What is colic in babies, and how do you soothe it?

Babies cry as a way to communicate that they need something – and you’ve probably gotten really good at identifying those needs. But sometimes babies cry for seemingly no reason at all. And if your baby does so regularly, they may be among the estimated 20% of babies worldwide affected by colic.

The good news is that colic goes away on its own and doesn’t have any long-term health effects on babies, but it can be stressful for parents or caregivers.

So here, we explain what colic is, how to identify colic symptoms, when to talk to a kids’ health specialist and tips for helping soothe a colicky baby.

What is colic exactly?

Colic is when a healthy baby regularly cries inconsolably for long periods of time for no reason that a doctor can identify. For parents or caregivers, colic can be a very emotional and frustrating experience. But it’s important to know that colic doesn’t happen because your baby is sick or you’re doing anything wrong, and it will stop soon.

The causes of colic aren’t well understood

Doctors don’t know exactly what causes colic in babies. Some theories suggest that it’s related to infants’ sensitivity to stimulation and their developing nervous systems – meaning that it can be easy for them to start crying and hard for them to stop. Other studies suggest that discomfort from things like gas or food intolerances may also contribute to colic spells, but not as direct causes.

How colic is diagnosed

Generally, the first step in diagnosing colic is ruling out other potential causes for the crying such as acid reflux, allergies and more. They also look at certain criteria to help diagnose whether a child has colic, which can include:

  • Repeated, extended periods of crying, fussing or irritability (with no clear cause) that parents or caregivers can’t stop
  • The baby is less than five months old when symptoms start (and eventually stop)
  • No symptoms of illness or unexpectedly slow growth

How to tell colic symptoms from regular crying

Babies cry for a lot of reasons – after all, it’s one of their main ways of communicating. But along with having no clear cause, colic crying tends to have other features that distinguish it from crying that’s due to other causes.

The age of your baby when the inconsolable crying begins

Typically, colic crying starts within the first few weeks after a baby’s birth and peaks between 4 and 8 weeks of age.

The timing of colic crying often has a pattern

Regular crying is usually related to a baby’s core needs such as needing to eat, sleep or get a diaper change, so it can happen irregularly and throughout the day as those needs arise. But colic crying tends to happen around the same time every day, usually in the late afternoon or evening – and the crying has no clear trigger.

Other symptoms of colic crying

Colic crying can be more intense than regular crying. It may be higher pitched and sound like your baby is in distress. With this intensity, your baby’s face may turn red, and the skin around their mouth may be pale. They may stiffen their arms, clench their fists, pull in their legs or arch their back while crying.

How long does colic last?

Colic usually ends when babies are 3-4 months old. Many parents and caregivers find that the crying stops suddenly.

How to soothe a colicky baby

When your baby is crying, all you want to do is comfort them and make sure they have everything they need. But if your baby has colic, the usual soothing methods like feeding, changing or rocking them typically aren’t effective. This can be extremely stressful, but it’s also to be expected since colic is defined by inconsolable crying.

Taking care of a colicky baby is hard, but remember that colic is common, temporary and will have no lasting effects on your baby’s health. And while there’s no guarantee that any particular technique will fully relieve colic symptoms, some babies respond well to specific comfort measures or changes in their environment.

Step 1: Identify your child’s colic window

As we mentioned earlier, colic crying tends to happen around the same time each day – and oftentimes later in the day. Once you know the general timing of your baby’s colic spells, you can try to comfort your baby or make changes before the colic window starts. This may help reduce the intensity or duration of their crying.

Step 2: Rule out other reasons why they may be crying

You’re probably doing this already, but when your baby starts crying, always rule out any physical needs like hunger or a soiled diaper before moving on to other comfort methods, even during their colic window.

Step 3: Try colic-soothing techniques that change your baby’s environment or focus

Once you’ve determined that your baby has a clean diaper and isn’t hungry, sleepy or gassy, you can try one or more of the following strategies:

  • Position changes – Changing your baby’s position so that they’re sitting up instead of lying down (or vice versa) can give them new things to focus their attention on.
  • Gentle motion – This can include rocking your baby, putting them in a baby swing on a low setting, taking them on a walk in a stroller or front-facing carrier, or going for a ride in a car.
  • Reducing stimulation – Babies can get overwhelmed by many forms of stimuli, including bright lights, loud sounds, strong odors and even too much attention. Removing stimuli or changing them to be softer can create a more comfortable, less stressful environment for your baby.
  • Introducing comforting sounds – Soft music or white noise (like a fan, vacuum cleaner or washing machine in another room) may help calm your baby.
  • Holding your baby close – Cuddling your baby, holding them against your chest while taking slow, deep breaths or lightly massaging their belly or back with circular motions of your palm can be comforting and may reduce crying time.
  • A pacifier – The sucking reflex that babies use to nurse also helps them self-sooth. So if you’ve established a nursing routine with your baby, you can try giving them a pacifier during their colic spells.

Step 4: Take a break to soothe yourself if you need to

Trying to soothe a colicky baby can be emotionally and physically draining. So it’s normal and totally okay to take a break. If you find that you’re getting stressed or impatient during a colic spell, put your baby in their crib or bassinet on their back without any blankets or other objects, and leave the room for a few minutes. If you have a partner or another caregiver is available, you can also ask them to take over while you take a moment to reset. And remember that you can reach out to your baby’s doctor or your own if you feel like you need more support.

When to see a doctor for colic symptoms

Remember, colic will go away with time, and it doesn’t mean that there’s anything wrong with your baby or the care you’re giving them.

If your baby is showing possible symptoms of colic, talk with a pediatrician or another kids’ health specialist. They’ll talk with you about your child’s symptoms and likely do a gentle exam to rule out any possible underlying causes. If your child is diagnosed with colic, their doctor can recommend additional ways to help improve colic symptoms. They can also give you tips for managing the stress that colic may cause you.