Is It Crying or Colic? How to Tell the Difference

crying baby

Let's say your baby's crying -- again. Only this time, instead of eventually petering out, he keeps going ... and going. You've tried bouncing, singing, funny faces, even a long car trip with no ebb in your baby's angst. Your addled mind starts circling the dreaded C-word -- colic -- only you aren't even sure exactly what that is, or what's the difference between colic and plain old crying.


In a nutshell, colic is defined as "excessive crying" for no medical reason. About 15 to 20 percent of infants are colicky, and symptoms tend to be most prevalent between the ages of 3 weeks and 3 months. Only what does "excessive crying" mean exactly? Here are the details:

It might be colic if ...

  • Your baby cries for two or more hours a day, two or more days a week.
  • Your baby tends to cry most during the evening hours.
  • Nothing concrete is causing the baby discomfort. For a long time, colic was thought to be caused by gas, stomach aches, food allergies, or acid reflux. Only these health problems can cause excessive crying that's not related to colic -- which, by definition, has no clear medical cause. So if your baby's crying is accompanied by other behaviors -- arched back (a sign of reflux) or pulling up the legs (gas) -- then colic is likely not the culprit.

While the cause of colic is far from clear, many think it has to do with the baby's brain.

"Some babies' brains just aren't able to accommodate the stimulation we have in the modern world," says Ben Hoffman, MD, a pediatrician at Oregon Health & Science University. "With all the ambient noise, lighting, and conversations at Starbucks, the baby brain, for lack of a better word, needs to freak out and reboot."

If you suspect your baby has colic, make an appointment with your pediatrician so you can first rule out more obvious causes you might not be seeing yourself.

"Colic is a diagnosis of exclusion," says Dr. Hoffman. "That means that if your baby's crying is due to gas, GI problems, reflux, or some other pain, an intervention will work." If they don't, that means your baby has colic -- and while there is no treatment, there are things you can do to curb the symptoms.

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"Since we think colic is due to mental overload, it can help to keep a baby in a calm, quiet environment," says Hoffman. Gentle, repetitive movements, like in a swing, stroller, or car, can also lull baby into a better mood. Or feel free to experiment with what you think works best.

"I had one patient who traveled around with an industrial hairdryer," says Cheryl Wu, MD, a pediatrician in New York. "Whenever his baby cried, he blew it on his baby's face and she'd immediately stop."

The good news? Colic is just a phase -- albeit a trying one -- that typically ends by 6 months. It has no long-term adverse effects on your baby (or on you -- you'll be joking about it someday, promise!). 

"I always tell parents that colicky babies grow into spirited toddlers," says Dr. Wu. 

Do you think your baby had colic?


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