Colicky Babies May Be More 'Emotional' Later

From the WebMD Archives

March 13, 2000 (Atlanta) -- Children who suffered from colic as infants seem to have no long-term complications, but they may be more likely to pitch temper tantrums later in childhood, say researchers from Sweden.

Their study, published in the journal Acta Paediatrica, looked at 50 children who had colic, along with 100 who didn't. The researchers found that by age 4, the colicky and noncolicky children were essentially the same in eating and sleeping habits, temperament, and behavior -- except for emotional outbursts.

"We discovered the excolicky children were much more emotional," researcher Catarina Canivet, PhD, tells WebMD. Canivet works in the department of community medicine at University Hospital in Lund.

Scientists say that the average infant cries two to three hours per day. Colicky babies cry more often than that, sometimes well in excess of four hours.

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) estimates that 20-25% of the nearly 4 million babies born in the U.S. each year develop colic. In most cases, colic begins within the first three weeks of life and can continue up to 12 weeks or longer. It usually erupts at the same time each day, commonly in the late afternoon or early evening. No amount of handling, cuddling, or soothing seems to calm a baby with colic.

No one knows what triggers colic, although the AAP points to plenty of possible culprits: excessive gas, intolerance of formula or lactose intolerance, an immature digestive tract, hard stools or constipation, the mother's diet or habits, the home environment, and the use of an epidural anesthesia before delivery. There is no real treatment for colic, although physicians may recommend supportive therapies for parents.

The AAP notes that other than the obvious distress they're in, colicky babies are otherwise happy and healthy. Researchers note that they often eat more and grow faster than noncolicky babies.

In the Swedish study, mothers of the 4-year-olds who took part in the study filled out a questionnaire on the children's eating and sleeping habits and their behavior and temperament. They were also asked questions about complaints such as stomachaches, headaches, and bed-wetting, and about the family environment. The researchers also noted how long the mother breastfed.


The researchers determined that the family environments were about the same for all the children. They did discover that the excolicky children seemed to enjoy their meals less, were a little pickier about what they ate, and averaged slightly less sleep per night, but they found these differences to be insignificant. The researchers did note, however, that the group of children that had not suffered from colic had fewer complaints of stomachaches later.

While behavior and temperament, measured by more than 50 questions, were about the same for both groups, the formerly colicky group had two differences that jumped out at the researchers: The children had more temper tantrums, and seemed more emotional. Canivet isn't sure whether this was because of the actual colic or because of how the colicky babies were treated. "Even if the results point towards the existence of an actual trait in the child, could this trait -- of 'negative emotionality' -- not be a result of the mother-infant interaction during the colic period itself, rather than something inherent in the individual child?" Canivet writes.

An earlier study, this time in Finland, found similar behavioral results in formerly colicky children, but clearly linked the behavioral difficulties to the reaction of the family when the baby suffered colic attacks.

"The families of previously colicky infants demonstrated more dissatisfaction with the arrangements of daily family responsibilities and with the amount of both leisure time and shared activities," the researchers, from the department of public health at the University of Turku, wrote after studying more than 1,200 3- year-olds.

Canivet says that while parental worries about excessive crying and infant discomfort are common, children with colic who are raised in a loving environment should develop normally. "Parents should relax and realize their child will suffer no serious long-term effects or complications later in life," Canivet says.

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, signs that a baby may have colic include:

  • Piercing and constant crying that can last for hours
  • A red face that may become pale or blue around the mouth if the attack is long or severe
  • A hard and distended belly, with legs drawn up and arms clenched tightly
  • Coldness in the hands and feet


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