The Dreaded Colic: What It Is, Isn’t, and How To Deal


The word “colic” gets tossed around a lot when it comes to babies. And yet, it remains one of the great mysteries of the babysphere. As a Happiest Baby Educator and family sleep consultant, I have read my fair share about colic and know from working with families who have been affected by it how truly trying it can be. But often times, it’s hard to recognize what “true” colic is and how it affects a baby. And, also often, colic is the default blame for a baby in distress.

What is colic?

The word “colic” is derived from the Greek kolikos, which means “of the colon,” which exacerbates the widely held—but unfortunately incorrect— belief that it is completely related to stomach discomfort. The reality is, most newborn babies have gas. A lot. That fact alone is not a determinant of being colicky.

So what are the basic criteria for diagnosing colic? More than 40 years ago, a pediatrician named Dr. Morris Wessel first defined a colicky infant as being a child who cried for more than three hours a day, for more than three days a week, for more than three weeks. Today, that same criteria is still widely accepted and is commonly referred to as the Rule of 3’s. A few other consistent characteristics of true colic include:

  • Colic usually starts at two weeks, peaks at six weeks, and ends by three to four months of age.
  • The crying that babies experience is often worse in the evening (hence the term “witching hour”).
  • Crying often improves with movement.

Colic or typical newborn behavior?

The fact is, at about six weeks of age, many parents will notice a peak in their baby’s fussiness, particularly during the early evening hours, or that darned witching hour. This is a very common occurrence with newborns and it passes. For babies with colic, however, that fussiness not only continues, it grows. Sometimes parents describe the crying as being inconsolable, despite the baby being fed, clean, and held. It’s the consistency with this pattern, the habitual nature of it every day that distinguishes a truly colicky baby from a more typical newborn.

How to manage colic

As hard as it is to accept, often the only choice that parents have to handle colic is to wait it out, knowing that many, many times colic just disappears with a poof. Still, coping is essential, as it can be an incredibly trying time for parents. I work with families to recreate the “fourth trimester” as best as possible, which can often help them cope with the symptoms of colic. These include:

  • Wrap them tight. Recreating the closeness that babies feel in the womb is one of the most powerful ways to calm colic. You can use a traditional swaddle or you can also wear a close baby wrap and carry him or her during the day. This is often the first step in working to calm a colicky baby, as it allows him or her to accept the other steps listed below more easily when they feel in better control of their little bodies.
  • Keep them moving. In the womb babies also enjoyed—and are still accustomed to—constant motion. We have all seen those commercials with parents driving a car around and around in the middle of the night in the hopes of keeping their baby asleep. Save on gas and invest in an infant swing or one of the myriad of infant seats that offer motion or vibration. Don’t be afraid to crank up the motion of the swing either. Often times, distraught babies do better with a rapid (yet always safe) motion. Your arms work well too! Swing them back and forth in a side-to-side motion for best results.
  • Hold them cozily. Babies should always go on their backs to sleep but there is no harm in holding the baby in a position that puts pressure on his or her stomach, which is often very comforting. One option is to hold the baby in your lap, placed on his or her side with the head on your knees and the feet on your hip or to use your forearms as a shelf for the baby, as pictured below.
Photo Credit: The Happiest Baby on the Block by Harvey Karp

Turn up the shush.

Babies tend to relax substantially with the addition of loud and continuous white noise. Not only does the sound drown out other household sounds, it also, again, brings the baby back to the noisy comfort of the womb, which can have a glorious calming effect. When my first child was very small, my husband became an expert shusher, often making the sound loudly and close to her ear, which always calmed her instantly. A good general rule of thumb is to make the sound louder than your child’s cries.

A great way to really maximize the effectiveness of each of these techniques is to do them together. Wrap your baby snugly, get her into a side position, and swing gently back and forth, all while shushing loudly. Yes, you might feel like a total lunatic at first but once you see the results, you will completely forget about that.

Things will get better.

Remember, with colic there IS an end. Babies do not typically stay colicky beyond the fourth trimester, or the first four months of their life. If a child is still exhibiting difficult behaviors past this point, there is almost always something else going on, and it is usually related to poor sleep habits or timing, as after four months of age, a baby’s sleep habits change considerably. You can read more about that next stage, here.
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Kristina Amerikaner is the (mostly) rested mom of two and a certified pediatric sleep consultant with Good Night Sleep Site New Jersey. You can also connect with her on Facebook or over on that newfangled contraption known as Twitter. When not thinking about sleep (yours and hers), she loves reading, baking, and tackling The New York Times crossword puzzle. She lives with her family in Northern New Jersey, her native state.

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