What Are the Signs and Symptoms of Colic?

Learn soothing strategies for colicky babies, self-care for parents

An infant with colic cries in his cribe.

Learn soothing strategies for colicky babies, self-care for parents

Every baby cries, but when crying becomes excessive, frequent or extremely intense, it may be a condition known as colic.

Usually defined as crying in an otherwise healthy infant that lasts more than three hours per day for more than three days a week, colic can be extremely upsetting and frustrating for parents. Not only does colic seem to have no obvious cause, but parents may be dismayed to find that nothing they do can help calm their crying baby.

Symptoms of colic may include:

  • Intense crying that may mimic screaming
  • Significant fussiness
  • Episodes occurring about the same time of day, often in the evening
  • Skin flushing
  • Tense or stiff legs or arms, clenched fists, arched back or hard abdomen

The cause is unknown, but babies born to women who smoked during pregnancy seem to have an increased risk. Breastfeeding vs. formula-feeding does not seem to be a factor, nor does premature delivery. Colic episodes typically begin at about four weeks of age and peak at about six weeks. After several months, colic eventually resolves on its own.

“An inconsolable baby who cries excessively may have another condition that is causing pain or distress,” says Benjamin Shleifer, MD, a pediatrician at Scripps Coastal Medical Center Oceanside. “If your baby shows colic symptoms, call your pediatrician to confirm that it is in fact colic and not something else.”

How to soothe your colicky baby

Colic is understandably stressful for parents who are already likely challenged by caring for a newborn. Colic has been found to increase the risk of postpartum depression and feelings of guilt, helplessness or anger.

While caring for a colicky baby can be very upsetting, rest assured that colic will resolve eventually and doesn’t cause long-term health problems. As challenging as it may be, try to stay calm and patient for your sake as well as your baby’s.

“When your baby is colicky, you want to try to soothe them as much as possible,” says Dr. Shleifer. “I know this isn’t easy when you’re in the middle of a colic episode. You may be frantically trying anything you can to quiet your baby. It can be helpful to make a list ahead of time of options to try, so you have that ready the next time.”

Strategies to soothe a colicky baby may include:

  • Using a pacifier
  • Trying to burp them
  • Placing them in a baby swing
  • Walking around with them
  • Singing softly to them
  • Sitting with them in a rocking chair
  • Swaddling them in a blanket
  • Giving them a warm bath
  • Gently massaging their tummy or back
  • Playing soothing music or nature sounds
  • Playing “white noise” like a fan or dishwasher
  • Darkening the room
  • Removing visual stimulation

Self-care strategies for parents

Caring for a colicky baby can take a toll on parents. You may be overwhelmed by feeling like you have tried absolutely everything to soothe your baby without success. You may even feel guilty that you can’t calm your baby and start to doubt your parenting ability. Even after your baby has finally quieted down, you may still feel exhausted or frazzled, especially if episodes occur often.

“All of these feelings are normal, understandable and common reactions for parents of a colicky baby,” says Dr. Shleifer. “It’s so important for parents to take a break and take steps to soothe themselves through self-care.”

Consider these five tips for self-care for parents:

  1. Ask for help from a spouse, partner or friend. Even a short break can help. Take a warm shower or get out of the house if you can while your support person takes over.
  2. Put your baby in a crib and leave the room for a few minutes to take a few deep breaths and calm yourself.
  3. Be kind to yourself. It’s ok to feel angry or frustrated. Acknowledging and accepting your feelings can help reduce their intensity.
  4. Don’t feel guilty about being unable to soothe your child. Colic is not a reflection of your parenting, and your baby’s crying is not personal.
  5. Remember that colic is temporary, and your baby is not in any danger.

When to seek medical help

If you are alone with your colicky baby and it just becomes too much, don’t hesitate to call your doctor, a parenting support line or a mental health support line for help. They are there to support you and your baby and help you through difficult times.

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