How To Tell If Your Baby Has Colic & How To Help
Bringing your new baby home from the hospital is a memory you want to hold onto forever. Once the hospital stay has ended, you're ready to find your new normal with the most perfect little human you've ever laid your eyes on. Your heart is full. But then the crying begins. You knew your baby would cry some, but what if it never seems to stop? "Colic" is a term that pops into your head and you fear this is where you're at with your little one. How do you know if your baby has colic and how can you help them if they do?
Today we're covering the topic of colic in-depth including:
- What is colic?
- Understanding Colic Vs. Typical Newborn Crying
- Symptoms of Colic
- Causes of Colic
- Tips for Helping Your Baby With Colic
- Caring for Yourself
Being a parent of a newborn is hard enough as it is. So being a parent of a colicky baby can be completely overwhelming. It can be hard to determine why it's happening and know what to do about it. We want to help you have an understanding of colic and give you the tools you need to help your baby get back to their happy and comfortable self.
Photo from Wikimedia Commons: Public Domain
Colic is defined as excessive and prolonged crying in an otherwise healthy infant. But how excessive goes beyond the norm?
This is the standard "formula" to determine if a baby does, in fact, have colic:
"Episodes of crying for more than three hours per day, for more than three days per week, for a period of three weeks."
This is otherwise known as the "Rule of 3's," as defined by Dr. Morris Wessel decades ago. Although it's not scientific, it is a standard often used by pediatricians.
Colic is usually more intense crying than usual, starts around 2 weeks old, and peaks at around 6 weeks of age. This means that you may enjoy a fairly couple weeks, only to suddenly have a colicky baby on your hands. There is really no way to prevent it and there may not be any signs of it before it begins.
According to the American Pregnancy Association, approximately 20-25% of babies fit the definition of colic as described above. This means the chances of having a baby with colic are fairly low. But it's also not rare. It can be hard to determine if your baby has colic or if their crying is typical newborn behavior. Let's look at the difference.
Colic Vs. Typical Newborn Behavior
Most babies don't have colic. 100% of newborn babies cry, and many cry quite a bit. So how can you tell the difference between colic and typical newborn crying?
In the rule of 3's, colic is excessive and inconsolable crying that lasts for more than 3 weeks. We know that as a parent, this can seem like an eternity. Wanting to reach out for help prior to that is understandable.
But before your baby's crying is considered beyond the typical range for a newborn, your baby's pediatrician will probably want to know if it's prolonged and lasting for weeks at a time. Anything less will certainly be a challenge, but many times it's just a short phase that babies go through. That's not to lighten any of what you're feeling while it's happening...we know it can be extremely upsetting whether it's defined as true colic or not.
Since the newborn stage is synonymous with quite a bit of tears and fussiness, it can be hard to determine the difference between the two. Unless you've had another child that you can compare it to, it might be hard to pinpoint. But if you're at the point where you're in distress over the amount of crying your baby is doing, and you're having difficulty calming them after making sure they're fed, changed and well-rested, it might be time to look closely at your baby's symptoms.
Whether or not they have true "colic," we have lots of tips to get your baby back to thriving and happy.
Symptoms of Colic
Crying and screaming that results from colic usually looks and sounds different from typical newborn crying. The worst of it often happens around 6 weeks old and usually subsides at around 3-4 months old.
Here are some of the signs and symptoms you might see from a colicky baby:
- Intense crying - Colicky babies don't just fuss. They may wail and cry loudly for prolonged periods and may look as if they are in pain.
- Physical signs - It's not just the crying that parents of babies with colic notice. Additionally, the baby's face may turn red and they'll probably look uncomfortable. They may draw up their legs and arch their back. They may have hardened stomachs that seem as if they are filled with gas.
- You know when it's going to happen - Babies with colic will often have their worst fits around the same time each day, often in the evening hours.
- Can't be explained - You've changed and fed your baby, and they're getting a good amount of sleep, but they are still inconsolable.
To say it is a difficult time would be an understatement, and it's not what you had envisioned as a parent. All you want is for your baby to be comfortable and happy, and it can be a terrible feeling to not be able to console them.
Of course, you want to be able to get to the root cause of why your baby's colic is happening in hopes of getting a handle on it sooner rather than later.
Causes of Colic
Colic is distressing and overwhelming. It is completely normal for parents to wonder if they've done something wrong. You didn't. And you're far from alone. About 1 in 4 families are experiencing what you are. So what are the causes of colic and can it be stopped?
It's not the answer you probably want to hear, but there is really is no definitive answer to why some babies have colic. In other words, the true cause is unknown. However, there are some things that can lead to a higher chance of colic.
Some of these include:
- a baby with a more sensitive personality
- immature digestive system or nervous system
- food allergies or intolerance
- trapped gas or baby not being burped correctly
- overfeeding or feeding too quickly
- lack of healthy bacteria in the digestive tract
- family stress
As far as risk factors, there's really little that you can control. According to this study, however, infants who are born to mothers who smoke are two times as likely to develop colic.
It has not been found that any of the following has any bearing on your child's chance of colic:
- gender of the child
- being born prematurely
- whether you feed your baby formula or breast milk
If you are at a point where all the signs are pointing to colic with your infant, you should first contact your pediatrician. This is your best source for help with your little one. In the meantime, we have some best practices that can reduce your baby's colic symptoms.
Tips for Helping a Baby With Colic
Thankfully, colic will not cause any harm to your child, no matter how bad it may look at the time. However, it can wreak havoc on a family's well-being and it is not an enjoyable time for anyone.
Episodes of colic usually peak when an infant is about 4-6 weeks old and decline significantly after 3 to 5 months of age. Comforting your child, whether by holding, rocking, white noises, pacifier, going for a walk or car ride, taking a bath, listening to music, dimming the lights, rubbing your baby’s belly or doing bicycle kicks, or swaddling can all be helpful to calm your baby. Occasionally, gas medicine or Gripe water can help, and sometimes prescription medicine for reflux or other over the counter medicine, such as Mylanta can be helpful. Other helpful tips is changing Mom’s diet if breastfeeding since sometimes dairy, acidic foods or gassy foods can exacerbate these behaviors; or changing formulas can be helpful.
Even though the causes of colic can be difficult to pinpoint, we've compiled a list of the best tips to help soothe your baby during this difficult time. None of these should be considered a cure for colic, as all babies are different. But it is our hope for your that a combination of several of these will help you get your baby back to the happy, cooing baby who fills your household with joy.
Once your baby is crying and screaming, it can be hard to know how to calm them down. You'll first want to help them relieve any gas or stomach discomfort they may have by burping them. But chances are they're overstimulated and need to get back to a calm state.
Swaddling is one of the best things you can do for a baby at this age. The benefits are far-reaching, which isn't surprising since the closeness a swaddle gives mimics baby's time in the womb. The Dreamland Baby weighted swaddle offers the additional benefit of deep pressure stimulation. And once your baby starts showing signs of rolling over, you can transition them to the Dreamland Baby Wearable Blanket.
2. White Noise (or Music)
Using white noise in a dark room is another helpful way to calm a baby with colic as their nervous system matures and is learning to adapt to their new surroundings. We suggest using this method in conjunction with swaddling and being in a darkened room. Because babies spend 9 months in the womb listening to muffled ambient noise and quiet whooshing sounds, they are used to white noise. It can often give an immediate calming effect. Read our article, "The Best Soothing Lullabies for Baby Sleep" to get our best suggestions of white noise and music to use with your baby to calm them. (We've even heard that holding your baby is earshot of a running faucet can help!)
3. Wear Your Baby
According to Dr. Sears, babies who are worn in a sling cry less. It is natural for a baby to want to be held closely, and this can have an overwhelmingly calming effect. Even though it may be more difficult for you to get things done while you are wearing your baby, often you still are able to move about and have one arm free. In the end, a couple of calm hours with a comfortable baby are worth it.
4. Make a Formula Switch
If your baby takes formula, making a switch to something different is a good place to start to reduce colic symptoms. Most name-brands have a special formula they recommend for babies with colic symptoms. The Baby Swag gives a list of their top 6 formula recommendations to use for colicky babies. They've even included a soy and goat's milk option for a baby who may have an allergy or sensitivity to goat's milk (you'd need to see your pediatrician for a diagnosis).
5. Diet Changes for Breastfeeding Moms
What a breastfeeding mother eats can affect symptoms of colic, but it's hard to know what food might be. If you are a breastfeeding mama and your baby often seems uncomfortable and irritable after feeding, it might be time to look at diet changes to help your little one. The Science of Mom found that cow's milk was the most common culprit of food allergies in infants, but that cutting it out wasn't as conclusive in keeping colic symptoms at bay. The truth is that it can be really hard to pinpoint what food may be affecting your child's digestive system. If you suspect an allergy, we urge you to contact your child's pediatrician and work with them if you're considering going forward with an elimination diet.
6. Don't Overfeed
Babies who are overfed or fed too quickly have a higher chance of colic symptoms. This is because of the stomach discomfort and excess gas it can cause. If you are breastfeeding, overfeeding isn't really a cause for concern. If you are formula feeding your baby, make sure that you are strictly following the guidelines on formula preparation as well as paying close attention to your baby's hunger and fullness cues. Additionally, if you're bottle-feeding, you'll want to choose a nipple with the proper flow for your baby's age. Size/Stage one nipples are meant for the youngest babies.
7. Try a Different Bottle
Because trapped gas and stomach upset are reasons why you might see symptoms of colic in your baby, changing up how they're being fed is a good way to try and get a handle on it. Trying a different type of bottle can help, and there are certain bottles specially designed to reduce the symptoms of colic. Dr. Brown's and Tommee Tippee are a couple of good options that have demonstrated the ability to reduce the gas and reflux symptoms associated with colic.
8. Get Moving
Whether it's in a rocker, swing, car, or stroller, movement can be a great way to calm a crying baby and get them to fall asleep. When you are at your wit's end, there is no shame in strapping your baby safely in their carseat and going for a leisurely drive. A walk outside with a stroller can be great for both you and your baby to get a change of scenery and some fresh air.
9. Try Probiotic Drops
In 2018, a study was conducted to determine if the probiotic, Lactobacillus reuteri is effective in reducing crying among babies with colic. The findings were published in Pediatrics Journal and stated that the good bacteria, "is effective and can be recommended for breastfed infants with colic. Its role in formula-fed infants with colic needs further research." Taking probiotic drops to improve your baby's gut health may be just what they need to get back to feeling good.
10. Infant Massage
According to Parents' Magazine, researchers have found that infant massage reduces the symptoms of colic and promotes better sleep. They offer different techniques that target different areas of the body such as the head and face, tummy, and back. A tummy massage can be especially useful for a colicky baby who appears to have indigestion.
Frequently Asked Questions About Colic:
Can you prevent colic?
Unfortunately, you can’t prevent colic. Every baby is different, even within the same family and not all kids will exhibit these behaviors.
How long does colic usually last?
Episodes of colic usually peak when an infant is about 4-6 weeks old and decline significantly after 3 to 5 months of age.
Can you let a colic baby cry it out?
You shouldn’t let your baby cry it out in the first few months of life. They are clearly uncomfortable and need some soothing and TLC from their parents.
Is colic painful for babies?
Yes colic is painful for babies and their crying is a way for them to communicate with us. Sometimes there is relief in symptoms after the infant passes gas or has a bowel movement.
Is colic worse at night?
Colic can be worse at night, known as their “witching hour.” That can be caused by being overtired, gas, reflux, constipation or having a milk protein allergy.
When do babies grow out of colic?
Babies usually outgrow colic by 3-5 months.
Caring for Yourself When Your Baby Has Colic
Caring for an inconsolable baby is extremely difficult and the emotional toll it can take on a parent is great. It's important to know that through all of this, your baby will be just fine, and within a few weeks to a couple of months' time, the colic will only be a memory.
Parents need to take care of themselves during this difficult period. Telling yourself that your baby will be through it soon doesn't alleviate the immediate struggle. Sometimes you might try all of the suggested tips and nothing seems to help.
Colic can be particularly frustrating for parents because the baby's distress occurs for no apparent reason and no amount of consoling seems to bring any relief. These episodes often occur in the evening, when parents themselves are often tired. You can take steps that may lessen the severity and duration of colic episodes, alleviate your own stress, and bolster confidence in your parent-child connection. The following strategies can help you take care of yourself and get the support you need:
Take a break. Take turns with your spouse or partner, or ask a friend to take over for a while. Give yourself an opportunity to get out of the house if possible.
Use the crib for short breaks. It's OK to put your baby in the crib for a while during a crying episode if you need to collect yourself or calm your own nerves.
Express your feelings. It's normal for parents in this situation to feel helpless, depressed, guilty or angry. Share your feelings with family members, friends and your child's doctor.
Don't judge yourself. Don't measure your success as a parent by how much your baby cries. Colic isn't a result of poor parenting, and inconsolable crying isn't a sign of your baby rejecting you.
Take care of your health. Eat healthy foods. Make time for exercise, such as a brisk daily walk. If you can, sleep when the baby sleeps — even during the day. Avoid alcohol and other drugs.
Remember that it's temporary. Colic episodes often improve after age 3 to 4 months.
Have a rescue plan. If possible make a plan with a friend or relative to step in when you're overwhelmed. If necessary, contact your health care provider, a local crisis intervention service or a mental health help line for additional support.
Here are some ways to lighten the emotional burden on yourself:
- Sleep when your baby sleeps. The more rested you are, the easier it is to cope with a crying baby.
- Take turns with your partner caring for the baby. Trying to do everything yourself will only make it worse. Knowing that you have someone to pass the crying baby off to will help.
- Reach out to trusted friends or family members to watch your baby so you can get out. Run a quiet errand alone, grab a coffee, or just go for a walk and get some restorative Vitamin D.
- If it ever gets to be too much, remember that you can always put your baby down in their crib to cry to give yourself a break. Sometimes this is necessary, and your baby will be okay.
- We also recommend reaching out to a doctor or therapist if you need to talk to someone.