Understanding colic and its symptoms

Colic is the name for excessive and frequent crying that occurs in babies that are otherwise healthy and well-fed. Colic can be a cause of concern and frustration in parents, as babies can cry for several hours a day.

The good news is that colic is relatively short-lived, usually starting when a baby is a few weeks old and disappearing after the first 3 months.

How to pick the signs of colic

Signs of colic include the following:

Intense or inconsolable crying. A baby with colic sounds distressed and their face may flush. Babies with colic are extremely difficult to comfort and crying episodes can last several hours.

Predictable crying episodes. Babies with colic tend to cry at around the same time every day, often in the late afternoon or in the evening.

Crying that occurs for no apparent reason. It’s natural for a baby to cry when they need food or a clean nappy, but with colic they may cry even if they’re well-fed, have clean nappies and are in all other respects healthy.

Posture changes. Babies will often clench their fists, curl up their legs and arch their back while crying.

If your baby has colic, they may appear to be in distress. But the crying episodes are not harmful. Despite the colic, your baby should continue to feed and grow normally.

It’s worth going to see a doctor if you’re concerned about your baby’s crying, as they’ll be able to exclude any potential causes. You should definitely consult your baby’s doctor immediately if you notice a bluish-cast to your baby’s lips or skin during a crying episode (this could be a sign of lack of oxygen), or if there are changes in your baby’s eating, weight gain, sleeping or general behaviour.

Understanding the causes of colic

Colic occurs equally in both boys and girls, and in babies who are breast-fed or formula-fed. But despite the significant amount of research that’s been done, its cause remains unknown.

In an attempt to relieve infant colic or excessive wind, mothers who breastfeed often omit various foods such as cabbage, broccoli, onions, cow’s milk or chocolate. However, there is no consistent evidence that unsettled infant behaviour or excessive wind are due to maternal diet.

If you’re considering excluding any foods from your diet, you should first seek advice from a registered dietitian. That way you can ensure you don’t miss out on any essential nutrients during this important time.

Tips for helping your baby feel better

There’s no single method that works for all babies with colic. There are however a few techniques that could help your baby settle. Try these before you make any decisions on changing your diet or baby formula:

  • Hold your baby as upright as possible during feeding. This helps to stop your baby from swallowing air
  • Burp your baby after feeds. You may also want to pause during feeding to burp your baby
  • Hold your baby during a crying episode. Cuddling helps to soothe some babies
  • Put your baby in a front pack or baby carrier, the gentle movement and closeness may help settle them
  • Keep your baby in gentle motion. Gently rock your baby over your shoulder or in your arms, take a walk with the stroller, or take your baby for a drive. This can help them to settle
  • Gently massage your baby’s tummy or give your baby a warm bath

Colic can be as hard on parents as it is on babies, so don’t forget to look after yourself. Ask for help from your friends and family, take a break, and eat healthy foods. The most important thing to remember is that colic is not your fault, and is only temporary.

Some deeper reading

Mayo Clinic, Diseases and Conditions, Colic (accessed 09 December 2015).

Ministry of Health (2006) Food and Nutrition Guidelines for Healthy Pregnant and Breastfeeding Women: A background paper. Wellington: Ministry of Health.

Ministry of Health, Coping with a crying baby (accessed 09 December 2015).

National Health Service (NHS), Colic (accessed 09 December 2015).