What are the causes of colic?

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What causes colic?

The cause of colic is largely unknown despite a large amount of research on the subject. However, there are a number of accepted theories by health professionals that have been proposed to explain why babies experience colic.

Sensitivity and inability to self-console

One possible explanation is that colic occurs in babies that are particularly sensitive to new stimuli and unable to console themselves when they experience new sensation, or sensations they don’t like (including for example pain, being too hot or cold having a wet nappy or being hungry). Instead they cry excessively. According to this theory colic resolves as the baby grows up and their nervous system matures, because as this occurs the baby learns to self-console.

Food sensitivity

Although uncommon, another possible cause of colic is food sensitivity. A baby could be sensitive to a food in their mother’s diet (if they are breastfed) or ingredients in their infant formula. These foods include dairy products, caffeine, onions and gassy foods, for example, cabbage.

Mother settling crying baby More information on how mother’s diet may affect baby colic 

Disease

Although colic is not caused by a disease, other diseases may produce similar, fussy, unsettled behaviour in babies. It is therefore important for parents with crying unsettled babies to visit their doctor if the symptoms do not resolve, or if they do not follow the typical pattern of colic symptoms. Even if the symptoms do occur in the typical colic pattern, it’s important to see your doctor and make sure there is not another illness causing baby’s symptoms. Once your doctor has checked your baby you can rest assured that no matter how distressing it is for you, your baby’s crying will resolve relatively quickly, typically by 3 months of age.

Less than 5% of colicky babies are diagnosed with a disease. These conditions include: 

  • gastro-intestinal disorders such as gastro-oesophageal reflux disorder
  • hernia, a condition in which an internal organ (usually between the chest and hips) pushes itself out of its correct place;
  • allergies (especially to milk, including milk in their breastfeeding mother’s diet)
  • infection, including of the ear and urinary tract;
  • nervous system disorders, including immature nervous system; and
  • nappy rash or another source of irritation.

There is evidence that the mother smoking increases the risk of colic. Symptoms of a hernia may also mimic colic symptoms.

Things that don’t cause colic

Feeding patterns

There is no evidence to show that changing the pattern of feeding a baby influences the likelihood of a baby developing colic.

Breast or bottle feeding

Colic occurs in babies who are bottle fed and in babies who are breastfed.

Parenting style

An unsettled crying baby can be very distressing for parents. Some might wonder if they are doing something wrong to cause their baby to cry. It’s good to check with a health professional, that factors like being hungry, too hot or cold or a condition such as gastro-oesophageal reflux are not causing baby to cry. Holding your baby may help and some babies may cry more often for comfort and closeness to a parent or caregiver. However, there is no evidence to suggest that carrying a baby for longer periods (up to 3 hours) reduces crying (although evidence suggests it increases stress for parents). But rest assured that colic is not your fault and does not mean your baby is rejecting you.

Baby’s sex

Infant colic is not caused by a baby’s sex. Baby boys and baby girls are equally likely to experience colic.

(Kindly reviewed by Annie McArdle RN, RM, CHN, Master Adv. Prac. (Healthcare Research); Clinical Midwife at Mater Mothers’ Private Brisbane with over 25 years’ experience in parent information and education.)

More information

crying baby, infant colic To read more about infant colic, what it is, causes and how to treat it, visit Infant Colic.

References

  1. Australian Capital Territory Government Department of Health. Colic. 2015. [cited 31 July 2016. Available from: (URL Link)
  2. American Academy of Pediatrics. Colic relief tips for parents. 2015. (cited 31 July 2016). Available from: (URL Link)
  3. Raising Children Network. Colic- What is it? 2015 (cited 7 August 2016) Available from: (URL Link)
  4. Lucassen, P. Colic in Infants. BMJ Clin Evid. 2010; 0309. [Full Text]
  5. National Health Service. Colic. 2015. (cited 28 August 2016). Available from: (URL Link)
  6. Queensland Health. Clinical Nutrition. Chapter 7 in A healthy Start in Life. 2008. (cited 7 August 2016). Available from: (URL Link)
  7. Raising Children’s Hospital. Crying and Unsettled Babies. Undated. (Cited 18 September 2016). Available from: (URL Link)
  8. Seattle Children’s Hospital Research Foundation. Should your child see a doctor? Crying baby before three months of age. 2016. (cited 18 September 2016). Available from: (URL Link)
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Date Created: October 14, 2016 Date Modified: October 20, 2017