What is Colic and its Causes with Dr. Deena, Colic Expert

If you’ve noticed that your baby is crying more and more as they enter their third week of life, you may be wondering if colic is the culprit. While it’s completely natural for all babies to increase their crying during this time in their development, there are criteria doctors use to determine if it’s one of the signs of colic—and there are things you can do to ease baby’s crying and help them calm down.

To help new parents solve the conundrum of the causes of colic, we’re thrilled to partner with renowned pediatrician and colic expert, Dr. Deena Blanchard, MD, MPH. Recipient of the Alpha Omega Alpha and American Medical Women’s Association Glascow-Rubin Achievement awards, Dr. Deena is passionate about colic, breastfeeding, and child development, and has shared her knowledge through live appearances on CBS, Health.com Live, and CUNY-TV.

3am Club: Hi Dr. Deena! Excited to have you join the NUK 3am Club as our Colic Expert. Let’s get right to helping new parents. First off, what is colic and how do parents know that is what they’re dealing with?

Dr. Deena: When your little one is crying and appears uncomfortable, five minutes can feel like an eternity. Most babies ages three weeks until around thirteen weeks tend to be fussier and cry a bit more than they had previously. Every baby is different. There will be some babies who cry or fuss a little bit more and others who will cry a lot more during this stage of life.

There is no exact definition of the term “colic.” Colic is not an illness or a reflection of the long-term emotional or physical health of your little one. One method used to define colic is the Wessel criteria, more commonly known as “the rule of threes.” This means crying for no exact reason for greater than three hours a day, on greater than three days a week in a healthy baby less than three months old.

In general, babies on the fussier side tend to have a “witching hour” during which they cry more. This is often early evening, and the crying episodes tend to have a relatively clear beginning and end. The start of the crying episodes is not typically linked to any specific behavior. The crying is typically higher pitched, and infants are difficult to console during these episodes. It may even seem like your little one is resisting being soothed. The crying can ebb and flow throughout these episodes with intermittent periods of fussiness.

The good news is that, as challenging as it can be, colic is not dangerous and will resolve with time.

3am Club: How common is colic?

Dr. Deena: There is a wide range of estimates for how many babies will show signs of colic. The range varies from eight to up to forty percent of babies! More detailed studies have narrowed this number down to about seventeen to twenty-five percent of babies less than six weeks old, eleven percent of babies eight to nine weeks old and down to 0.6 percent of babies ages ten to twelve weeks old. The good news is that colic improves over time!

3am Club: And what causes colic?

Dr. Deena: No one knows for sure what causes colic in some babies and not others. One thing we do know is that parents do not cause their little ones to have increased crying/colic. There are a few theories that have been proposed about the cause of colic. None of these theories have proven to be conclusive and therefore the thought is there are likely multiple factors that contribute to babies having colic. Some theories for the cause of colic include:

  • Colic is related to feeding techniques such as overfeeding, infrequent burping, and swallowing of air during feedings. There is a study that found infants fed with an anti-vacuum bottle were more content during waking hours than infants fed with a conventional bottle.

  • Infant nervous systems are developing rapidly but are overall immature. Another theory suggests that colic may be caused by infants naturally having immature bowel systems.

  • There are “good” bacteria that live in our bowel and help with digestion. It takes time for your little one’s intestines to start to build up the levels of “good” bacteria (probiotics).

3am Club: If parents think their baby has colic, what’s the first thing they should do?

Dr. Deena: If you think your little one may have colic, it is always best to touch base with your pediatrician to discuss the symptoms your baby is experiencing. Your pediatrician will want to rule out other medical conditions that can lead to increased crying/fussiness, such as a milk protein intolerance or reflux.

If your baby is experiencing any of the following symptoms, it is important to contact your doctor right away. These symptoms can be signs of conditions that require more urgent discussion and evaluation:

  • Blood in the stool

  • Vomiting anything dark green like the color of a Christmas tree

  • Rectal temperature of 100.4 or greater in the first 12 weeks of life

  • Persistent forceful vomiting

  • If your baby has not urinated in over 6 hours

  • If your baby is refusing to feed

  • If your baby is having difficulty breathing

  • Or if you have other concerns. It is important to trust your gut as a parent. You know your baby best. If you are worried it is always better to call and be safe.

3am Club: Thanks Dr. Deena! Is there anything else parents should know to help them understand colic?

Dr. Deena: The most important takeaway is that colic is not harmful to your baby in the short or long term. But it is challenging and frustrating as a parent. If you have a baby with colic, please try to remind yourself, it is NOT your fault. There is nothing you have done to cause this. And, thankfully, colic is time-limited and will resolve on its own by around three to four months of age.