Colic, or infant colic, is a common condition that affects one in five babies. Find out more about the symptoms and forms of treatment which can provide relief.
What is colic?
Colic (or infant colic) is characterised as excessive crying or extended and repeated periods of crying or fussing in babies who are otherwise healthy and thriving. Common symptoms of colic in babies usually begin within the first few weeks of life and generally end between the ages of four and six months.
Babies of both sexes are equally affected. Whilst all babies cry from time to time – and it is normal for young babies to need a lot of contact and become upset if put down – a baby with colic will show signs and symptoms including:
- Periods of crying or ‘fussing’ almost continuously.
- A flushed or reddened face.
- Legs alternating between bent up and straight out.
- Clenched hands.
Episodes will typically begin in the late afternoon or early evening although they can occur at any time of the day or night. A baby who has colic may appear to be in pain, which is distressing and worrying for parents. Contact your health visitor or GP if you’re concerned.
What causes colic?
The causes of colic remain unclear and symptoms vary from baby to baby. However it is thought that it may be related to a baby having difficulties with digestion, or taking in too much air while feeding, leading to pressure in her stomach. The symptoms of colic can begin in the first few weeks and will normally end by the time a baby is around three to four months old, although it can continue up until six months. While there are lots of products available, pharmaceutical treatments have not demonstrated any consistent benefit.
Will colic harm my baby?
A baby who has colic may appear to be in pain but the condition is not harmful to your baby’s health in the long term. Your baby will continue to feed and gain weight normally.
What can I do to help my baby and soothe the symptoms of colic?
There is currently no cure for baby colic, so any treatment will be directed at soothing your baby. Finding ways to stay relaxed or taking turns with a partner or friend to be with your baby during a colicky episode may also help. In addition, you may find it useful to talk to other parents who have had similar experiences. Further ideas include:
- Carrying your baby around with you in a sling can be comforting.
- Bathing your baby in a warm bath can help both soothe and distract him.
- Reducing stimulation in your baby’s environment has also found success in some cases.
It is possible that colic is caused by your baby having difficulty in digesting milk, or by taking in too much air while feeding, which then creates uncomfortable pressure in the stomach. Helping your baby to feed in the best way may lessen the effects of colic (see our articles on feeding):
- For babies who are breastfed, ensure they are well positioned at the breast, and finish the milk in the first breast before moving to the second.
- Babies who are bottle-fed can be ‘winded’ after a feed to help them bring up any air they take in with the milk; an upright position and gentle pressure on the stomach or patting on the back is helpful.
A 2013 review of what’s known about the causes and treatment of colic affirms that all current research indicates that colic is common, and a frequent reason for stress and anxiety in new parents [reference: Management of Infant Colic, Drug and therapeutics bulletin. doi: 10.1136/bmj.f4102]. Parents often consult their health visitor or GP about their baby’s crying and, according to the review, this is a good move. It rules out any serious condition, and offers the chance to discuss treatment options, including dietary changes.
A small proportion of babies may have cow's milk protein intolerance and these babies may improve if cow's milk protein is avoided. For those on formula, a change to one that’s hypoallergenic may help. There’s limited evidence for women who are breastfeeding to change their diet, but cow's milk proteins do appear in breast milk and the review suggests mums might exclude cow's milk products from their diet for a trial period. It is important though to get nutritional advice on how to ensure you stay healthy and well-nourished if you decide to do this.
The review also looks at the evidence for easily-available treatments:
- Simeticone (sometimes called simethicone) drops available in several branded products available from pharmacies. These are given to baby in their mouth, shortly before feeding. The active ingredient works on bubbles of air in the baby’s stomach, to make small bubbles join up and supposedly make them easier for the baby to ‘burp’ them up. In trials, there is no evidence these products are any more effective than placebo.
- Lactase drops: these are mixed with (expressed) breastmilk or formula milk and then given to the baby. The aim is to help the digestion of lactose. The research in a number of studies showed no effect or very little effect, but one study showed a significant reduction in crying time compared with placebo.
- Chiropractic treatment (including cranial osteopathy): no good studies show any effect.
If your baby begins to show symptoms of colic, it is best to talk to your health visitor or GP, who can check that your baby does not have a more serious condition. Counselling, reassurance and empathetic support from health professionals has also been shown to help parents cope with the distress and concern caused by a frequently crying baby.
NCT's helpline offers practical and emotional support in all areas of pregnancy, birth and early parenthood: 0300 330 0700.
You might find attending one of NCT's 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.