Colic is the medical term for excessive, frequent crying in a baby who appears to be otherwise healthy and well fed. It is a common yet poorly understood condition, affecting up to one in five babies.

Colic usually begins within the first few weeks of life but often stops by the time the baby is four months old, and by six months at the latest.

In most cases, the intense crying occurs in the late afternoon or evening and usually lasts for several hours. You may also notice that your baby's face becomes flushed, and they may clench their fists, draw their knees up to their tummy, or arch their back.

If your baby has colic, they may appear to be in distress. However, the crying outbursts are not harmful and your baby will continue to feed and gain weight normally. There is no clear evidence that colic has any long-term effects on a baby’s health. 

Seeing your GP

You should see your GP if your baby cries excessively.

This is so your GP can rule out conditions that may be causing 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 oesophagus (gullet).

If no other cause of your baby’s symptoms can be found, diagnosis of colic can be made (although this is simply a term used to describe a baby that cries a lot). Your GP can advise you about the things you can do to help your baby, including what treatments are available.

When to call your GP immediately

A number of signs and symptoms may suggest that your baby is more seriously ill. It is recommended that you contact your GP immediately if your baby:

  • has a weak, high-pitched continuous cry
  • seems floppy when you pick them up
  • takes less than a third of their usual amount of fluids
  • passes much less urine than usual
  • vomits green fluid
  • passes blood in their stools
  • 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 a stiff neck
  • has breathing problems, such as breathing quickly or grunting while breathing
  • has a spotty, purple-red rash anywhere on their body (this could be a sign of meningitis)

If you can't get hold of your GP, call NHS 111 for advice.

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 milk and formula milk.

However, there is currently little solid evidence to support these theories.

Colic occurs equally in boys and girls, and in babies who are breastfed or bottle-fed.

Advice for parents 

Having to care for a baby with colic can be distressing for parents, particularly first-time parents. It is important to remember that:

  • Your baby’s colic is not your fault – It does not mean your baby is unwell, or that you are doing something wrong, or that your baby is rejecting you.
  • Your baby will get better eventually
  • You should look after your own wellbeing – If possible, ask friends and family for support as it is important that you can take a break and rest when your baby is asleep.

Support groups, such as Cry-sis, can also offer help and advice if you need it.

Tips for helping your baby

There is currently no established method that works for all babies with colic. However, a number of techniques may help your baby, such as:

  • holding your baby during a crying episode
  • preventing your baby from swallowing air by sitting them upright during feeding
  • bathing your baby in a warm bath
  • gently massaging your baby's tummy

A small number of babies may also benefit from changes to their diet, such as adding drops to breast milk or bottle milk that can aid digestion and release any bubbles of trapped air in your baby’s digestive system.

Read more about treating colic.

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