Does Your Baby Have Colic or Acid Reflux? Here’s the Difference

Does Your Baby Have Colic or Acid Reflux? Here’s the Difference

ParentingPublished February 27, 2018 Opinion


We’ve all looked down lovingly at our bulging bellies and daydreamed of what life as a mother would entail—snuggling a soft, relaxed baby who sleeps peacefully when we need to run errands, one who doesn’t spit up on the all-white outfit you just had to have. So imagine my surprise when my imagery of motherhood was splintered almost immediately after my sweet baby boy began to scream until he became hoarse and exhausted—and then screamed some more. I was perplexed; what was wrong? After some research, I narrowed it down to colic or acid reflux. But which one was it? Sometimes, it can be hard to tell.

Is It Colic or Acid Reflux?


Although there are theories on what colic is, ranging from digestive tract inconsistencies to sensory sensitivity in babies, there is no definitive answer. Colic is defined as “crying more than three hours a day, three days a week for three weeks or longer,” according to the Mayo Clinic.1 Although colic is common, there is no treatment and often no way to comfort baby during these crying bouts.

Acid Reflux

Acid reflux is common in babies and adults and is caused by stomach contents reintroducing themselves into the esophagus. Since babies have an underdeveloped esophageal sphincter, they are more susceptible to the discomfort and frustration of this condition. The most common symptoms are:

  • Thick or chunky, spit-up and/or vomit that can be volatile and look undigested
  • Refusal or irritability to eat in the form of crying or tightening of the body
  • Inability to gain weight or weight increase from self-soothing with comfort nursing
  • Frequent coughing fits and gagging
  • Wet burps accompanied by an unpleasant expression

Being a first-time mother, I was unaware of what was particularly deemed normal behavior of newborns. It was becoming all too much to handle, but I was embarrassed to admit it to anyone. I was losing sleep as well as my self-confidence in being a mother. Additionally, I lost the ability to perform even the slightest of daily tasks because I tried to calm my baby for hours each day. I knew something wasn’t quite right when he was five weeks old. After researching his symptoms, I anticipated it was colic but set out for guidance from his pediatrician. After a few visits to his routine doctor to no avail, I made an appointment with a different care provider on a whim to seek a resolution.

Follow your gut.

It took the doctor only moments to agree that my son was distressed. The doctor determined he needed the aid of medicine.2 When he diagnosed my son with acid reflux, my heart shattered knowing the pain he was in. But I was relieved to know there were some answers to our problems.

Symptom Overlap

Colic and Acid Reflux, or GERD, in babies can have a lot of similarities on the surface:1,2,3

  • High-pitched crying bouts that peak at certain times and last several hours
  • Fist clenching, drawing knees up toward stomach or chest, arching back
  • Unable to be soothed with feeding or movement
  • Tightening of stomach muscles
  • Disturbance of sleep
  • Flushed face when crying

You are often encouraged to make an immediate appointment with your children’s pediatrician if you believe they have colic. They will want to make sure that baby doesn’t have another underlying health problem, such as reflux.

My son’s pediatrician gave me a few of the following tips to ease his symptoms in conjunction with his medication:

  • Feed more frequently with smaller portions
  • Elevate baby immediately after feeding by swinging or by propping up in a sitting position to allow gravity to help keep stomach contents down
  • Burp the baby after every ounce from a bottle or 2-5 minutes to alleviate discomfort
  • If formula-fed, switch to a hypoallergenic blend as regulated by your doctor
  • For sleepless babies, place them at a slight angle, so their head is above their chest
  • Wearing baby and applying pressure on their stomach can help to ease pain
  • Use blended rice or oat powder to help keep their stomach full and contents down
  • Melting a bit of star peppermint into a baby bottle can help to soothe stomach discomfort

After regulating his medicine and following the tips above, we slowly decreased the dosage weeks later until he could stop altogether. Now my cheerful, giggly, always grinning baby boy is eight months old, and you’d never even fathom he was once unable to smile.


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