Dec. 9, 2002 -- She can laugh about it now, but Michelle DeHaven remembers her first three months of motherhood as one of the most stressful times of her life. She and her husband spent countless sleepless nights trying to console their infant daughter, but nothing seemed to stop the inexplicable, late-night crying.
Like DeHaven, parents coping with a colicky infant often feel like crying themselves. While the reasons for colic remain a mystery, a new study should help reassure moms and dads who fear the screaming will never end.
"People who have not had a colicky baby can't understand," the Atlanta veterinarian tells WebMD. "This was not a little fussy. She would cry ... from six to 12 hours, and we were going insane. It was stressful on me, it was stressful on my husband, and it was stressful on our marriage."
Researchers found that in most cases colic episodes resolved before three months. Only about 15% of the infants included in the study remained colicky after this age. But about half of those babies developed the condition later than normal, suggesting that this late-onset colic could represent a unique subgroup.
"We found a peak in crying at about six weeks of age for most babies, but by three months everything was back to normal," researcher Tammy J. Clifford, PhD, tells WebMD. "We have to wonder, though, what is going on with the babies who were not colicky at six weeks, but were at three months. It is possible that these babies have long-term temperament problems, but that hasn't been studied."
Colic is characterized by inconsolable crying, stiffness, and wakefulness that usually occur in the evening hours.
Clifford and colleagues from the Children's Hospital of Eastern Ontario surveyed the mothers of 547 infants a week after delivery, then several more times within the first six months. Their findings are reported in the December issue of the journal Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine.
They found that mothers of colicky babies at six weeks old were no more likely to be anxious or depressed at the end of the study than mothers whose babies were never colicky. In another phase of the study, Clifford and colleagues found that bottle-fed babies were no more likely to develop colic than breast-fed babies. In addition, anxious mothers were no more likely to have colicky babies than calm ones.
"Maternal anxiety has long been believed to be a causal factor in colic, but we did not find this to be the case," Clifford says.
Pediatrics expert Ronald G. Barr, MDCM, tells WebMD he believes colic stems not from a physical problem, but from evolutionary hard-wiring. He adds that if this is the case, the crying episodes during the first few months of life should be considered normal. A professor in child development at Montreal's McGill University, Barr wrote an editorial accompanying the new research.
"We now know that colic is almost certainly not a [digestive] issue, as has long been believed," he tells WebMD. "It is looking more and more like a normal phenomenon that is part of human evolution. And just like every other feature that we have inherited from our ancestors, there is huge individual variability."
Barr says colicky babies may actually have better adapting skills later in life than babies who do not experience colic. Several small studies suggest this may be the case, but they are inconclusive.
He adds that getting the message across to parents that colic is normal and temporary is critical. To make the point he cites statistics showing that 95% of shaken baby syndrome cases involve crying infants.
"Caregivers need to understand that colic will go away and that it is not personal," he says.