Baby Colic?

Baby colic refers to excessive crying in infants usually between three weeks and three months of age (sometimes starting earlier and lasting longer). Babies are naturally fussy around this time which means they are more likely to cry. It has also been referred to as the period of PURPLE CRYING which is a term I really like as it describes what is happening so clearly. Some babies cry a little bit and some babies cry a lot and this is what has been referred to as colic or more correctly excessive crying of infancy or the period of PURPLE crying.

This page covers general information about excessive crying of infancy which is also known as infantile colic as well as basic strategies you can try to settle your baby.


What is Baby Colic?

Colic describes a condition in babies where they cry excessively. It is also known as Excessive Crying of Infancy, which describes the condition well - the screaming baby. All infants cry, especially around 6-8 weeks of age, called the fussy period (or the period of PURPLE crying). Some cry more than others and when the condition is excessive, we call it colic but this is just a name that can as easily be referred to as excessive crying or even the severe end of the PURPLE crying spectrum. There is no physical abnormality of the gut.

Babies do cry for other reasons as well, such as gastroesophageal reflux (read more) and sometimes even allergy (read more). Colic refers to crying that is not caused by other conditions. 

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What is the Period of PURPLE CRYING?

The period of PURPLE CRYING is a way of remembering what happens in infants with regards to crying and it also reminds us that this is a period of time - that means there will be an end. All infants to a certain degree have this crying or fussy stage - those who have it excessively are the babies often referred to as having colic or excessive crying of infancy.

The letters of the word PURPLE remind us of the features of this normal crying tendency:

  • P - there an increase in crying every week from about 2 weeks until a Peak that occurs at about 2 months of age before gradually reducing over the next few weeks
  • U - the episodes are Unexpected. The episodes of crying can come and go and you can't really find a cause for the crying and they seem unpredictable and unexplained
  • R - the episodes Resist soothing so there seems nothing you can do to help or settle your baby
  • P - the baby often looks in Pain although they are not, so they may grimace or pull up their legs
  • L - the periods of crying can be Long - even up to 5 hours at a time
  • E - the episodes often occur in the Evening

To read more on PURPLE crying, click here.

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How is colic diagnosed?

We diagnose colic from the history (the story of the crying) and the absence of other conditions. Colic is usually most noticeable in babies between 3 weeks of age and 3 months of age. In research studies, colic is said to occur when there is crying for more than 3 hours per day, on more than 3 days per week, for more than 3 weeks. So that is a lot of crying! However, the key is excessive crying at a time when crying is common anyway. There are no tests for baby colic. The good news is that it will eventually get better by itself, usually by 3-5 months of age, so a common treatment for colic is just to wait.

Your doctor will have considered the possibility of other conditions before diagnosing colic.

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How do I know the crying is due to baby colic?

Colicky babies are usually very well and doing everything normally until they cry. You will start to notice a pattern, so when your baby cries, he does so for a long time and is often difficult to settle, but when he does settle, he is perfectly well and normal for hours. Colicky babies don't always have their crying spell in the afternoon or early evening but they often do. Afternoons can be a bad time for mums - they are often tired and have lots to do - like think about dinner. So, that only makes the colic seem worse.

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What causes the colicky baby to cry?

We don't really know what causes colicky babies to cry. There is the theory that the crying relates to abdominal discomfort, as babies often draw up their legs. The discomfort is thought to be due to gas as passing wind often eases the discomfort. Some people think it is an allergic response of some kind (perhaps to the milk), that may cause spasm in the bowel.

The truth is, nobody really knows what the cause is. All babies go through this period of crying but some babies only cry a little and some cry a lot and in these cases, baby colic is often diagnosed.

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Why can't I calm my baby who has colic?

Once colicky babies start crying, it can be very difficult to settle them. It is not anything you as a mum have done or not done. It is really important that you don't feel guilty in any way that your baby is crying. It's not your fault and your baby will get over it. This will not lead to a maladjusted child. As you see in the PURPLE crying list, sometimes nothing works to soothe your baby.

Keeping calm yourself is an important part of treatment for baby colic (or for PURPLE crying).

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What can I do to soothe my crying baby?

  • Stay as calm as possible. This is not your fault and your baby is sensitive to your emotions so becoming anxious will only make it worse.
  • Speak softly and calmly to your baby - let him hear your voice.
  • Check for the usual things that make babies cry - for example, does your baby need a diaper (nappy) change? Read more
  • Gently rock or hold your baby in your arms or in a baby sling. Slings are a simple treatment for baby colic.
  • Let your baby suck from the breast or bottle if they are hungry. If you are breast-feeding, let your baby empty one breast per feed rather than letting him feed from both breasts.
  • Feed your baby on demand. This is another simple but effective treatment for baby colic.
  • If your baby is feeding from a bottle, make sure he is upright when he feeds
  • Wind (burp) your baby if he has just had a feed. He may be uncomfortable. Burp your baby during feeding as well.
  • If your baby is not hungry, he may settle with a pacifier (also known as a dummy in the UK and Australasia).
  • Massage your baby's tummy. Use circular movements in a clockwise direction.
  • Try taking your baby for a walk in a stroller (pushchair). This is another simple but effective treatment for baby colic and you will get some fresh air and exercise as well.
  • Some babies settle with noise like a vacuum cleaner or hair dryer - you could try switching the vacuum on.
  • If you feel tense, take a break from your baby if you can. Maybe someone can come and look after your baby for a few hours to give you a break. Maybe Dad can be in charge of the baby for a couple of hours when he gets home.
  • If there is nobody else at home and you feel tense or frustrated, put your baby in the crib (cot) and walk into another room until you feel calmer
  • Remember, never shake a baby.

It is important to remain in the moment (remain present). I have written a little poem that you could recite to your baby which may keep you in the present moment and the cadence may help soothe your baby. You are welcome to download to use if you find it helpful.

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What is the best way to hold a baby with colic?

Whatever way works is OK, but I use the baby colic hold which I find to be a very helpful treatment for baby colic: I put one hand (I use my right hand as I'm right-handed) between the baby's legs and have my palm on his tummy. Then I let the baby's head rest on my other arm as I bring the other hand down. I find this is a very comfortable way of holding a baby and it often helps to stop the crying. The baby gets to view the world as well, which can distract him. The photos below demonstrate the first and final steps to this hold. 


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What treatments are available for baby colic?

There have been many treatments recommended for colic but no treatment works all the time in all babies. Some treatments will work sometimes in some babies. If you do the simple things outlined above as treatment for baby colic and wait, the colic will get better.

To find out more about the various other treatments, including medications, that have been used and what the research says about them, visit the baby colic treatment page - to go there now, click here.

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To go to the top of the Baby Colic page, click here

To go to the Colic Treatment page, click here

To go to the Crying page, click here

To go to the Newborn Baby problem page, click here

To return to the Home page, click here

Last reviewed 19 March 2013

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Dr Maud MD

Dr Maud MD (MBChB, FRACP, FRCPCH), a specialist pediatrician, provides health information and medical advice for parents of babies and toddlers. Read more about Dr Maud.

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