Despite what pediatricians have been telling beleaguered parents for years, colic may more than just a benign nuisance. “Few common afflictions of infancy may be as difficult to endure,” writes Dr. Jerome Groopman, the Recanti Professor at Harvard University in an article aptly entitled “Crybabies,” that appears in the Sept. 17 issue of The New Yorker.
“Here is something that has no known cause and no known treatment,” says Barry Lester, an expert on colic and a professor of psychiatry and pediatrics at Brown University. “What could be more frustrating? For years and years, the mantra from doctors has been ‘Bite the bullet.’ The fact is, this message to mothers is devastating.
Doctors don’t understand what causes colic, but they know it when they see it. They look for “The Rule of Threes”: crying by an otherwise healthy infant that lasts more than three hours a day, more than three days a week, for more than three weeks. As many as twenty per cent of American and European infants are thought to suffer from the condition, the article says.
Lester, who works with parents at the colic clinic at the Brown Center for the Study of Children at Risk, says that colic can leave a lasting impact on mothers and children. “At the center, we look at how colic is affecting not just the baby but the parent-infant relationship,” he says. “The crying will stop, but the relationship risks becoming disordered, and this can have a lasting effect on the child.”
Without help from doctors, parents of colicky babies often turn to parenting advice experts for help. In their book on attachment parenting, Dr. William Sears and his wife Martha advise parents to perform various maneuvers with their infants, including “the colic dance,” “the colic curl,” and “the ‘I Love U’ touch.” However, Groopman says there is little evidence that physical maneuvers can soothe a colicky infant, and “such advice may simply make exhausted parents who fail to follow it feel worse.”
Lester believes that some infants who suffer from colic are “hypersensitive to normal stimuli”: they perceive and react to changes in their bodies (such as hunger or gas pangs) or in their environment (such as loud noises or the experience of being touched) more acutely than do other babies, the article says. Lester speculates physical contact with parents is unlikely to soothe colicky babies, a theory that may be supported by data from societies in which babies are held continuously.
Ronald Barr, a professor at the University of British Columbia, has analyzed data gathered by Harvard researchers between 1969 and 1971, during a study of the !Kung San, a tribe of hunter-gatherers in Botswana who practice a version of attachment parenting. “We found that the !Kung San carry their babies upright, have skin-to-skin contact by day and night, breastfeed every 13.69 minutes for the first one to two years of life, and respond within fifteen seconds to any fret or whimper,” says Barr. “The duration of the crying is fifty per cent less among the !Kung San compared with Western babies, but the !Kung San still have what we call colic, with episodes of inconsolable crying.”
Other studies have shown similar results: Babies whose parents practice a version of attachment parenting do cry less, but among those groups, there are still babies who experience inconsolable crying. The attachment parenting method does not seem to work as a cure for colic.
Lester tells parents that, instead of going to their babies every time they cry, they need to teach their babies to soothe themselves, the article says. As he puts it, the infants must learn to “self-regulate.” Lester’s approach is practical rather than medical; he doesn’t claim to be able to cure colic. But, by giving parents permission to put their babies down, he is treating the family members who may be suffering most, Groopman writes.
The article says that some afflicted infants may be at risk of developing behavioral problems as children, in part, because colic affects the way parents interact with them as babies. “Colic threatens to cause problems in the child’s ability to form relationships, because the child doesn’t learn behavioral regulation and develops problems with impulse control,” Lester said. “It starts out with crying, and then, when the child is older, he doesn’t control his emotions very well.”
In his book, “Why Is My Baby Crying? The Parent’s Survival Guide for Coping with Crying Problems and Colic” (2005), Lester writes, “Our research, as well as plenty of others’ – had shown that these babies are more likely to have difficult temperaments and to experience feeding and sleeping problems…They can go on to have behavior issues in preschool and problems later on in school with attention/hyperactivity, sensory integration, and emotional reactivity.”
The article says there have been only few long-range studies of colicky infants. One comes from researchers at the University of Turku, in Finland. The study surveyed parents of children starting from three months until three years of age. Among the children, 338 infants had colic compared with 866 who did not.
The parents of previously colicky infants were found to be more dissatisfied with family life and the amount of time they had for both leisure and shared activities than were the parents of children who had not had colic. Mothers regarded the fathers’ contribution to the household as less adequate compared with the non-colic group, and their children, at the age of three, were more likely to sleep in their parents’ bedroom. Moreover, the three-year olds in the colic group had significantly greater difficulty falling asleep and more frequent temper tantrums. The Finnish researchers concluded that the children’s problems were likely related to behaviors that began during the period when the infant had colic and were not the result of the colic itself.
It just seems tragic that parents aren’t given more help when they are dealing with this. To be saddled with inconsolable crying right out of the gate is basically torture. I’m curious to know what parents who have had colicky babies think of this article. Is it breaking new ground?