All babies cry — it's one of the main ways they communicate. But some babies cry more than others do. And some, although they're healthy, well-fed and well cared for, seem to cry inconsolably. If your baby cries about the same time each day and nothing you do seems to comfort him or her, your baby may have colic.

What is it?

Colic isn't a disease, but a pattern of excessive crying with no apparent cause. This frustrating and largely unexplained condition affects about one in 10 infants. Colic usually starts a few weeks after birth, peaks at about 6 weeks of age and usually improves markedly by your baby's third to fifth month.

Although colic can be extremely distressing for both you and your child, you can take comfort in the fact that it's not permanent. In fact, in a matter of weeks, when your baby is happier and sleeping better, you'll have weathered one of the first major challenges of parenthood.

What causes it?

No one really knows what causes colic. Researchers have explored a number of possibilities, including:

  • Cow's milk allergies or intolerance.
  • An immature digestive system that causes unusually strong intestinal contractions.
  • Food backing up into the oesophagus — the passage connecting your baby's mouth and stomach.
  • Increased intestinal gas.
  • Hormonal changes in your baby.
  • The diet of mothers who breast-feed.
  • Your baby's temperament.
  • Maternal anxiety.
  • Postpartum depression.
  • Differences in the way your baby is fed or comforted.

Yet it's still unclear why some babies have colic and others don't. If your baby does have colic, it's important to remember that it's not your fault.

What are the symptoms?

Although some people use the word “colicky” to describe any fussy baby, a truly colicky baby is an otherwise healthy, growing infant younger than 4 months of age with very specific signs and symptoms. These include:

  • Predictable, recurring crying episoedes. A colicky baby cries around the same time each day, usually in the late afternoon or evening. Colic episodes may last anywhere from a few minutes to three hours or more on any given day, although babies with colic are likely to cry as long as two to three hours several days a week. The crying usually begins suddenly and for no clear reason. Your baby may have a bowel movement or pass gas near the end of the colic episode.
  • Activity. Many colicky babies draw their legs onto their abdomens, clench their fists, tense their abdominal muscles, or thrash around and appear to be in pain during these crying episodes.
  • Intense or inconsolable crying. Colic crying is intense, not weak or sickly. Your baby's face will likely be flushed, and he or she will be extremely difficult, if not impossible, to comfort.

If your baby is premature and develops colic, the crying episodes will likely start about six to eight weeks after your original due date. Because premature infants tend to be quiet and sleepy at first, you may worry that your baby is developing a serious problem if he or she suddenly turns colicky. That's possible but not likely. It's more likely that your preemie is just becoming more mature — and this sometimes includes developing colic.

Are there any natural therapies?

In general, prescription medications haven't proved very helpful for colic, and some can have serious side effects. Even antacids with bicarbonate can be dangerous if used for long periods of time or in high doses.

Experiment to discover what works best to ease your child's colic. Remember, what works at one time may not work at another. Here are some ideas to try:

  • Offer food.
  • Offer a pacifier.
  • Try plain water.
  • Hold your baby – cuddling helps some babies.
  • Keep you infant in motion – gentle rocking.
  • Sing to your baby.
  • Try constant background sound.

What else can I do?

Caring for an infant, especially a colicky one, can be exhausting and stressful, especially for first-time parents. These suggestions may help:

  • Get backup care.
  • Express your feelings.
  • Tryto stay positive.
  • Try not to think of you baby's crying as a cry for help.

Did you know?

We do not know whether colicky babies are in pain or not, but they sure seem to be, and that can really stress out parents. Keep in mind that your baby may not actually be in pain or distress, but just doing what they need to do for their immature nervous systems.