Colic is one of the most misused and incorrectly defined labels ascribed to babies. In fact, it’s SO commonly misapplied that many of the top search results on Google for “colicky baby” are wrong.

You’ve probably heard “colicky” and “fussy” used interchangeably, but the truth is, they are not synonymous! Colicky babies fuss, but not all fussy babies are colicky.

And actually, it’s a really big deal. Big enough that I’ve dedicated an entire article to the issue. If you want to know what the difference is between colicky and fussy babies, and why this distinction is so important, keep reading.

In this post, I’m going to share with you the actual definition of colic and what it looks like so that you know if your baby has it, and some tactics you can use to help mitigate it. I’ll also share with you what a fussy baby looks like and give you unique strategies to calm your baby’s fussing, even if you don’t have a “fussy baby” per se.

By way of disclaimer, I am not a medical professional, licensed or otherwise, so absolutely consult with a physician about issues your baby is experiencing and trust your instincts.

Is Your Baby Colicky or Fussy? There is a Difference!

The Colicky Baby Defined

Before I get into the explanation for why it’s so critical to understand the difference between colic and fussiness, you need to know what that difference is. Let’s start by defining colic.

The wrong/incomplete definition for colic

Just about any Google result (and even some medical/academic journals) will tell you that a colicky baby is one who cries frequently or for prolonged periods of time even though otherwise healthy. Well sure, that’s true, but it doesn’t give you the full picture. Yet, that’s where the explanation all too often stops, leaving parents with the impression that a baby who cries “too much” should be labeled as colicky.

What colic actually is

If you search “colic definition” as opposed to “colicky baby” in your search engine, you will get startlingly different results. Or at least, I did. When you search for colicky baby, your browser brings up the standard “healthy baby who cries a lot” answer.

Even the Mayo Clinic says, “Colic is frequent, prolonged and intense crying or fussiness in a healthy infant.” No. That is a symptom or result of colic. It is an indicator of colic, not colic itself. Colic is not just prolonged or intense crying. If that’s the case, I get colic watching Grey’s Anatomy.

Colic is pain. The very word colic is derived from the Greek word kolikos, meaning suffering in the colon. The dictionary definition of colic is:

“Severe, often fluctuating pain in the abdomen caused by intestinal gas or obstruction in the intestines and suffered especially by babies.”

from the Lexico Oxford Dictionary

A colicky baby is a hurting baby. The reason for “prolonged, intense crying” isn’t unknown as so many outdated sources cite. The cause is medical: it’s pain.

While colic is not a specific diagnosis of a singular condition, it is a medical problem, not just an undesirable behavior.

How can you tell if a baby has colic?

Wondering if your baby has colic? Practically any parent with a truly colicky baby can tell you: You don’t have to wonder. When a baby is in the type of excruciating pain caused by colic, there is no doubt your baby is hurting.

Here are a few definitive signs your baby has colic:

  • Your baby won’t be calmed or soothed by even your best efforts/doesn’t respond to attachment parenting
  • Your baby suffers through obvious “attacks” of pain or spasms
  • Your baby arches and stiffens through the attack
  • Your baby shrieks and screams far beyond the intensity of normal crying
  • Your baby pulls his knees up toward his chest/tummy
  • Your baby wakes up in pain
  • Crying spells are not limited to the evening or “witching hour” (they occur during the night as well)
  • Your instincts tell you your baby is in physical pain

Possible causes of colic

Until fairly recently, doctors had no idea what caused colic, or why babies could scream violently without comfort.

Some schools of thought (around the mid-twentieth century or so) even believed that colic was caused by a mother’s over-handling (i.e. holding a baby too much) and that colic could be reduced if “over-anxious” mothers were properly educated on infant care (translate: trained to harden their hearts the their babies cries).

We know now (and many instinctive mothers knew even then) that such an explanation is preposterous. Colic is not a result of spoiling.

The traditional understanding of colic is that it is pain caused by a kink or spasm in the intestine, but the reason itself is unknown, or at least, not directly related to one single cause.

While colic is not an exclusive diagnosis, there are a few specific medical causes that could be behind colic or cause colic-like symptoms.

Spasms or kinks in the intestines

For quite some time, physicians and researchers have recognized gut problems as the common denominator in colic, and early on, identified the occurrence intestinal spasms and/or kinks. These may or may not be related to gas, depending on the baby, but they are very likely causes behind a baby’s painful crying.

Food sensitivities or allergies

Extensive research has been done over the last several decades as to whether colic is directly related to food allergies or sensitivities, with most of the focus being on lactose. If you and/or your pediatrician suspect a certain food or food group as the culprit, experiment with your own diet (if breastfeeding) or try using a different infant formula (if formula fed or supplemented). (Do note that many formulas use soy as the alternative to dairy, and soy can have long term negative health consequences for your baby).

GERD (reflux)

GERD stands for gastroesophogeal reflux disease. Reflux is when acids from the stomach back up into the throat and cause an uncomfortable, burning sensation or pain in the chest. You might have experienced something similar during pregnancy.

Unlike the more general term colic, GERD is a specific diagnosis, and has more symptoms than just those associated with colic. Since this isn’t an article devoted to GERD, I won’t go into much more detail for this post, so if you think your baby could have reflux, definitely Google the symptoms and talk to your child’s doctor about it. If your baby has GERD, you will need to make certain changes to ensure your baby’s health and safety.

Gas

A common misconception is that colic/colic-related symptoms are caused by gas, yet the vast majority of babies are gassy while only 1 in 5 suffer from colic. However, it is possible that colic symptoms for some babies could be from gas. Specifically, if a breastfeeding mother has a strong, overactive letdown, a baby may take in too much air trying to keep up with the flow of milk. It should be noted, though, that isolated cases of discomfort caused by gas to not a colicky baby make.

Hypersensitivity/Sensory Processing Disorder

Babies who are hypersensitive to stimulation or have Sensory Processing Disorder may exhibit colic-like symptoms as well. Before attempting more involved changes like diet adjustments or switching formulas, you might want to try reducing stimuli in your baby’s day-to-day routine and see if that helps. Such stimuli may include:

  • Light
  • Scratchy/irritating clothing (even taggies in clothing)
  • Noise
  • Disorganization/mess/clutter

If you suspect or are concerned about Sensory Processing Disorder, it’s definitely something to bring up with your pediatrician as it may warrant additional treatment through directed therapies (later on).

The Fussy Baby Defined

Fussy babies are known for being more temperamental and demanding than their laid back, happy-go-lucky counterparts. A kinder label for such infants is “high-need.”

I’ve written an entire post on the profile of a high-need baby, so I will give you a brief(er) synopsis in this article, and you can go check out that post for more detail.

Here are some of the most common qualities of a high-need/fussy baby:

  • Can’t be put down
  • Goes to sleep with difficulty and wakes up too easily
  • Constantly needs physical contact, but may not be cuddly/affectionate
  • Won’t self-soothe
  • Fussy throughout the day, not just during a distinct “witching hour”
  • Wants to feed ALL. THE. TIME.
  • Sensitive to separation from primary caregivers
  • Constantly active (even during feeds)
  • Exhibits a strong personality (and willpower)
  • Difficult to please/particular/needs things just so
  • Easily angered and prone to tantrums
  • Observant/clever/alert/sensitive
  • Has a knowing/intelligent expression

Think of high-need babies as the go-getters of the baby world. Other babies might have the same desires, but don’t work as hard to communicate them, or will settle for alternative solutions. Not your high-need baby! They know exactly what they want and they will “communicate” those needs to you with painstaking persistence.

Because of this, they are often confused with colicky babies because they tend to cry a lot more than babies are “supposed” to. The main difference is, these babies do not only fuss from physical pain, although a high-need baby absolutely could suffer from colic on top of her neediness. A baby could even develop a more high-need personality because of colic.

Again, if you want to know more about high-need/fussy babies in detail, I’ve written extensively on it in my Profile of a High-Need Baby, so definitely check that out. Besides describing high-need babies, I also discuss the ramifications for moms and the things you can do make your life a heck of a lot easier living with a high-need baby.

Hey mom friend

I’m Katie!

I want to encourage you to find your own parenting style by putting on your mom genes and tailoring your parenting instincts.

I believe that you are the best parent for your child, and I want to help you believe that, too.

If we haven’t met yet, come introduce yourself with an email, or on Instagram!

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