Colic 101: What It Is and What to Do

Learn what causes your baby's nonstop crying and how you can soothe her tears.

What Is Colic?

mother holding crying baby

We expect babies to cry. But some newborns, about 15 to 25 percent, cry a whole lot more than others. When these otherwise healthy babies cry excessively and inconsolably for no apparent reason -- they're not sick, hungry, wet, tired, hot, or cold but are inexplicably miserable -- pediatricians call that colic. "It's not really a diagnosis; it's a behavioral observation," says Harvey Karp, MD, creator of the DVD and book, The Happiest Baby on the Block.

Colic is somewhat subjective, and whether your baby's crying is "average" or "excessive" may depend on how much you can endure. But pediatricians generally use the "rule of threes" to determine colic: crying bouts that start when a baby is about 3 weeks old (usually late in the day, although they can occur anytime), lasting for more than three hours a day, on more than three days a week, for more than three weeks in a row. It typically peaks at 6 to 8 weeks and subsides by 3 to 4 months.

Colic isn't a sign that your baby is sick, although things such as reflux, food allergies, and exposure to cigarette smoke can cause further aggravation and tears. Nor is it a sign that your baby has belly pain, although the way she grimaces, clenches her body, arches her back, pulls her legs up, and screams till she's purple can make it seem so. Colicky kids can be gassy. But pediatricians now believe that crying causes gas, rather than the other way around, because babies swallow air when they cry. One way to tell if your baby is in pain or has colic: distract her. "Bad stomach pain doesn't go away when you dance, turn on the hair dryer, or go for a car ride," Dr. Karp says. "So if your child gets better, you know it's not gas or pain."

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