You expect your baby to cry - all babies cry, and should! But when it feels like it’s excessive, or your baby cries constantly and seems to be completely inconsolable, it may be more than regular, healthy baby cries; it could be colic. In this post, we’ll answer all your colicky questions, including:
What is colic in babies?
Baby colic is frequent, intense, prolonged crying or fussiness in an otherwise completely healthy baby. The onset of colic is sudden and almost always takes parents by surprise. About 15 to 25% of babies have colic diagnosed - when experiencing colic, they'll cry more than they normally do, inconsolably and for no apparent reason. Parents have a feeling of helplessness since their normal efforts to console their colicky crying baby prove to be completely ineffective during this time.Technically, colic is defined as “severe, often fluctuating pain in the abdomen caused by intestinal gas or obstruction in the intestines and suffered especially by babies.” However according to Dr. Harvey Karp, colic is less of a diagnosis, and more of a “behavioral observation”.
In this article, we have answered some common questions and also shared experiences from other moms in our community to help you better understand colic.
"This was my third baby -- when nothing could comfort her, not even nursing, walking, bouncing, patting, outside time, naked time, warm bath... when the crying went on and on and on. I KNEW it wasn't normal crying.”
- Martine K., Zen Mom
Colic vs. Crying: Symptoms of Colic Baby
Knowing whether your baby’s cries are “average” or “excessive” can be tricky because crying patterns vary from baby to baby. Knowing what symptoms of colic in babies you can look out for can help you identify why your baby is crying. "The Rule of 3" is most helpful for parents and doctors when determining if your baby has colic.
From the experts
The Rule of 3: Your baby might have colic if...
Your baby is 3 weeks or older and your baby's crying excessively at least 3 hours a day or more, for at least 3 days a week, for 3 or more weeks in a row.
In addition to the “Rule of 3”, also notice if any of the following symptoms apply:
Excessive crying usually occurs at the same time every day: Although colic can happen at any time, day or night, most babies experience it later in the afternoon or at night, and it will usually happen at the same time on most days. Parents often refer to this as the “witching hour.”
Baby's crying appears to happen out of nowhere, for no reason: Most of your baby’s cries are need-based. They cry when they are hungry or overtired or want to be held. Crying from colic, however, is not need-based. Your baby may be completely content one minute, then crying inconsolably the next - the cries happen out of nowhere and you can’t seem to find a reason why, which means you can’t console them, even when you hold your baby or give your baby a bottle or toy. Chances are (if your baby’s cries also follow the Rule of 3) your baby is experiencing colic.
You notice more movement during these baby cries: If your baby is moving around more than they usually during normal crying for a bottle or to be held, this could be a sign of colic. Babies that have colic will often pull up their legs, clench their fists, and move their arms and legs around more while crying if it is colic. Any bodily tension, in their back or abdomen as well, might occur during colic.
“Her colic was different from regular crying because it went on and on, nothing could comfort her. She would arch her back and scream a blood-curdling scream. She would fight against my efforts to hold her, nurse her, or comfort her.”
- Martine K., Zen Mom
Different facial expressions while crying: Many babies with colic will either tightly close their eyes while crying, or do the opposite and open their eyes very wide during a crying spell. They might also furrow their brow, or even hold their breath for short periods during colic, causing their faces to turn red.
Bowel activity may increase: Does your baby have gas or spit up during their cries? Since digestive issues can often be a cause of colic in babies, you might find your baby to be extra gassy or have more spit-up than usual if they have it. Additionally, gas results from swallowed air during prolonged crying.
Eating and sleeping are disrupted by a baby's crying: Your baby’s body knows when it’s hungry and sleepy. If a crying episode is happening during nursing or feeding or while they are sleeping (and cannot be consoled) it is a symptom of colic.
What causes colic in babies?
Although it can feel like a mystery because it comes out of nowhere, and no-one seems sure what causes colic, there are a handful of things that doctors think causes colic in babies.
While your baby is born with a mechanism to block out sights and sounds around them to ensure they get enough sleep and nourishment, this mechanism disappears around 1 month old. That’s why colic usually begins at 3 or 4 weeks old. Think about it, your baby just spent close to a year safely inside the womb. The outside world is full of new sounds, lights, sensations, and people - it’s easy for your baby to feel overwhelmed and overstimulated. They release that stress by crying (a lot.).
Developing digestive system
It’s common for colic to be a result of gastrointestinal issues. Your baby’s digestive system isn’t fully developed yet, so digesting food can be a challenge! There’s a chance your baby’s food might not be digesting properly, leading to discomfort and belly pain from gas, which can cause colic.
Acid Reflux and GERD
GERD (gastroesophageal reflux disease) also causes colic in some cases. If you’re noticing extra gas or spit up as one of the symptoms in your baby, acid reflux or GERD may be the cause.
Food Sensitivity and/or Allergies
This cause also has a lot to do with your baby’s tummy. Some experts suggest that colic could be caused by a milk allergy connected to proteins found in formula. Similarly, it has also been suggested that certain foods in mom’s diet could cause colic in breastfed babies. While this cause is rarer than others, still consider if food allergies or sensitivities could be causing gas and tummy pain in your baby.
How long does colic last?
Colic usually presents itself in babies at least 3 weeks old and peaks around 6 weeks old. It does not last forever, typically subsiding around 3 to 4 months. However, it can sometimes last a bit longer, continuing past 6 months.
When should I take my baby to the doctor?
Look for the symptoms of colic to help determine if your baby has it or not. However, there are a number of things that might present themselves similarly to colic, but aren’t, like:
- Acid Reflux or stomach problems
- Pressure or inflammation of the brain and nervous system
- Irregular heartbeat
- Injuries (to bones, muscles, or fingers)
If you’re concerned about your baby - whether it be because you think she has colic or because you suspect she might be irritable due to another medical reason, you should contct your child's healthcare provider. They’ll be able to rule out any medical issues with an exam and provide their opinion on whether or not your baby has it. Like we always say - you know your baby best! If you think something’s up, give your doctor a call.
How can I help my colicky baby?
Colic is exhausting for both the baby and the parents. While there’s no “cure” (since it’s not technically an illness) and it will eventually subside on its own, there are some remedies you can do to try and soothe and console your baby with colic.
The Airplane hold
Also referred to as the "colic carry" or "colic hold." Hold your baby belly side down on your forearm, as if you were doing the airplane with them. The light pressure from your arm on their bellies is known to help your colicky baby.
Bring on the noise
A slow and constant drum eases babies during colic. Start the washing machine or vacuum cleaner or a loud white noise to calm your little one during the onset of colic, you should try to keep this on for several hours a day.
Change of guards
Give your baby to someone else, as this may at times do the trick - babies can sense your tense energy, and you might need to take a break.
Swaddle your baby
The pressure of the swaddle and cocoon-like feeling is particularly calming as it mimics the womb environment and helps with overstimulation.
The Zen Swaddle's construction restricts violent arm movements and can help ease your baby's discomfort. It's also a great alternative to the airplane hold, The Zen Swaddle's lightly weighted design adds gentle pressure on their bellies easing colic and soothing baby cries.
Change of scenery
Swaddling will help drastically reduce overstimulation, but you should also try taking your baby to a calm environment. Notice if any specific environments trigger your baby’s colic, then avoid those triggers. Also take note of what time it usually starts, and bring your baby to that soothing environment beforehand.
Sweeter Sleep Story
“These Zen Swaddles have been amazing at helping to keep our baby asleep at night, even through his 2 months of colic!"
- Amazon Customer, 7/31/2017
“After wrapping Baby in this (Zen Swaddle), it really is a great idea; right to sleep. Really helps with the colic!"
- Amazon Customer, 11/25/2016
The 5 S's, developed by Dr. Harvey Karp, are also said to help soothe colicky babies. The first S is Swaddle, further proving the benefit of swaddling for babies that have colic. The others are: Side or Stomach Position, Shush, Swing, and Suck.
From the experts
The 5 S's: Swaddling, Side or Stomach position, Shush, Swing, and Suck.
Put your baby on her side or her belly (like you would in the airplane hold)- this can help calm fussy babies and even relieve stomach pain. Just remember - when it comes to sleep, the only safe position for baby is on their back (check the American Academy of Pediatrics safe sleep guidelines for more information).
Shushing or white noise can imitate the sounds of the womb to soothe babies.
Swinging with a parent or in an infant swing also mimics the movement in the womb, and, finally, sucking on a pacifier helps relax many fussy babies.
While Dr. Karp suggests the best results come from doing all 5 S’s together - some babies might only respond to certain tactics, and they may only respond to those tactics sometimes in the case of colicky babies. Here's what these real moms found to help their babies:
Zen mom zone
EvaLee E. Wrote: “My doctor had me swaddle him, put him in a swing, and use white noise when my son had colic. It worked amazing for us.”
Carla C. wrote: “Noah is now almost 2 months and loves his Zen Swaddle! We started the sack exactly a week ago and he's been sleeping stretches of 7-8 hours...a thing that he never did before due to colic, gas and reflux. I breastfeed him and also supplement with formula but before the sack, he would wake up every 2 1/2 hrs to nurse. We're so thankful!”
Martine K. wrote: “When your baby is uncomfortable for hours at a time, for weeks at a time, it’s HARD on your soul. Hand the baby to someone else, or lay her in a safe place and take a hot shower, drink a cold drink, go sit on your patio and breathe - whatever will restore your soul...make sure you are taking care of yourself.”
Martine K. wrote: “You know your baby best. Pay attention to when she is most comfortable or least comfortable, and try to diagnose what events led to the change in mood. And if you can't figure it out, and must "wait it out," make sure you are taking care of yourself.”
Chelsey C. wrote: "Chiropractic care seemed to help her A LOT! Hang in there! It doesn't last forever!!! <3"
Zen Swaddle®: Soothe your colicky baby,
If you suspect your baby’s colic is caused by tummy troubles like gas, GERD, or acid reflux, there are additional tricks you can try to help relieve any discomfort or pain.
- Experiment with your diet to determine if there’s any food allergy or sensitivity at play. Talk to your doctor about temporarily eliminating any foods that could cause tummy troubles for your baby. If you’re formula-feeding, you might consider switching formulas for a tummy-sensitive version for your colicky baby.
- Burp your baby to help let any trapped air or gas escape - especially if they’ve already been crying for some time. Prolonged crying can lead to trapped wind, causing discomfort. Which will only make their crying worse and last longer. Burping will help them relieve the pain.
- Talk with your doctor for other treatment ideas. Your doctor will have suggestions specific to your baby’s tummy issue - some doctors recommended anti-gas drops or probiotics to help ease babies’ discomfort, but you should always consult your pediatrician before introducing anything new into your baby’s routine or before you give your baby any remedies.
Our Zen Moms also shared what helped (or didn’t help) their colicky babies' tummy troubles:
Zen mom zone
Allison K. wrote: “Try asking your doctor about getting on an acid reflux med. We did and we also switched formula to Enfamil AR, it helped so much! I used to hate hate hate feeding my little one and would have anyone else do it because it was so bad, but since we’ve switched and given him his reflux meds once a day it is sooo sooo much better.”
Martine K. wrote: “None of the 101 internet remedies worked for us...I basically went paleo and did the full list of "remedies," but in the end, we discovered, by accident, that the colic went away when we stopped using cloth diapers. We used cloth exclusively and successfully with our first two babies, but I believe this baby just needed to bring her knees tight to her chest to work out her gas. The bulky cloth diapers prevented that, but the disposable diapers allowed her the movement she needed.”
Samantha H. wrote: “Our doctor had us use Gerber probiotic drops (Ask doctor of course). They took 2 weeks to take effect. We put a folded up blanket under the mattress of her bed on one side so her reflux wouldn't bother her.”
Commonly asked questions about colic
Is colic worse at night?
Many parents find that their baby cries more from colic at night. Professor of clinical pediatrics Marc Weissbluth has stated that this may be due to a balance of the chemicals melatonin and serotonin. Because your baby has more serotonin at night, their intestinal muscles may be contracting and causing your baby pain or discomfort. Regardless of the cause, dealing with colicky babies at bedtime can be a nightmare - that's where the Zen Swaddle can come in. By providing a small amount of pressure on the baby's tummy with a gently weighted pad, this swaddle can help soothe colic and get your baby sleeping again..
Does colic happen at the same time every day?
Although colic can strike at any time of day, most parents find that it affects their baby in the late afternoon or evening, and usually consistently happens at the same time of day. In fact, excessive crying at the same time of day for more than three hours at a time is a classic sign of colic in babies..
Can colic happen during the day?
Colic can happen at any time - while it may be more common to experience in the late afternoon or evening, the main symptom of colic is that your baby cries at the same time each day, whether this is in the morning, afternoon, evening, or nighttime..
Should you swaddle a colicky baby? Does it help?
Swaddling safely can be a fantastic tool in handling a colicky baby! Gentle pressure on your baby's tummy can be key to soothing colic, but placing your baby on their tummy is unsafe during sleep. That's why sleep aids like the Zen Swaddle can come in handy, providing this extra pressure in a comfortable, and more importantly, safe way for your baby..