Louise Broadbridge
Louise Broadbridge

What is colic?

Colic affects one in five babies and often comes along just as parents are starting to feel like they have found their feet with looking after their newborn. Listening to your baby cry can be very upsetting, and if your attempts to settle them are unsuccessful, you can feel frustrated, overwhelmed, and isolated. All babies cry; it is their way of communicating their needs, but when this is excessive, it might be colic.

How can I tell if my baby has colic?

A typical newborn will cry for around two and a half hours each day, peaking at around eight weeks. However, if they cry significantly more than that, it might be colic.

As a general rule, your baby is likely to have colic if they fit these three criteria: they cry for at least three hours a day for at least three days a week, and this has continued for at least three weeks. Your first port of call should always be your GP to rule out any health issues that could be causing their crying, but if your doctor can’t find a problem, the culprit is probably colic.

Babies with colic become very red-faced when crying and will often arch their back, pull their knees up to their chest, and clench their fists.

What causes colic?

Colic is often caused by trapped wind, so the first thing to address is whether they are swallowing air when feeding and being properly burped after every feed. It’s really important to wind young babies by gently patting or rubbing their back after feeding to help them burp.

Up until about four months, babies often struggle with air bubbles becoming trapped in their stomach, which can be painful and make them feel bloated. As your baby gets older and their digestive system matures, this problem will solve itself, but regular and effective burping is key during those first few weeks.

If you are bottle-feeding, you may also want to try anti-colic teats, which have been designed to minimise the amount of air your baby can swallow.

Another reason young babies often cry excessively is simply because they are overwhelmed by being out in the big, wide world. The first three months after birth are often referred to as the fourth trimester," and your baby will benefit from you trying to mimic the comfort of your womb as much as possible.

Keep your little one cuddled up close as much as possible so they can hear the familiar and comforting sound of your heartbeat and avoid becoming overwhelmed by the hustle and bustle of the world around them.

Babies with colic can often seem happy for most of the day and then become inconsolable in the late afternoon and evening. One of the reasons this might be happening is over-stimulation.

Don’t wait until your baby is exhausted to put them down for a sleep. Look for signs that they are tired and keep their environment calm and quiet towards the end of the day.

If your baby keeps looking away and not making eye contact, this is often a sign that they are becoming overstimulated, so keep them away from bright lights and loud noises and try settling them for a sleep.

Could it be a cow’s milk protein allergy?

Some babies who cry excessively have a cow’s milk protein allergy (CMPA), which causes pain and discomfort and makes it very difficult to settle them.

Look out for these signs that your baby’s colic might be due to CMPA rather than just trapped wind:

  • Mucus or blood in their dirty nappies
  • Constipation
  • Eczema
  • Wheezing
  • Vomiting

If your baby does have CMPA, you will need to remove dairy from their diet to ease their symptoms. If you are breastfeeding, this means you will need to switch to a dairy-free diet yourself. Those who are formula-feeding can get a special formula milk prescribed by their GP.

Some babies are not actually allergic to cow’s milk, but they may still struggle to digest it. In these cases, you may find that their discomfort eases if you switch to a comfort milk (if formula feeding) or cut dairy out of your own diet (if breastfeeding). Comfort milks are easier for babies to digest as they contain smaller proteins. However, there is a risk of constipation.

What about reflux?

If your baby’s excessive crying is combined with being sick after feeding, the problem could be reflux. Your newborn’s oesophagus is still developing, and sometimes it will allow their milk to come back up after feeding, which can be very uncomfortable for your little one.

Holding your baby in an upright position after feeding can help them digest their milk.

Tongue tie

It is also worth having your baby checked for a tongue-tie—a small strip of skin that connects their tongue to the floor of the mouth and can restrict its movement. Tongue ties can cause issues with breastfeeding and make them more likely to swallow air while feeding, which could then cause colic. If your little one does have a tongue tie, it can be snipped by a qualified practitioner to give their tongue a better range of movement and help with feeding.

Read more in our blog post about Tongue Tie.

How do you treat colic?

Finding what works for your baby will probably require some trial and error. There are a number of products designed to help relieve the symptoms of colic, including Infacol, Colief, and gripe water.

There are also other remedies available on the market, including infant probiotics, chamomilla granules, and Natrum Phosphoricum (nat phos). You may have to try more than one product to find the one that works best for your baby. Always make sure you use products that have been fully researched and tested and are safe to use for babies. Ask your GP, midwife, or health visitor for advice if you’re not sure which option is best for you.

If you are breastfeeding, you could try drinking chamomile tea or eating fennel or peppermint. These can help settle your baby’s tummy through your milk.

Baby massage is a great way to bond with your baby and can help ease the symptoms of colic too, as it is great at helping to release trapped wind. Gently stroking your baby’s stomach in a clockwise direction can help, as can pushing their knees up towards their stomach and cycling their legs as if they were on a bicycle.

Wearing your baby in a sling can help settle your baby and keep them from becoming overstimulated. Being in a carrier or sling also means being in an upright position, which will help them rest and digest, which can help reduce reflux and trapped wind.

Rocking, swaying, and playing white noise can all help recreate the calming environment of your womb. There are also some ways of holding your baby that are particularly helpful for colicky infants.

One of these holds is called ‘Tiger in the Tree': put your baby across your arm on their tummy so their head is nestled in your inner elbow and your hand is supporting them between their legs. Use your other hand to hold them in position and rub their back and rock them.

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