Building Blocks Series: What causes colic in babies?


There has been a lot of research over the years into the causes of colic, however, a defined cause is still unknown. It is likely that a number of psychological, behavioral and biological components may contribute.

What is baby colic caused from?

What causes colic in babies?

Although there is still no defined answer, evidence points towards the following possible factors for colic in baby:

  • Imbalance of gut bacteria and inflammation
  • Allergy or intolerance to cow’s milk formula
  • Allergy or intolerance to breastfeeding mother’s diet
  • Exposure to cigarette smoke
  • First born status

Imbalance of gut bacteria and inflammation

Several studies have revealed that babies with colic have significantly higher levels of bad bacteria and lower levels of good bacteria when compared with babies without colic symptoms. Researchers think that babies with colic experience intestinal pain and inflammation caused by an imbalance of beneficial bacteria. Alterations in baby’s gut bacteria may be influenced by:

  • Antibiotics: given to mother during pregnancy/delivery or to baby after birth, as antibiotics kill the natural intestinal flora.
  • Mode of delivery: cesarean born babies do not acquire potentially beneficial bacteria from the birth canal, as a vaginal born baby would.
  • Formula feeding over breastfeeding: many infant formulas do not contain important prebiotics which are needed for the growth of healthy bacteria in the infant gut. Breastmilk contains a diverse array of prebiotics and beneficial microbes, supporting the development of baby’s gastrointestinal tract.

Allergy or intolerance 

Allergy or intolerance to cow’s milk protein through maternal diet for breastfed babies or infant formula for formula-fed babies may be a contributing factor for colic development in some. Other dietary allergens such as soy, eggs and fish may also contribute to colic symptoms in babies.

Exposure to cigarette smoke

There is a link between maternal smoking and infantile colic, and scientists think that this could be due to exposure to tobacco smoke increasing the hormone motilin which increases gut motility. Elevated blood motilin levels in babies are linked to an increase in risk for gastrointestinal dysregulation, including colic and acid reflux.

Firstborn status

While the mechanism is unknown, there appears to be a link between firstborn status and increased colic risk, as with family tension and parental anxiety.


  1. Lucassen PL et al. Arch Dis Child 2001;84:398-403.
  2. Camilleri M et al. Neurogastroenterol Motil. 2017;29(2):10.
  3. Gordon M et al. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2018 Oct 10;10(10)
  4. Savino F et al. Acta Paediatr. 2004; 93:825–829.
  5. Savino F et al. Acta Paediatr. 2009; 98:1582–1588.
  6. Rhoads JM et al. J Pediatr. 2018;203:55-61.
  7. Kamphorst K et al. J Pediatr. 2020 Oct;225:283-284.
  8. Neu J et al. Clin Perinatol. 2011;38(2):321-331.
  9. Hill DJ et al. . J Allergy Clin Immunol. 1995 Dec;96(6 Pt 1):886-92.
  10. Hill DJ et al. Pediatrics. 2005 Nov;116(5):e709-15.
  11. Shenassa ED et al. Pediatrics 2004;114:e497-505.
  12. Vik T et al. Acta Paediatr 2009;98:1344–8.

Leave a reply