Colic vs Reflux: What Are the Differences?

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Published On
12 Dec, 2023
Read Time
4 minutes

Two common terms you may hear as a new parent are colic and reflux. While they may sound similar, they are actually two distinct conditions that can cause different symptoms in your baby.

It's important to understand the differences between the two so you can look after your baby. Let's explore the differences between colic and reflux and offer some tips on how to manage each condition.

Is it colic or reflux?

The symptoms of colic and reflux can be very similar and lots of parents struggle to identify which problem their baby is suffering from. Let's run through the key symptoms and causes of colic and reflux to help you out.

What is colic?

Colic is excessive crying in infancy without a known cause. Young babies can get it from around two weeks of age, and it can last until they reach six months old.

Signs and symptoms of colic

The signs and symptoms of colic include baby:

  • crying inconsolably
  • becoming red in the face
  • clenching their fists
  • arching their back or bringing their knees up to their tummy
  • having a rumbly stomach or lots of wind

Causes of colic

The exact cause of colic in babies isn't known, but it's thought that it may be caused by digestive upsets like a build-up of gas due to:

  • allergies
  • intolerances
  • baby's digestive system not being fully developed
  • an imbalance of gut bacteria

In some cases, it may also be caused by overstimulation. It can understandably take newborn babies time to adjust to life outside the womb.

What is reflux?

Reflux – also sometimes known as posseting or spitting up – in babies is a common condition where the contents of the stomach move back up into the esophagus, causing uncomfortable, heartburn-like pain, and sometimes vomiting that comes out of baby's mouth or nose.

Babies usually start getting reflux before they're eight weeks old. You should see your GP if your baby gets reflux for the first time after they're six months old.

Signs and symptoms of reflux

Distinguishing between reflux and colic in babies can be difficult, so it's important to learn about the differences between them. Your baby may have reflux if they are:

  • unsettled or coughing while feeding
  • vomiting up milk during or after feeding
  • gulping or swallowing after burping and feeding
  • not gaining weight as expected
  • unable to be soothed when crying

Causes of reflux

Reflux usually starts in babies who are under eight weeks old as the muscles of their esophagus (food pipe) haven’t developed properly, meaning that milk and stomach acids can travel back up.

What is silent reflux?

Sometimes babies can show signs of reflux, but don’t spit out milk or visibly be sick. Instead, they swallow it. This is known as silent reflux. In cases of silent reflux, it's less obvious to parents and carers what's happening, but still painful and unpleasant for baby.

Treating colic

Regular winding, soothing them by rocking or cuddling, baby massage, skin-to-skin contact, and using an anti-colic bottle can all help to soothe colic. We have a dedicated guide to helping a baby with colic which goes into each in more detail.

Treating reflux

Babies with reflux who are happy, healthy, and gaining weight usually don’t need to see a doctor, but there are a few techniques you can try at home to help soothe and settle their symptoms.

  • Keep your baby upright during and after feeding: Feeding and keeping baby in an upright position after feeding (ideally at least one hour) means that gravity can help keep the milk down. If your baby is breastfed and experiencing reflux, it may help to give a different breastfeeding position a go.
  • Feed your baby slowly: Practising paced feeding, feeding your baby slowly, and giving formula-fed babies smaller feeds more often if they're formula-fed helps to prevent their tummy from becoming too full.
  • Wind your baby regularly: Burping your baby regularly during and after feeds helps to release any trapped wind that may be making them uncomfortable.
  • Keep a diary of feeds and symptoms: Recording your baby's feeds and symptoms in diary form can be helpful for the doctor to review if your baby is struggling to gain weight.
  • Make sure they sleep on their back: Young babies who can't yet roll from their front to their back independently should always lie on their back – not their front or side – to sleep and never raise the head of their cot or Moses basket. 

When do colic and reflux end?

Whether your baby has colic or reflux, the good news is that they don’t last forever, and most babies naturally grow out of them without treatment.

Colic symptoms usually ease when a baby is five or six months old, and reflux usually stops by the time a baby is one year old. However, if you're worried about your baby at any stage, you shouldn’t hesitate to ask your doctor for advice and support.