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April 14, 2023

How to soothe a colicky baby – and when to suspect an underlying health issue

Sometimes an infant may have a food allergy or another condition that is causing its distress

Parenting Babies
Babies with colic Ben Kerckx/Pixabay

Healthy babies with colic may have intense periods of crying in which they scrunch up as if they are in pain, and cry despite being fed, soothed and changed.

For many parents, long nights spent soothing a fussy baby is almost a rite of passage. According to the American Pregnancy Association, about 20% to 25% of babies go through a colicky phase. 

Colic is usually diagnosed using a rule of threes: the baby must cry for more than three hours at day for at least three days a week for more than three weeks, the Mayo Clinic says.

Pediatricians haven't determined the underlying causes of colic, but it usually is not a sign that there is something wrong with the baby. Symptoms of colic in a healthy infant include:

• Intense crying in which the baby scrunches up as if in pain
• Crying for no apparent reason even after being soothed, fed and having had a diaper change
• Prolonged fussiness even after the crying stops
• A predictability to when these episodes occur
• During these intense crying jags, a baby's face may turn bright red and the baby may arch its back and clench its fists.

Colic usually starts when babies are about 3 weeks old. The most intense periods of crying typically occur in the evening, between 6 p.m. and midnight. For many babies, the crying spells end by the time they are 3 months old. Some babies, however, continue to have intense periods of fussiness until they are 6 months old.

The prevailing theory is that a colicky baby may be sensitive to overstimulation or have an immature digestive system. Gas is not thought to cause colic, but a colicky baby can become gassy from sucking in too much air while crying. Overfeeding or underfeeding also can gastrointestinal distress.

Studies have shown that infants born to mothers who smoked either during pregnancy or after delivery have an increased risk of developing colic.

How to soothe your baby

There is no one-size-fits-all strategy for soothing a baby with colic. What works for your friend's baby might not work for yours. And more often than not, when you find something that helps, it won't work every night.

Be prepared to try different comforting techniques until you find what works best for your child, experts say. 

Dr. Catherine Bonita, a pediatrician at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, recommends holding and cuddling babies or swaddling them in a blanket to make them feel secure. Some babies may prefer to be walked from room to room or outside to divert their attention from what was upsetting them. Singing, talking and reading to them also may provide comfort. 

A white noise machine may prove soothing. Gently rubbing a baby's back or changing a baby's position may help, too. And because babies soothe themselves by sucking, pacifiers may provide the comfort they need. 

When should you be worried?

Parents are advised to take their babies to see a pediatrician when they turn 1 month, 2 months, 4 months, 6 months and 9 months. If a baby is showing signs of colic, these visits are a good time to share concerns with the doctor. Keep a journal of the baby's symptoms are, noting when they occur, to share with the pediatrician.

When parents come to Bonita with concerns about why their baby is inconsolable, she examines the child to rule out any potential health problems. When a baby eats well, is growing and isn't experiencing fever, vomiting, bloody stool, diarrhea or other stomach problems, then colic is most likely the cause of the child's distress.

Babies also might be ill if they do not like to be touched or held, emit a strange-sounding cry, struggle to breath or are sleepier or less alert than normal. 

If a baby is still inconsolable after 3 months of age, a doctor may do some tests to ensure there are no underlying health issues at the root of the baby's symptoms. Sometimes babies may have food allergies, prompting breastfeeding mothers to change their diets or switch to formula. Other times, colic may be a sign that a baby is experiencing an early form of childhood migraine, acid reflux, hernia or intestinal obstruction.

Self-care is also important

Having a colicky baby can be a source of stress for new parents. Pediatricians say they shouldn't be afraid to ask for help.

They advise them to try to nap when the baby naps and ask trusted family members or friends to take care of the baby for a few hours. Long nights with a colicky baby can make parents feel isolated and alone, so connecting with others is important. A night out with friends or a date night can lift one's spirits.

When parents are having a tough time, and no other adult is around to help sooth the baby, pediatricians say it is OK to lay the baby on its back in its crib for a few minutes. Parents are advised to calm themselves before returning. Shaking a baby can cause blindness, brain damage or death.

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