What is colic?

Samantha Wild
Clinical Lead for Women's Health and Bupa GP
11 November 2020
Next review due November 2023

We all know that babies cry from time to time. But is it normal for your baby to have frequent bouts of uncontrollable crying? And how do you know if it’s colic or not?

Here, I explain what colic is, and share techniques you can try to comfort your baby. I also talk about things you can do to look after yourself too.

What is colic?

Colic is a term used for inconsolable, excessive crying in an otherwise healthy baby. It’s common - around three in 10 babies have it.

Colic can be really stressful and upsetting for parents or carers of babies who have it. But it will eventually get better on its own and most babies ‘grow out of it’ by three or four months of age.

What causes colic?

Colic normally starts when your baby is just a few weeks old. Although it’s not known exactly what causes colic, it’s not thought to be harmful to your baby’s health. The main factors are listed here, although they aren’t fully understood.

  • It may be a result of abnormal contractions and pain signals within your baby’s gut.
  • Your baby may have painful indigestion or wind. It could be that your baby is taking in too much air when feeding or hasn’t burped properly after a feed.
  • It may be linked to food allergies and intolerances, for example a reaction to lactose or to cow’s milk protein.

There are other things that seem to increase the risk of your baby developing colic. For example, smoking during or after your pregnancy doubles the risk of your baby developing colic.

What are the symptoms of colic?

Your baby may cry for several hours a day and you might find it hard to soothe or comfort them. A baby with colic can cry at any time of the day, but usually it’s worse in the late afternoon or evening. Your baby may:

  • arch their back
  • draw their knees up to their abdomen (tummy)
  • pass wind
  • have a red face

Excessive crying can be a sign of your baby being uncomfortable for many reasons, such as:

  • being cold
  • having a wet nappy
  • being hungry
  • being sore from nappy rash
  • occasionally a sign of a medical problem (e.g. an ear or urinary infection)

But if your baby’s crying is due to colic, they should seem otherwise healthy, feed well and gain weight. If you’re at all worried about your baby’s crying, talk to your health visitor first, or contact your GP.

How is colic diagnosed?

Colic is usually diagnosed after ruling out other possible causes for your baby’s crying. This means your health visitor or GP will want to check your baby for signs of any health problems that could be making them distressed.

They’ll ask you questions about your baby’s crying – such as when they tend to cry, how long for and how often. They’ll also want to talk to you about how your baby is feeding, their sleeping pattern, and whether you’ve noticed any blood in their poo.

The health visitor or GP may also want to examine your baby to check for any physical signs of a health problem. They may diagnose colic if they’ve ruled out any other cause for your baby’s crying.

Tips for soothing your baby

There are different things you can try that may help to reduce colic and soothe your baby. You may also need to try a few methods to see what works best.

  • Holding your baby through the crying episode.
  • Playing soothing music, singing or talking to your baby.
  • Making sure you give your baby plenty of attention, but without over-stimulating them if possible. Touch or rock them, walk or play with them – be sure to have plenty of eye contact too.
  • Using ‘white noise’ – for example the noise from a vacuum cleaner or washing machine, or from running water.
  • Making gentle motions, such as pushing your baby in their pram or rocking their crib.
  • Giving your baby a warm bath – the warm water may be comforting.

Feeding your baby

Normally, there’s no need to make any changes to your diet if you’re breastfeeding, or your baby’s formula if they’re formula-feeding. There’s no good evidence that this will help most babies with colic.

But if your baby’s colic is severe, or if they also have symptoms of asthma, eczema or hay fever, talk to your health visitor or GP. They will advise you on whether you need to make any dietary changes.

Looking after yourself

Caring for a baby with colic can be very upsetting and challenging for any parent or carer. It can be physically and mentally exhausting coping with constant crying. It’s important to look after yourself, get support and to take a break if things get on top of you.

You may find it helpful to ask your partner, a family member or friend to take over for an hour or two, so that you can have a proper break from your baby's crying. Try to take some time to rest when your baby is asleep.

It's also good to get out and meet other parents with babies of a similar age too, so ask your health visitor about local baby groups.

Here at Bupa we understand how important your family is. So with our family health insurance you can rest assured knowing that eligible treatment and support is available to you and your loved ones when you need it.

Samantha Wild
Dr Samantha Wild
Clinical Lead for Women's Health and Bupa GP

    • Colic - infantile. National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) Clinical Knowledge Summaries., last revised June 2017
    • Infantile colic. BMJ Best Practice., last reviewed October 2020
    • Colic in babies and infants. Patient., last edited October 2018
    • Postnatal care up to 8 weeks after birth. National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE)., last updated February 2015
    • Colic. Medscape., updated 28 November 2017

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