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What is Colic?

By S. Mithra
Updated May 17, 2024
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Colic is the bane of many new parents' existence. Rather than a medical syndrome, illness, or digestion malfunction, colic actually describes a condition where a baby cries for more than three hours at a time for at least four days a week, but often every day. This reaction seems to occur in babies around 2-3 months old and usually subsides by age 6 months. It is commonly idiopathic, which means occurrences have no known cause and no sure treatment.

Babies with colic scream, cry, and sob for hours at a time for no conceivable reason. They aren't too hot, too cold, suffering from a wet diaper, hungry, or sleepy. However, they are probably, to some degree, overstimulated, anxious, lonely, or confused. The dramatic change between living inside the womb and getting thrust into the noisy, strange, unpredictable world can be jarring to babies. Many react with colic.

The easiest kind of colic to diagnose and treat is the rare situation where an infant has a bothersome reaction to her food. Both formula and breast milk can cause mild food allergies, gas, or intestinal cramps. A pediatrician can recommend an experimental shift to a different brand of formula. If breast-feeding, your system passes on whatever is in your diet. It's a good idea to eliminate chocolate, alcohol, caffeine, nuts, and strong spices like garlic, chili, onions, and curry.

Colic soon involves a child in a vicious cycle that can be difficult to break. If he is gassy, he cries, thus swallowing air and blowing up his stomach even more. If he isn't gassy, he soon will be after hours of continuous sobbing. This can be an incredibly tense, exhausting, and scary experience for new parents who worry that they are making some kind of mistake. Rest assured that you probably haven't done anything to cause colic, and you can probably do little to assuage it, other than wait until your baby grows out of it.

Most suggested courses of action aren't really cures but just new ways of carrying, rocking, or holding your baby. For example, to eliminate or reduce gas, always burp right after feeding. Do not overfeed when your baby seems to want more milk. She's seeking the comfort of suckling, and can be eased by sucking on your pinky finger or a pacifier. Sit baby up to ease digestion and allow breathing without swallowing air. Experiment and see what works.

Colicky children will usually calm with repetitive motions and sounds. Take baby on a drive in the car, use an automatic rocking bassinet or chair, or tie a sling around your stomach or back so baby can walk around with you all day. Keep him or her in an environment with little outside stimulation, like bright lights or loud noises, yet generous parental attention, like holding, cuddling, and singing. Finally, your increased anxiety, while understandable, can antagonize an already tense child. Take time out to relax and rejuvenate yourself while you endure this common rite of passage.

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Discussion Comments

By pleonasm — On Sep 15, 2012

@croydon - Movement works with some babies, but not with others, so it's good for parents to realize this. I think one of the worst things about colic is the fear that there is something seriously wrong and the parent is missing it somehow.

Has anyone else ever felt like that? I guess it's inevitable. When it comes to your baby, you want everything to go right all the time.

By croydon — On Sep 14, 2012

@bythewell - I think a lot of people do think that baby colic is always about digestive upsets, probably because babies are the opposite of horses in that they vomit all too easily if they are upset, even if it's nothing to do with their stomach.

If it's true colic rather than a symptom of something else, the best colic relief we found when my nephew was a baby is to rock them as much as possible, if necessary, by putting them into a mechanical swing.

In fact, the swing worked so well that my sister was anxious about using it too often, because it was almost like a sleeping pill and she thought making her baby sleep too much could be bad for him.

By bythewell — On Sep 13, 2012

@waterhopper - One of the worst experiences in my life as a child was taking riding lessons on a horse that developed colic. The instructor told me horses get it all the time because they can't vomit and so they have to deal with any food poisoning or other illnesses without that.

My horse began to sweat and kept trying to sit and roll. The instructor wouldn't let me get off her, since she said the best thing to do was keep walking her around. Since I was so young I felt like I was really hurting the poor horse, even though it obviously wasn't my fault.

I guess that's why I thought that baby colic was because of a digestive upset as well, rather than just because they were crying too much.

By WaterHopper — On Jun 14, 2011

@purplespark- Some of the symptoms to watch for in a horse with potential colic is that they might be lying down more than they usually would. That is because they are trying to find a comfortable position. They might lie down for a while and stand up for a while to try to get relief.

They may also paw the ground a lot or turn their heads towards their flank area. They may try to kick at their stomach or even roll around. If your horse displays any of these signs, you should immediately have a vet come out and look at your horse. As I stated earlier, colic in horses can be fatal. One of the fatal colic conditions is when the horse has twisted intestines, also known as displacement.

By PurpleSpark — On Jun 12, 2011

@waterhopper- Do you know what the signs and symptoms are of a horse with colic?

By WaterHopper — On Jun 10, 2011

@purplespark- I know for sure that horses can get colic. I am not sure about other animals. Whereas colic in babies is very different than colic in horses, it is still a problem.

In horses, colic usually refers to abdominal pain with different origins. Some of the colic conditions can be mild and others can be so life threatening that the only way to prevent further pain is to put the horse down. We had to put a horse down that had colic and it was devastating for us but our horse was in severe pain and the vet had done all that he could do.

By PurpleSpark — On Jun 08, 2011

Can animals get colic as well? We have a horse and my husband swears she has colic. We are going to call the vet and see what he says but I just didn't think animals could get colic.

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