Colic is the name for excessive, frequent crying in a baby who appears to be otherwise healthy. It's a common problem that affects up to one in five babies.
Colic tends to begin when a baby is a few weeks old. It normally stops by four months of age, or by six months at the latest.
Looking after a colicky baby can be very frustrating and distressing, but the problem will eventually pass and is usually nothing to worry about.
Does my baby have colic?
Signs and symptoms of colic include:
- intense crying bouts
- crying in the late afternoon or evening that lasts several hours
- your baby's face being red and flushed when they cry
- your baby clenching their fists, drawing their knees up to their tummy, or arching their back while crying
If your baby has colic, they may appear to be in distress. But the crying outbursts are not harmful, and your baby should continue to feed and gain weight normally.
Advice for parents
Caring for a baby with colic can be very difficult for parents, particularly first-time parents. It's important to remember that:
- your baby's colic is not your fault - it doesn't mean your baby is unwell, you're doing something wrong, or your baby is rejecting you
- your baby will get better eventually - colic normally stops before they're four to six months old
- you should look after your own wellbeing - if possible, ask friends and family for support as it's important to take regular breaks and get some rest
Support groups, such as Cry-sis, can also offer help and advice if you need it. You can contact the Cry-sis helpline for advice on 0845 122 8669 (9am-10pm, seven days a week).
Tips for helping your baby
There's no method that works for all babies with colic, but there are a number of techniques that may help. These include:
- holding your baby during a crying episode
- preventing your baby swallowing air by sitting or holding them upright during feeding
- burping your baby after feeds
- gently rocking your baby over your shoulder
- bathing your baby in a warm bath
- gently massaging your baby's tummy
Some babies may also benefit from changes to their diet, such as adding drops to breast or bottle milk that aid digestion and release any bubbles of trapped air in your baby's digestive system.
Speak to a GP or pharmacist for advice before trying these.
Read more about treatments for colic.
Do I need to see my GP?
Colic may improve using the techniques mentioned above. You can also ask your health visitor for their advice.
See your GP if you're concerned about your baby, or if nothing seems to be working and you're struggling to cope.
Your GP can check for possible causes of your baby's crying, such as eczema or gastro-oesophageal reflux disease (GORD). GORD is a condition where stomach acid moves back out of the stomach and into the gullet (oesophagus).
If no other cause of your baby's symptoms can be found, your GP can advise you about the things you can do to help your baby, including what treatments are available.
When to seek immediate medical advice
You should get medical help immediately if your baby:
- has a weak, high-pitched, or continuous cry
- seems floppy when you pick them up
- isn't feeding
- vomits green fluid
- has blood in their poo
- has a fever of 38C or above (if they're less than three months old) or 39C or above (if they're three to six months old)
- has a bulging fontanelle (the soft spot at the top of a baby's head)
- has a fit (seizure)
- turns blue, blotchy, or very pale
- has breathing problems, such as breathing quickly or grunting while breathing
These symptoms can indicate a more serious problem. Read about spotting signs of serious illness in children for information about what to look for and where you should go for help.
What causes colic?
The cause or causes of colic are unknown, but a number of theories have been suggested. These include indigestion, trapped wind, or a temporary gut sensitivity to certain proteins and sugars found in breast and formula milk.
It has also been suggested colic may just be at the extreme end of normal crying in babies.
Colic occurs equally in boys and girls, and both in babies who are breastfed and those who are bottle-fed.
Colic gets better on its own after a few months, although you may find the following tips helpful in the meantime.
Comforting your baby
There is no "best" way to comfort your baby. Different babies respond to different methods, so you may have to see what works best for you.
The following suggestions may help:
- Holding your baby during a crying episode can sometimes help, as can wrapping them snugly in a blanket or baby sling.
- Hold your baby in different positions - such as on your shoulder, cradled in your arms, or lying with their tummy faced down along your forearm.
- Sit or hold your baby upright during feeding to prevent them swallowing air.
- Don't drink too much tea, coffee and other caffeine drinks if you're breastfeeding - some women also find spicy food and alcohol can aggravate colic.
- Use a fast-flow teat if you're bottle feeding - holes in bottle teats that are too small may cause your baby to swallow air as they feed.
- Burp your baby after feeds - to do this, sit your baby upright or hold them against your shoulder and gently rub their back and tummy until they burp. They may vomit a small amount of milk when you do this.
- Avoid overstimulating your baby by continually picking them up and putting them down - gently comforting your baby in a quiet, darkened room may be better. If you're satisfied your baby isn't hungry, tired, too hot or cold, or in need of a nappy change, it may help to leave them in their cot for a short while.
- Babies like movement - pushing them around in their pram or pushchair or going for a drive can be comforting. Rocking them gently over your shoulder or carrying them around the house may also be helpful: but never shake your baby.
- Some babies find white noise soothing - this is the background sound of a washing machine, vacuum cleaner or radio static.
- Gentle stomach or back rubs or a warm bath may help.
Read more about soothing a crying baby.
Looking after yourself
If your baby has colic, it's important not to forget about your own wellbeing. Looking after a baby with colic can be exhausting and distressing, and it's common for parents to sometimes feel depressed, angry or helpless.
You may find the following tips useful:
- If you feel you cannot cope with your baby's crying, it's best to put them down somewhere safe and take a few minutes as a time out.
- Ask your friends and family for support - all parents need a break, and even an hour of rest on your own can help you cope better with the situation.
- Try to rest when your baby is asleep.
- Aim to see and talk to other adults every day, rather than spending all your time alone with your baby - you may find it useful to meet other parents with babies of a similar age to yours.
A support group called Cry-sis can also provide help and advice to parents with babies that cry excessively. You can contact the Cry-sis helpline on 0845 122 8669 (9am-10pm, seven days a week).
As colic eventually improves on its own, medical treatment isn't usually recommended. But if you're finding it hard to cope, speak to your GP or pharmacist for advice about possible treatments.
There are some over-the-counter treatments available you may want to try. These are described below.
There isn't much good evidence for the effectiveness of these treatments, although some parents find them helpful. It may be worthwhile trying them one at a time for about a week or so each to see if they help.
Simeticone drops, such as Infacol, are a supplement that can be added to your baby's bottle or breast milk before a feed. The drops are designed to help release bubbles of trapped air in your baby's digestive system.
A one-week trial of simeticone drops is usually recommended. If your baby's symptoms do not improve within this time, it's usually felt there's little point carrying on with the treatment.
Simeticone drops are safe for babies to have and there have been no reports of side effects from the treatment.
Lactase is an enzyme that helps break down a sugar called lactose, which is found in breast and formula milk. Your baby may have a temporary problem digesting lactose, which could contribute to their colicky symptoms.
Lactase drops, such as Colief, can be added to your baby's feed to make digesting the lactose easier. As with simeticone, using lactase drops for more than a week if symptoms don't improve isn't usually recommended.
Removing cows' milk
It's possible your baby may have developed a short-term intolerance to proteins found in cows' milk and other dairy products.
If you're breastfeeding, you can try removing dairy products from your diet for a week or two to see if your baby's symptoms improve.
Speak to your GP for advice if you decide to continue with a dairy-free diet after this point, as they may recommend taking additional calcium supplements to ensure you maintain good bone health.
If you're bottle feeding, see your GP for advice about switching to a hypoallergenic milk formula. This type of milk has low levels of the protein that may be causing the intolerance. Again, you can try using it for a week or two to see if your baby's symptoms improve.
Your GP can advise you about the most suitable hypoallergenic milk formula for your baby. Soya milk formula isn't usually recommended for babies less than six months old, as it contains hormones that may interfere with your baby's physical and sexual development.
If your baby's symptoms don't improve after using hypoallergenic milk formula for a week or two, it's usually felt there's little point carrying on with it.
Treatments to avoid
The following treatments could be dangerous for your baby and shouldn't be tried:
- dicycloverine (also known as dicyclomine) - a medication used to control stomach cramps that has been used to treat colic in the past, but is now known to cause serious side effects in babies
- star anise tea - a herbal tea that has traditionally been used to treat colic, but is no longer recommended because it sometimes contains toxins that could poison your baby
Speak to a pharmacist or your GP for advice before giving your baby a treatment if you're not sure whether it's safe for them to take.