Colic is the name for excessive, frequent crying in a baby who appears to be otherwise healthy. It's a common problem that affects up to one in five babies.
Colic tends to begin when a baby is a few weeks old. It normally stops by four months of age, or by six months at the latest.
Looking after a colicky baby can be very frustrating and distressing, but the problem will eventually pass and is usually nothing to worry about.
Does my baby have colic?
Signs and symptoms of colic include:
- intense crying bouts
- crying in the late afternoon or evening that lasts several hours
- your baby's face being red and flushed when they cry
- your baby clenching their fists, drawing their knees up to their tummy, or arching their back while crying
If your baby has colic, they may appear to be in distress. But the crying outbursts are not harmful, and your baby should continue to feed and gain weight normally.
Advice for parents
Caring for a baby with colic can be very difficult for parents, particularly first-time parents. It's important to remember that:
- your baby's colic is not your fault – it doesn't mean your baby is unwell, you're doing something wrong, or your baby is rejecting you
- your baby will get better eventually – colic normally stops before they're four to six months old
- you should look after your own wellbeing – if possible, ask friends and family for support as it's important to take regular breaks and get some rest
Support groups, such as Cry-sis, can also offer help and advice if you need it. You can contact the Cry-sis helpline for advice on 0845 122 8669 (9am-10pm, seven days a week).
Tips for helping your baby
There's no method that works for all babies with colic, but there are a number of techniques that may help. These include:
- holding your baby during a crying episode
- preventing your baby swallowing air by sitting or holding them upright during feeding
- burping your baby after feeds
- gently rocking your baby over your shoulder
- bathing your baby in a warm bath
- gently massaging your baby's tummy
Some babies may also benefit from changes to their diet, such as adding drops to breast or bottle milk that aid digestion and release any bubbles of trapped air in your baby's digestive system.
Speak to a GP or pharmacist for advice before trying these.
Read more about treatments for colic.
Do I need to see my GP?
Colic may improve using the techniques mentioned above. You can also ask your health visitor for their advice.
See your GP if you're concerned about your baby, or if nothing seems to be working and you're struggling to cope.
Your GP can check for possible causes of your baby's crying, such as eczema or gastro-oesophageal reflux disease (GORD). GORD is a condition where stomach acid moves back out of the stomach and into the gullet (oesophagus).
If no other cause of your baby's symptoms can be found, your GP can advise you about the things you can do to help your baby, including what treatments are available.
When to seek immediate medical advice
You should get medical help immediately if your baby:
- 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 38C or above (if they're less than three months old) or 39C 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
These symptoms can indicate a more serious problem. Read about spotting signs of serious illness in children for information about what to look for and where you should go for help.
What causes colic?
The cause or causes of colic are unknown, but a number of theories have been suggested. These include indigestion, trapped wind, or a temporary gut sensitivity to certain proteins and sugars found in breast and formula milk.
It has also been suggested colic may just be at the extreme end of normal crying in babies.
Colic occurs equally in boys and girls, and both in babies who are breastfed and those who are bottle-fed.