You’re at the end of your tether. Your baby has been crying inconsolably for hours. By now, you’ll want to know what this is about and what you can do.
You’ve checked everything and all is as it should be. You’ve tried all your soothing methods (and other people’s) and your baby is still upset.
If you just simply cannot work out why they’re crying, it could be colic. It could also be the Period of PURPLE Crying – developmental crying in healthy babies, which is often mistaken for colic (NCSBS, 2018).
Only 11% of babies get true colic in their first six weeks, and this drops to 0.6% of babies by 10 to 12 weeks (Wolke et al, 2017). Knowing what to look for and how to help your baby through colic can make everyone feel a little less desperate.
What is colic?
The medical definition of colic (or infantile colic) is repeated episodes of excessive and inconsolable crying in an infant that otherwise appears to be healthy and thriving (NICE, 2017; Patient, 2018). These episodes last for more than three hours a day, for more than three days a week, for at least one week (NICE, 2017).
"Colic is most common in babies from a few weeks old to around four months of age, but it can still happen up to six months."
There are no long-term effects. Beyond coping with the crying, there’s nothing to worry about.
What causes colic?
There’s no definitive cause of colic. Although it might be caused by abdominal pains, changes in hormone levels in the gut, food intolerance, trapped wind or sensitivity to milk protein (Patient, 2018). Yet this is only relevant to 5% to 10% of babies (Hogg, 2015). Others think it’s just the extreme end of crying, while others say it is evolution making sure babies always have an adult around to protect them (Batlivala, 2017).
Some parents can be so desperate to have a cause for their baby’s crying, they’ll assume it’s the result of a treatable medical condition or digestive problem (i.e. colic) (Hogg, 2015).
What are the symptoms of colic?
Each baby behaves in a completely unique way, but colic is usually characterised by all or some of the following:
- Crying for more than three and a half hours a day .
- Crying that’s inconsolable and almost continuous – this can be intense and sound different from your baby’s other cries.
- The crying reaches a peak in the late afternoon and early evening.
- Their face becomes red and flushed.
- They clench their fists, bringing their legs up to their tummy or arch their back.
(Wolke et al, 2017; Patient, 2018)
If you’re worried it might be something more serious than colic, visit your GP or talk to your health visitor. This way you can rule out any illness.
What to do if your baby has colic
Unfortunately, there’s no cure for colic and each baby responds differently to attempts to soothe them (Patient, 2018). But here we’ve put together some of the more common methods that people say might help soothe a baby with colic.
- Holding your baby, wrapping them snugly in a blanket or putting them in a baby sling.
- Holding your baby in different positions, such as on your shoulder, cradled in your arms, or lying with their tummy faced down along your forearm.
- Swaddling: some people say swaddling their baby – wrapping them snugly in a blanket – can make them feel safe and secure.
- Gently swaying your baby.
- Sitting or holding your baby upright during feeding, to prevent them swallowing air.
- Burping your baby after feeds or gently bringing their legs into their tummy.
(NHS, 2018; Patient, 2018)
Feeding and supplements:
- Some people say using a fast-flow teat if you're bottle-feeding helps your baby to not swallow air.
- Burping your baby after feeds.
- Do not change your baby’s formula unless your GP or health visitor advises this.
- Anti-colic drops or supplements are not recommended as there’s insufficient evidence they work.
(NHS, 2018; Patient, 2018)
- Some people say avoiding overstimulating your baby by repeatedly picking them up and putting them down can help. Gently comforting your baby in a quiet, darkened room might be better.
- Pushing them around in their pram or driving – babies like movement.
- Using white noise: a washing machine, vacuum cleaner or radio static will do the job.
- Gently rubbing their stomach or back or giving them a warm bath.
(NHS, 2018; Patient, 2018; Sezici et al, 2018)
Your diet if you’re breastfeeding:
- It’s not recommended that you change your diet if you’re breastfeeding (NHS, 2018). Yet some women find drinking too many caffeinated drinks, eating spicy food and alcohol can aggravate colic.
When to seek medical advice
If your baby is displaying any of the following symptoms, get medical help straight away:
- 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 38°C or above (if they're less than three months old) or 39°C 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.
Keeping yourself calm through excessive crying
Trying and failing to soothe a baby who is crying inconsolably can be very stressful. It’s important to remember your baby’s colic is not your fault and you’re not a bad parent because you can’t get them to stop crying.
If you’re feeling stressed, we suggest you check out our article about how to cope and keep calm when looking after your baby. You could also try out one of the many free meditation apps to help you feel more calm.
If you’re becoming overwhelmed or feel like you can’t cope, it’s OK to put your baby somewhere safe and have 10 minutes of time out. Make sure you’re asking loved ones for support and don’t hesitate to reach out for help. A support line like that NCT offers on 0333 252 5051 can also provide help and advice to parents with babies that cry excessively.
Our support line offers practical and emotional support with feeding your baby and general enquiries for parents, members and volunteers: 0333 252 5051.
You might find attending one of our NCT New Baby groups helpful as they give you the opportunity to explore different approaches to important parenting issues with a qualified group leader and other new parents in your area.
Make friends with other parents-to-be and new parents in your local area for support and friendship by seeing what NCT activities are happening nearby.
Watch our coping with crying film.
The Purple Crying website looks in detail at the stage in your baby’s life when they cry more than at any other time.
Understanding childhood also have a range of resources available online and to download, developed by child psychotherapists, including a leaflet on crying.
There’s also useful information on the NHS website.
The NSPCC helpline provides help and support to thousands of parents and families.
The Lullaby Trust has lots of useful information and support for parents about safe sleep.
Alexander CP, Zhu J, Paul IM, Kjerulff KH. (2017) Fathers make a difference: positive relationships with mother and baby in relation to infant colic. Child Care Health Dev. 43(5):687-696. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/28271578 [Accessed 2nd October 2018]
Arikan D, Alp H, Gözüm S, Orbak Z, Cifçi EK. (2008) Effectiveness of massage, sucrose solution, herbal tea or hydrolysed formula in the treatment of infantile colic. J Clin Nurs. 17(13):1754-1761. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18592627 [Accessed 2nd October 2018]
Batlivala SP. (2017) Colic: an evolutionary selective pressure for good parents? Clin Pediatr (Phila). 56(8):705-706. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/28589761 [Accessed 2nd October 2018]
Hogg S. (2015) Understanding and responding to excessive crying. Int J Birth Parent Education. 2(4):7-11. Available at: https://ijbpe.com/images/IJBPE/pdf/vol2iss4/IJBPEcol2iss4_understandingandrespondingtoexcessivecrying.pdf [Accessed 2nd October 2018]
NCSBS. (2018) What is the period of PURPLE crying? Available at: http://www.purplecrying.info/what-is-the-period-of-purple-crying.php [accessed 18th October 2018].
NHS. (2015) Colic. Available at: https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/colic/ [accessed 18th October 2018].
NICE. (2017) Clinical Knowledge Summaries. Colic – infantile. Available at: https://cks.nice.org.uk/colic-infantile [accessed 18th October 2018].
Patient. (2018) Baby colic. Available at: https://patient.info/health/baby-colic-leaflet [accessed 18th October 2018]
Sezici E, Yigit D. (2018) Comparison between swinging and playing of white noise among colicky babies: A paired randomised controlled trial. J Clin Nurs. 27(3-4):593-600. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/28618052 [Accessed 2nd October 2018]
Wolke D, Bilgin A, Samara M. (2017) Systematic review and meta-analysis: fussing and crying durations and prevalence of colic in infants. J Pediatr. 185:55-61.e4. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/28385295 [Accessed 2nd October 2018]