Have you tried swaddling him? He needs a pacifier. Do you have a noise machine in his nursery? You have to change his diaper the minute he’s wet. Make sure that you stop him feeding every five minutes to burp. I don’t think you’re holding him the way he wants to be held. Have you tried giving up dairy? You need to wear him in a sling while he’s awake. You need to set him in his crib when he’s awake. You need to hold him while he sleeps. I think you’re having too much caffeine. I think he’s sensing your frustration. You seem tired and anxious.

Ugh. My second baby had colic and I think I heard every suggestion intended to help as a critique of what I was doing wrong, what I needed to do better, and what might be wrong with my baby. While I’m sure it all came from a good place, it was exhausting to hear the litany of ideas and frustrating because none of it seemed to work. And that’s what is especially hard about having a baby with colic. But remember, this is not your fault and it’s not your baby’s fault, this is a temporary phase some babies go through. Again, this is temporary.

What is Colic?

So how exactly do you define colic? All babies cry; it’s their way to communicate their needs to caregivers and we adults are all biologically programmed to respond. So just how do you tell if your baby’s crying is typical or showing signs of colic? Generally, in an otherwise healthy infant, colic is identified using the Rule of Three - inconsolable crying that lasts more than three hours a day, occurs more than three days a week, and lasts for at least three weeks. (Sounds awesome, right?) In addition to the Rule of Three, a baby with colic will often have crying spells around the same time each day - often in what we think of as “the witching hour” - early evening when everyone in the household is starting to show signs of wear from the day and as a new parent, you’re already getting that bleary-eyed look.

Colic cries also vary from typical fussing in intensity. Babies often seem like they’re screaming in pain and may ball their little fists, arch their backs, or stiffen their legs. They will cry for no reason and remain fussy and irritable after true crying has diminished. Understandably, it can be extremely distressing to a parent as she worries her baby may be in pain. However, it’s important to note that colic does not appear to cause any short or long term medical problems for the child. It often sets in within the first month of age and usually resolves around months three or four. (Or, you can be as lucky as me, and it will last until about six months of age.) The good news, though, is that it does not last forever. It just might feel like an eternity before it resolves.

What Causes Colic?

Part of the frustration with colic is that researchers have not defined a specific source as to what causes it. Two prominent, current theories center on a baby’s digestion and migraines. The first theory points to less than ideal microbes in the baby’s digestive tract that may contribute to inflammation while the second theory hypothesizes that colicky babies may be exhibiting early signs of migraines or sensitivity to environmental stimulation. Other ideas about what causes colic focus on an incomplete digestive system, food intolerances, or even over or under-feeding. Additionally, risk factors are not well understood as colic occurs in both formula and breast-fed babies, boys and girls, and full and preterm babies. Without a clear cause, defined treatment is elusive and can leave parents feeling exasperated, depressed, and stressed.

The important thing to remember is that it is not your fault. This can be especially hard to keep in mind when you are failing to soothe your baby. It’s natural to feel completely frustrated and demoralized when you can’t understand the cause of or stop incessant crying. Years before having my own children, I’d read an article about what I deemed was a failure on the mother’s part to care for her baby while simultaneously feeling sorry for herself due to her baby’s colic. Cut to me ten years later in a darkened nursery, rocking in the glider, wailing infant in my arms, my own tears streaming down my face as I ugly cry in the throes of exhaustion and failure. Not a good look. And not a healthy look, either. But after weeks of inability to calm my son’s crying, I was completely exhausted and depressed and truly felt I had hit a parenting wall. Fortunately, I was able to lean on family for help.

Strategies for Coping if your Baby has Colic

It’s important to make sure you discuss your baby’s crying with your doctor to rule out any food allergies, reflux, or other medical issues that may be causing the inconsolable crying. If your baby is diagnosed with colic, approaches for coping are fairly basic and intuitive - which can be frustrating to parents as they’ve most likely already tried them all. Nonetheless, here are a few general strategies you may not yet have tried.

  • First and foremost, always check the low-hanging fruit - hunger, diaper change, and burp. Those usually aren’t the cause of crying with a colicky baby, but sometimes we get lucky!
  • Lots of tips center on feeding. For instance, if bottle feeding, maybe try a bottle that reduces air-swallowing and burp your baby frequently.
  • You may experiment with different feeding positions and try keeping your baby’s head slightly elevated for a while after eating.
  • With consultation from your doctor, you may try different types of formula. Some have proteins more broken down and can be easier to digest.
  • If breastfeeding, you may eliminate some common allergens from your own diet such as dairy, eggs, or wheat. (A true food allergy will often present with rash or diarrhea as well but it’s worth a try if it alleviates some crying.) You may also cut out some potentially irritating foods such as garlic, highly acidic foods like tomatoes, or gas-inducing cruciferous veggies like broccoli or cauliflower.
  • Try a change in environment for your crying baby. If in a quiet room, move to a space with more distraction. If over-stimulation seems to be an issue, try moving to a quiet, darkened room.
  • Sometimes a warm bath can provide a respite from a colicky spell.
  • Try switching who’s holding the baby.
  • Swaddling your crying baby may provide a little respite from the tears, or if that’s not working, sometimes I stripped mine down to his diaper and it would calm him briefly.
  • A white noise machine may help.
  • Experiment with different types of pacifiers.
  • Sometimes movement helps - try a vibrating seat, hold baby while walking and gently bouncing, a car ride will sometimes help soothe. (Personal note - car seats infuriated my colicky baby and I avoided them at all costs - walking the mile and a half to the library in the rain with an additional toddler in tow was far more pleasant than the two-minute drive!)
  • Altering the position you hold the baby could be a positive change. Holding them facing downwards with their stomach along the inside of your arm adds warmth and a little pressure to their belly which could relieve some built up gas. If anything, the new perspective for them could be distracting enough to pause the crying.
  • Cycling baby’s legs gently while he lies on his back may help if gas is a contributing factor. So does a warm hand softly massaging his belly.
  • Some colicky infants can be somewhat soothed by being held closely and taking deep, calming breaths that they can feel.
  • There are also some herbal and alternative remedies that claim to cure colic. Be logical and mindful of using these as there often isn’t consistent scientific evidence to support claims that they work and unregulated supplements may carry their own health risks for you and your baby.

If and when strategies fail, a major risk of colic is the way it can threaten how a mother interacts with her newborn. Because the baby’s distress occurs for no apparent reason and mom’s attempts at soothing don’t console the baby, an unhealthy and dangerous emotional cycle can establish. Mom thinks she’s doing something wrong, feels inadequate as a parent, this emotion turns to anger at the baby, then mom feels guilty for feeling anger toward her helpless infant. It sounds implausible - being angry at your baby. But if you’ve been there or are in the cycle now, you understand.

Parents of babies with colic often feel helpless, upset, and guilty. It’s important to recognize if you’ve entered this cycle and work to break it. Sometimes this means that you may place your crying infant safely in his crib and step away for a few moments to collect yourself - take some deep breaths, maybe do 10 quick minutes of cardio to alleviate stress, maybe have a big ol’ hearty cry to get out some sadness. Your baby will be ok for a short time in his safe crib environment while you regain control of yourself and it’s important to give yourself permission to do this. If a parenting partner isn’t an immediate option, you may try to establish a nearby friend, relative, or babysitter whom you could call to come stay with your baby for an hour or so while you get some fresh air. Having a hard time dealing with a colicky baby is nothing to be ashamed of (anyone who’s been there understands the stress and anxiety it puts on a new mom). It’s a good time to reach out for help.

Again, it’s important to know that it is not your fault and not blame yourself. Like all aspects of childhood - both the easy and the challenging - colic is a phase that will eventually resolve on its own. Remember that the feelings you may be experiencing as a mom of a colicky baby - demoralizing stress and anxiety in addition to the usual sleep deprivation a new parent has - these aren’t forever. But they do make the first few months of parenting much harder than they already are. Keep your own mental health in check and be kind to yourself as it may affect the overall health of your baby. Know when and who to seek for help. Hang in there, it’s hard but temporary…. and you’re already doing a great job!