worried mum

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?

Colic (or infantile colic) is defined as repeated episodes of excessive and inconsolable crying in an infant that otherwise appears to be healthy and thriving. 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. 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 (ie, 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)

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. We’ve put together some of the more common methods that can help soothe colic.

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. (NHS, 2015)

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 in another article lots of ways 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.

Further information

Our support line offers practical and emotional support with feeding your baby and general enquiries for parents, members and volunteers: 0300 330 0700.

You might find attending one of our Early Days 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.  

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. 

Batlivala SP (2017) Colic: an evolutionary selective pressure for good parents? Clin Pediatr (Phila). 56(8):705-706. 

Hogg (2015) Understanding and responding to excessive crying. Int J Birth Parent Education. 2(4).

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 Choices (2015) Colic. Available at:  https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/colic/ [accessed 18th October 2018].

NICE Clinical Knowledge Summaries (2017). Colic – infantile. Available at: https://cks.nice.org.uk/colic-infantile [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. 

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. 

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