Understanding Colic: What is it, Symptoms and How Long Does it Last?

Posted by Caroline Harris on

You’ve fed and burped your baby, but they can’t seem to get comfortable. Every time you lay your little one down they can’t stop fidgeting, they’re not hungry and doesn’t need changing. You can’t figure out what’s wrong and don’t know what to do to soothe them. Sound familiar? You’re not alone! This is something that probably sounds all too familiar for many parents.

All babies cry, as this is how they communicate their needs before they’re old enough to express themselves in other ways. As their parents, we’re compelled to try and attend to the needs of our baby. But when we don’t know what the cause of crying is, this can be frustrating and exhausting as we don’t know how to help. If this situation happens often, your baby may have colic.

What is colic?

When people talk about colic it can be confusing. This is because “colic” is actually an umbrella term for various different symptoms that are often interlinked. It’s not a diagnosis and it’s not an illness or a disease. It’s actually a combination of behaviours that signal discomfort. What “colic” really means is unexplained crying and a look and feeling of being upset without an obvious cause - but most likely to do with digestion.

A baby can get colic from when they’re just a few weeks old, up to around 6 months old. Symptoms usually last for a few days or weeks (or longer in some cases), but it’s only a short term and will eventually go away. Colic is a common complaint with babies, but it’s not dangerous and usually gets better on its own with a little support from parents. There are other types of colic, however, in this article, we’re going to talk specifically about colic in infants.

If your baby seems exceptionally uncomfortable, then call your GP or call NHS 111.

What causes colic?

If your baby has colic, it’s absolutely not a reflection of you as a parent. There’s nothing you can do to stop your baby getting colic, or to make it go away. Even if your baby could articulate exactly what they wanted, all the time (which no baby can do!) colic would still take its natural course!

Colic is characterised by various different symptoms that can occur separately or together. Doctors or parents can’t be exactly sure what causes colic in individual cases. And symptoms can be worse in some babies than others.

Some experts think it can be caused by a mild allergy to lactose if bottle feeding, or other foods that the mother is consuming (if breastfeeding) but this hasn’t been proved. It can also be that some babies find it harder to digest certain things than others. As colic isn’t dangerous, no intensive testing is needed to determine the cause and symptoms will eventually go away on their own.

Symptoms of colic

If your baby is crying more than 3 hours a day, 3 days a week for at least 1 week and is hard to soothe and settle, then they could have colic. They may also have other symptoms which according to the NHS are:

  • Clenching fists, bringing their knees up to their tummy or arching their back and moving their arms and legs more.
  • Inconsolable crying - often at a similar time each day.
  • Crying has no obvious cause, and your baby doesn’t seem hungry, tired or need changing.
  • Going red in the face.
  • Closing their eyes or opening them wide, furrowing their brow and even briefly holding their breath.
  • Spitting up or being sick more than usual, experiencing reflux.
  • Finds it hard to relax or sleep, often waking up crying after a short rest.
  • Their tummy rumbles or they’re very windy.
  • Seems to want to feed, only to reject the bottle or nipple when introduced to it.

Colic can stop gradually or suddenly, or flare up and down until it eventually disappears. Symptoms will usually pass within a few weeks (or months, in some cases)! Although symptoms are usually regular, occurring at similar times of day, there may be days your baby may seem comfortable only for the colicky symptoms to return.

The only thing you can do to address colic is to soothe the symptoms. But finding out what works can take a little time and experimentation.

In our next post, we’ll talk about the different ways you can help soothe your baby’s colic symptoms.

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