condition is a bit of a mystery, but experts agree on a few things:

  • Colicky babies are usually fussier in the evenings.
  • Colic often goes away on its own when babies are 3 or 4 months old, and it's usually gone by 6 months of age.
  • It can happen to any baby, whether you breastfeed or bottle-feed.
  • Kids who had colic grow up no differently from those who didn’t.
  • Colic usually starts all of a sudden, with crying that won't stop.
  • It's really hard to help babies with colic to calm down.

When does colic start?

Colic usually starts when babies are 2 weeks old if they're full-term, or later if they're born prematurely. It often gets worse between 4 and 6 weeks old. As many as 1 in 4 new babies have it.

Doctors don’t know exactly what causes colic. It might be a sign that your baby is having a hard time getting used to being in the world. They may be sensitive to many things, such as loud noises or light. Your baby may have a hard time soothing themselves. Crying may be the only way your baby can express their feelings. Any baby in any family can have colic.

Some theories about why it happens include:

  • A growing digestive system with muscles that often spasm
  • Gas
  • Hormones that cause belly pain or crankiness
  • Sensitivity to light or noise 
  • Too much stimulation
  • A developing nervous system
  • An early form of childhood migraine
  • Fear, frustration, or excitement
  • Inability to self-soothe 
  • Milk allergy 

Many health conditions can look like colic. If you're worried about your baby, your doctor can do a full exam to rule out other problems like:

  • An infection
  • Acid reflux or stomach problems
  • Sensitivity to formula or breast milk
  • Pressure or inflammation in their brain and nervous system
  • Eye trouble, like a scratch or increased pressure
  • Uneven heartbeat
  • Injury to bones, muscles, or fingers

Colic vs. reflux

When babies have reflux, they'll spit up small amounts of breastmilk or formula. Usually this happens with no effort or crying. It's normal for this to happen and doesn't come with symptoms that look like colic. 

You may think that your baby is irritable or colicky because of reflux. But reflux doesn't usually come with pain or discomfort. Medicines that lower stomach acid also don't tend to make babies cry less. 

In a small number of babies, reflux can cause irritation and damage to the esophagus, asthma, or pneumonia that goes away and comes back. This condition is called gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD). If your baby is crying often, not eating, choking when they spit up, coughing, or showing other worrisome signs, see your doctor to find out the cause.

Infants often show signs of colic at the same time every day, usually in the evening. 

Colicky cryingsounds different from normal infant crying. If your baby has colic, their crying may: 

  • Sound urgent without a clear reason, such as hunger or a dirty diaper
  • Be high-pitched and loud, like they’re in pain
  • Last for several hours

Babies with colic also have symptoms like:

  • Clenched fists, stiff arms, and bright red face when they cry
  • Burping and passing a lot of gas 
  • A tight belly

Colic and constipation

Constipation in babies happens a lot. If your infant has this, they won't poop often, maybe twice a week or less. It may hurt when they do poop and they'll have poop that is hard or larger around than it should be. If your baby has "constipation colic," they may have pain and crying after they eat. That's because eating causes your baby's intestines to move. This might happen more in the morning and it won't usually last long. 

There's some evidence that babies with colic don't poop as often as other babies. But not all studies have seen that. If you are worried your baby has colic and is constipated or is not pooping as often as you think they should be, see your doctor.

There’s no test for colic. Your baby’s doctor will ask you about their symptoms and medical history. The doctor will do a physical exam, focusing on things like your baby's:

  • Energy level
  • Skin tone
  • Breathing
  • Body temperature
  • Weight

The doctor also might order some tests to rule out other problems.

Because there’s no clear cause of colic, there’s no single way to treat it. What helps one baby might not help yours. Just remember that it's normal for your baby to cry, so if you can understand their different cries, that may help you deal with colic.  

Here are some suggestions to help soothe your infant:

  • Make sure they're not hungry, but don't overfeed them.
  • If you’re breastfeeding, ask your doctor if your medications or foods might cause irritation or an allergic reaction in your baby.
  • Change their body positions often.
  • Rock them or massage their back and tummy.
  • Talk or sing softly to your baby.
  • Use a pacifier.
  • Swaddle your baby in a soft blanket.
  • Hold them with their bare skin against yours.
  • Use white noise (like a fan) or a recording of a heartbeat.
  • Take them for a car ride or on a long walk.
  • Put them in a swing or vibrating seat.
  • Give them a warm bath.

How long does colic last?

The symptoms of colic do eventually get better on their own. Usually it's around the time your baby is about 4 months old, but symptoms can last until they're 6 months. 

Talk to your baby's doctor if their symptoms don't improve.

Massage may be one way to soothe your baby with colic. There's not a lot of evidence about how well it works or the best way to do it. One study in Iran compared massage and rocking in 100 babies with colic symptoms. The babies in the massage group got 15-20 minutes of massage once during the day and once at night before bedtime. In the other group, parents rocked their babies gently for 5-25 minutes when they showed signs of colic. 

The study found that massage therapy worked better than rocking. Babies who got massage twice a day cried fewer times a day and their crying was less severe. Massage also can be a way to help your baby feel safe and cared for. 

Massage also may help you:

  • Bond with your baby
  • Feel more in tune with your baby's cues about what they like and don't like
  • Feel relaxed with your baby
  • Build trust and security 

While you might want to try different sleep positions to help your baby with colic, it's not a good idea to put a young infant down on their tummy or side to sleep. Babies should always sleep flat on their backs. The reason is that infants sleeping on their side or stomach can have trouble getting enough oxygen or waking up. This comes with more risk for sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS), or the sleep-related death of a baby that seemed healthy. Most babies who die of SIDS weren't sleeping in their cribs when it happened.

You can lay your crying baby down on their tummy across your lap and rub their backs. It's possible that pressure on their stomach could be soothing to them. But if your baby falls asleep like this, you should lay them down on their back.

You can buy many remedies at the drugstore that claim to help with colic or gas. You might find probiotics, gas relief drops, or remedies called gripe water. But do they work?

There's not much evidence that they do, but they might be safe to try. One study from 1988 found that a type of gas relief drop helped with colic symptoms in many babies. The babies took a small amount each time they ate. 

A more recent review looked at all the data on probiotics for babies with colic. There were only three small studies that looked at it. Overall, they found that probiotics showed some promise for helping with colic. But there isn't enough evidence for doctors to recommend them for general use in babies with colic. They also aren't recommended to prevent colic. 

If your baby has colic, ask your doctor if it's OK to try gas relief drops, probiotics, or other remedies to see if you think it helps.

Because colic resolves itself, there usually aren't many complications for your baby. Most of the problems are for parents dealing with the stress of having a colicky baby, which can cause issues like:

  • Increased risks of postpartum depression for mothers
  • Feelings of powerlessness, guilt, and exhaustion
  • Ending breastfeeding earlier than desired
  • Shaken baby syndrome

Since no one really knows why babies get colic, there's no way to prevent it. You can try to take steps to help your baby feel safe and secure. But even when you do everything right, your baby can still have colic. 

If your baby is showing signs of colic, be sure they don't have any other medical problems. Signs it could be something else include:

  • At 6 months old, they still have colic.
  • They won't take their bottle or they're drinking less milk than usual.
  • They're crying a lot and you can't calm them.

Call your baby's doctor immediately if they have any of these symptoms: 

  • Sudden changes in crying patterns or other worrying behavior 
  • A fever of 100.4 F or higher
  • Vomiting with force or diarrhea
  • Bloody poop
  • Difficulty breathing 

When your baby has colic, it can be very challenging as a parent. Remember that it will get better and you have to take care of yourself, too. 

It’s OK to take a break. Put your baby in a crib or playpen for 10 minutes or so while you leave the room to collect yourself. Whenever possible, ask friends, family, or babysitters for help when you need a break. Lowering your own stress level will help your baby, too.

Talk to your doctor or get help if you're overwhelmed or have thoughts of harming your baby.

Colic is intense and excessive crying that lasts for more than 3 hours a day, 3 days a week, for more than 3 weeks when there isn't any clear cause. Many babies have colic and, while it's hard on parents, it typically goes away on its own. If your baby is crying a lot and you're worried something is wrong, see your doctor. If you're having trouble with the stress and fatigue of a colicky baby, practice good self-care and reach out for help if you need it. 

  • How common is colic?

Colic is very common. About 20% of babies, and possibly even more, have it around the world.

  • Do breastfed babies get colic?

Yes, any baby can get colic. Since no one knows why it happens, you can't prevent it by breastfeeding or with other methods.

  • How do you carry a baby with colic?

You can carry a baby with colic the same way you'd carry any baby. Some people find it helps to place baby chest down on your forearm while supporting their head with your hand and legs on either side of your arm. Hold your baby with the other hand on top and carry them around this way. Sometimes this is called the "colic carry."