What is Colic? Understanding Colic in Babies
Infant crying is a fact of life. After all, it’s the only way newborns can communicate their needs to us! While infant crying is nerve wracking, the good news is, your baby’s loudest and most passionate shrieks usually means they’re hungry, wet, soiled, or lonely. Once fed, changed, burped, and cuddled, your precious bundle will usually settle down. But what do you do if your sweet baby continues to wail after you’ve given them exactly what they needed…besides cry yourself? When you feel like you’ve tried everything to calm your crying baby, but the screaming doesn’t stop, your baby may have colic. Here’s what to do about colic.
What is colic?
During your baby’s first three months, they’ll cry more than at any other point in time, so it can be difficult for parents and caregivers to distinguish normal crying from persistent, colicky crying. About 50% of crying infants fuss for over an hour a day, but a baby who cries for more than three hours a day, at least three days a week, and consistently for longer than three weeks (and is otherwise healthy) is considered to have colic. Gender and feeding style, (meaning bottle vs. breast) do not influence a baby’s chances of getting colic.
How long does colic last?
Colic typically starts two to three weeks after birth and peaks when your baby is between 4 to 6 weeks old. For most babies with colic, the persistent crying can last up to three months, but in some cases, it can stretch on for up to nine months.
When does colic peak?
Colic episodes tend to peak between 4 and 6 weeks of age and decrease by the time thlittle ones reach 3 to 4 months of age (the end of the Fourth Trimester). I know crying is a significant source of stress for parents, but please take heart knowing it will eventually subside!
What time of day is colic the worst?
Typically, colicky babies cry most frequently from 6 pm to midnight (a period of time often referred to as “witching hour”). Parents often describe these cries as louder, more high-pitched, and more urgent than normal wails.
How is colic diagnosed?
If you suspect colic, reach out to your baby’s doctor. Unfortunately, there’s no test for colic. Instead, your baby’s healthcare provider will ask about your little one’s crying and examine them to ensure there’s no medical reason behind their persistent tears.
What causes colic?
For thousands of years, experts thought colic was due to intestinal discomfort from overeating, gas, heartburn, or lactose intolerance. (In fact, the word colic comes from the same basic word as the word colon.) Some even speculate that colic is caused by a baby sensing their parents’ anxiety. But the truth is, most of the time, colic does not mean your baby has any health or tummy problems. And, rest assured, your newborn can’t tell if you’re anxious, irritated, or even fearful…so your emotional state will not cause your baby to have colic. Instead, I believe colic is the result of being both overstimulated and understimulated.
Does colic end suddenly or gradually?
Colic can end gradually, suddenly, or fluctuate in intensity until it fades. Symptoms typically subside once a baby graduates from “The Fourth Trimester” (around 12 weeks or 3 months of age).
The Fourth Trimester and Colic
I believe the key to understanding colic is first understanding the fourth trimester. The fourth trimester is the first three to four months of your baby’s life after birth. The word “trimester” implies that your newborn is still a fetus…and that’s on purpose! Your baby’s brain and nervous system are not fully developed at birth, making them more fetus-like than baby-like. Think about it: Baby horses are ready to run from the very first day, but our babies are so immature they need our help to do everything…even to burp!
During this in-between time, babies aren’t quite ready for the world, leaving little ones both overstimulated by the bustling, bright world around them—and understimulated by the quiet, motionless din of the nursery. In the womb, babies experience a nonstop symphony of sensations. They’re held, touched, and jiggled, and they listen to the constant drone of blood flowing, which is louder than a vacuum cleaner. Then, we bring babies home and plunk them down on a flat crib, in a stone-silent and dark room by themselves. This swift shift in sensations is a form of sensory deprivation. While some babies can tolerate that, others just fall apart without the stimulation they became accustomed to inside the womb. That’s why imitating the sensations of the womb doesn't just reassure infants, it flips on their inborn calming reflex that all babies have at birth. Essentially, copy-catting the womb activates a baby’s innate “off switch” for fussing and crying.
How to Treat Colic: Tools to Calm Colic in Babies
Holding your baby, carrying them in a safe sling, and offering lots and lots of skin-to-skin contact are all wonderful ways of meeting your baby’s need for contact and for nurturing stimulation, which can help reduce crying. Then there are these five unique steps that parents and caregivers can take to imitate the womb and turn on their baby’s calming reflex. I call them the 5 S’s.
- Swaddling: Snugly wrapping your baby with their arms down replicates the warm embrace of the womb. Premature babies, however, may do better if swaddled with bent arms until they get close to their due date. (Learn more about caring for your preemie at home.)
- Shushing: White noise imitates the familiar, comforting sounds of the womb. When your baby is upset, shushing as loud as they’re crying (which can be as loud as a hair dryer) works wonders to calm crying. (Once your baby has settled, you can decrease the intensity.)
- Swinging: Tiny jiggling motions—no more than an inch back and forth—reminder newborns of the gentle, yet constant jostling in the womb. You can achieve this swinging sweet spot by softly bouncing on the edge of your bed or on an exercise ball, dancing around the house, going for a stroller walk on a pebbly walkway, or putting your baby in a sling for a nice long stroll.
- Side or stomach position: Lying on the back is the only safe position for a baby to sleep in, but it's the worst position for calming a crying baby. So when your infant is upset, pick them up in your arms and roll them to the side or stomach position. (Learn how to hold a fussy baby.)
- Sucking: Once you’ve calmed your baby down with the help of the other S’s—and breastfeeding is established (if nursing)—offer a pacifier for an even more profound level of calm. (Here's how to help your baby take a paci.)
How the 5 S’s Treat Colic
Research confirms that the 5 S’s can help treat colic! For example, the Department of Health of Boulder, Colorado tried the 5 S’s with 42 at-risk families (teen moms, premature babies, and more) who had very fussy babies. Their study showed 41 out of those 42 colicky babies immediately improved with the 5 S’s and three special tools: a Happiest Baby DVD to reinforce the teaching, a large, thin swaddling blanket, and white noise for naps and all night long. Plus, a 2019 report found that parents who were taught four out of the 5 S’s (they left out “sucking”) four weeks after their babies were born had infants who cried significantly less at 6 months than the little ones whose parents were not taught these soothing techniques.
Does SNOO help babies with colic?
Years after I discovered the power of the 5 S’s, I realized technology could be another tool to help parents calm crying. From that idea, I came up with SNOO, a responsive bassinet, which leans on three out of the 5 S’s (swaddling, swinging, and shushing) to soothe babies. SNOO detects a baby’s cries and provides the just-right amount of sound and motion to soothe them back to slumberland, providing a calmer—and longer—night’s sleep. In fact, research in the journal PLOS ONE found that the magical mix of rocking, swaddling, and using white noise “evoked an immediate calming response” when parents soothed their infants solo—and when they used SNOO.
The Importance of Treating Colic
Everyone pictures having the “perfect” baby who’s cuddly and sweet and never has any problems. So, it can be very unexpected and unnerving to find yourself parenting a baby who cries and cries for long periods. During my almost 30 years as a practicing pediatrician, I worked with countless caregivers who felt guilt and shame over their baby’s colicky crying…as if not being able to tame colic made them a bad parent. Worse, research shows that crying and exhaustion are the huge triggers for some serious problems like postpartum depression and shaken-baby syndrome. And because weary parents often bring a crying baby into bed with them, the risk of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS) and suffocation goes up, too. (Learn more about how risky sleep practices surge after night-waking.)
Final Thoughts on How to Treat Colic
I know it feels like this period of fussing and crying will never end, but it will. Take heart in the fact that colicky infants do not experience any negative long-term effects. Get as much rest as you possibly can, take walks outside, eat well, don’t worry about housework and chores, and enlist help! That help can be a partner, a parent, a postpartum doula, and/or SNOO. (If you’re interested in learning more about how to treat colic and fussiness with the 5 S’s, consider streaming The Happiest Baby on the Block.) Finally, show yourself some grace. You’re doing the best that you can!
Have questions about a Happiest Baby product? Our consultants would be happy to help! Connect with us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Disclaimer: The information on our site is NOT medical advice for any specific person or condition. It is only meant as general information. If you have any medical questions and concerns about your child or yourself, please contact your health provider.