What Is Colic?

Dad holding colic baby

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Colic is a term used to describe near-predictable periods of inconsolable crying, with no obvious cause, in an otherwise healthy, well-nourished baby. A baby who is often fussy or irritated does not necessarily have colic.

Before attempting any suggested treatments, it is a good idea to find out if your child's signs and symptoms fall under the umbrella of "colic." Once you have a better idea of what the problem is, you will know how to better handle it.


While colic can be frustrating (and even scary), it is not associated with any long-term negative health effects for your baby. In fact, the majority of infants with colic teat, gain weight, and grow at a normal rate.

Colic typically begins when a baby is just weeks old and subsides by 3 months of age, although some cases have been reported to last for 6 months. Colic comes on suddenly and lasts for long periods of time, typically in the evening or at night.

The sound of a colic cry is beyond the familiar cries that say, "I need to be [fed/burped/changed/left alone]." When a baby experiences colic, their cries are often high-pitched and overwhelming in intensity.

Infants with colic will also display the following behaviors:

  • Arching back
  • Clenched fists
  • Grimacing facial expression
  • Passing of gas
  • Pulling of legs up to belly
  • Red face from prolonged crying
  • Swollen abdomen (hard to the touch)

For the parents, it often feels quite futile, because there is little that can be done that will soothe their baby during this continuous period of distress.


Colic is fairly common, occurring in 10% to 40% of infants, typically within two to three weeks after birth. If you suspect your baby has colic, your pediatrician will likely make a diagnosis based on the "rule of threes":

  • Appearing at or before 3 weeks of age
  • Three hours of sustained, uncontrollable crying
  • Occurring at least three days out of every week for at least three weeks
  • Ending at around 3 months of age

Ruling Out Other Problems

Before the problem is simply labeled "colicky baby," it is important to rule out other causes of fussiness, including not receiving enough milk or formula, a digestive issue, or reflux.

Ask yourself the following questions. If you answer "no" to any of them, be sure to relay these symptoms to your pediatrician:

  • Am I changing at least 5 to 8 wet diapers a day?
  • Do my baby's stools appear to be normal?
  • Does my baby show extended periods of calm and contentment?
  • Does my baby feed well (eats without fussing and lacks issues with excessive spit up)?


While there is no exact cause of colic, some experts believe it is simply a reflection of an immature digestive system and that the baby needs a "fourth trimester" outside of the womb to fully develop. Others say it's due to a food intolerance to lactose, while still others write colic off as an aspect of the baby's temperament and personality.

There is even some research that suggests a connection between colic and migraines. In fact, some medical professionals indicate that a disproportionately high number of children with colic go on to develop migraines later in life.

Yet, there is no definitive answer to the cause of colic. There are a number of issues could be triggers including:

  • Acid reflux (GERD)
  • Breastfeeding issues (overactive let-down, oversupply of milk, or cow's milk passing into breastmilk)
  • Emotional reaction to stress or fear
  • Exposure to second-hand smoke
  • Food allergies
  • Gas
  • Hair tourniquet syndrome (when a strand of hair wraps around a body part and cuts off circulation)
  • Not burping after feedings
  • Overfeeding or underfeeding
  • Overstimulation
  • Smoking during pregnancy


While this article is talking about colic in infants, the term is also used for other types of abdominal pain, including:

  • Biliary colic, which is caused by gallstones
  • Painter’s colic, which is caused by poisoning
  • Renal colic, which is caused by kidney stones


Unfortunately, there is no clear-cut answer to solve the problem of colic, however, the following methods may help soothe your little one. Try a few and see what works best for you:

  • Ask your pediatrician about using simethicone-based gas drops to reduce gas pain.
  • Burp your infant several times during feedings and/or try different burping positions.
  • If you're breastfeeding, changing your diet might help. This may include cutting out known allergens like cow's milk, egg, peanuts, tree nuts, wheat, soy, and fish, as well as gassy foods.
  • Ask your pediatrician about trying probiotics, which might reduce crying time.
  • Introduce a pacifier to calm your colicky baby.
  • Pace feedings so your infant feeds more often but drinks less at each feeding.
  • Pick up your infant and place them in the "colic hold," with their stomach positioned over your forearm. The pressure of your arm on their belly may help alleviate any discomfort.
  • Try Infant massage, or lightly massaging your baby's tummy to help move any trapped gas bubbles through the digestive system
  • Use swaddling techniques or carrying them in a sling.
  • Use motion from a swing, a walk in the stroller, or a ride in the car seat.


Caring for a colicky baby can be exhausting and overwhelming, so it's important to find ways to care for yourself. Self-care is a critical (and often neglected) component of parenting that will help put you in a better position to cope with the crying and care for your baby.

  • Carve out time to socialize with friends and family.
  • Eat a healthy diet.
  • Exercise regularly.
  • Get enough rest.
  • Spend time in nature.
  • Try meditation.

A Word From Verywell

If you find that you simply cannot take the crying, give yourself a break. Swaddle your baby tightly, place them in the safety of her crib, and walk away. Call a family member or a friend for help. It is important for you to have a period of calm so that you can rejuvenate as well. And, though colicky days and nights seem to last forever, remember that this problem will go away soon.

5 Sources
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  2. Qubty W, Gelfand AA. The link between infantile colic and migraine. Curr Pain Headache Rep. 2016 May;20(5):31. doi:10.1007/s11916-016-0558-8

  3. American Academy of Family Physicians. Colic.

  4. Ong TG, Gordon M, Banks SS, Thomas MR, Akobeng AK. Probiotics to prevent infantile colicCochrane Database Syst Rev. 2019;3(3):CD012473. doi:10.1002/14651858.CD012473.pub2

  5. Field T. Pediatric massage therapy research: A narrative reviewChildren (Basel). 2019;6(6). doi:10.3390%2Fchildren6060078

By Jennifer White
Jennifer White has authored parenting books and has worked in childcare and education fields for over 15 years.