The Truth About Colic

Colic is an old-fashioned term that actually means upset stomach, which it usually isn't, says pediatrician Harvey N. Karp, M.D.

baby crying on dad's shoulder

"Colicky" is a label given to babies who cry and fuss for at least three hours a day. But most experts believe it is an overused, ambiguous term at best. "'Colic' is an old-fashioned term that actually means 'upset stomach,' which it usually isn't," says pediatrician Harvey N. Karp, M.D., author of the book and DVD The Happiest Baby on the Block. "It's starting to be replaced by 'fussy' or 'irritable.'

Related: The New Mom's Survival Guide

"But I think the term should continue to be used in some cases," Karp adds. "About 2 percent of babies have a condition, such as acid reflux or food allergies, that causes them to cry with tummy pain."

The type of hysterical crying erroneously referred to as colic usually begins at 2 to 6 weeks, generally in the late afternoon or early evening, and lasts until the baby is 3 or 4 months old. Why one in five babies cries in this way is a mystery. One theory outlined in the book Your Fussy Baby by pediatrician Marc Weissbluth, M.D., is that babies are born with out-of-sync levels of serotonin and melatonin. Since serotonin is linked to feelings of happiness and calmness, and melatonin regulates wakefulness and sleep, such imbalances could explain why some babies cry and won't sleep. Another theory is that the baby misses the snug quarters, constant rocking and sounds of the womb.

Soothing solutions So you can lose the label, but if you're left with the crying, how do you stop it? Most mothers we interviewed said their best calming tactics involved vibration and noise. Some babies were carried around in slings for hours while their moms vacuumed; others were strapped into bouncy seats on top of clothes dryers. But if nursing, bouncing, holding or using Karp's "Five S's" (see: How to Calm Your Colicky Baby) doesn't work, your baby might indeed have a medical problem, and you should see your doctor.

Still, take heart: Experts and moms say the crying eventually does cease. The key is getting lots of support and company, even if you have to hire it.