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How do I Tell the Difference Between Colic and Reflux?

By Christina Edwards
Updated May 17, 2024
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While every baby cries at least once in awhile, constant crying can indicate a more severe problem. If your baby is crying constantly, you may start to wonder if he is just colicky, or if he has reflux. Although the symptoms of colic and reflux can be quite similar at times, reflux usually has a few more symptoms, and the causes of these symptoms are different. Also, though it generally disappears as an infant gets older, uncontrolled reflux can possibly lead to other health problems.

Confusing the symptoms of colic and reflux is a common mistake that many parents may make. Colic is typically characterized by long periods of intense crying. These crying spells are often quite predictable, as they seem to happen around the same time of day or night. Colicky babies may also appear to be in intense pain, curling their legs, tensing their bodies, and clenching their fists.

The crying associated with infant reflux is not always as predictable as the crying that happens with colic. It does, however, typically happen shortly after the baby has been fed, and he may not even want to eat. Being placed on his back may exacerbate symptoms. Frequent spit up, coughing, wheezing, and hiccups are also common symptoms associated with reflux

The causes of colic and reflux are quite different. In fact, it is not actually known what exactly causes colic. There have been a number of studies done to figure this out. One popular theory that seems to be shared by many is that colic is caused by an excess amount of gas. Most often, reflux is caused by an immature lower esophageal sphincter that does not close properly. This is the ring of muscle that stops the food and acids from backing up into the esophagus.

Other major differences between colic and reflux are treatment and lasting effects. Colic usually disappears on its own with no other health problems, and a baby will often have no symptoms of it after about three or four months. There is often no way to soothe a colicky baby, yet some pediatricians may prescribe probiotics, as some believe that these can help regulate bacteria in the digestive tract.

Infant reflux typically goes away on its own after a baby turns one. Some medications may be prescribed for serious cases of reflux, but most of the time, simple feeding changes can help make a baby more comfortable and get rid of the symptoms. If you suspect that your baby has reflux, try feeding him smaller amounts, more often. Also, you can try burping him more during feedings. Severe cases of infant reflux may require surgery, but this is very rare, as the risks of the surgery are worse than the symptoms.

Unlike colic, if left untreated, infant reflux can lead to more serious medical complications in the future, including breathing and intestinal problems. Because a baby with reflux may have trouble eating, it can also lead to stunted growth. If you have serious concerns, and would like to know more about colic and reflux, you should contact your baby's pediatrician.

WiseGeek is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
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