The conventional wisdom about colic — a baby’s endless, inconsolable crying that can drive new parents to the edge of despair — is that it is caused by some kind of gastrointestinal distress. But new research suggests there may be a different cause for all that fussing among otherwise healthy babies — offering new hope and fresh ways for moms and dads to cope with colic.
For generations, distressed parents have been told that colic is most likely connected to tummy trouble. It seemed to make sense, since colicky babies have a tendency to tighten their abdominal muscles and pull up their little legs as they cry, making it certainly appear that they are having digestive difficulties.
But, despite more than 50 years of research, no definitive link has been proven between infant colic and gastrointestinal problems. Studies have shown that babies who are fed solely breast milk are as likely to have colic as those fed formula, and giving colicky babies medication for gas does not help.
For some, it turns out, the problem may not be in the baby’s gut, but in an immature or oversensitive neurological system. Researchers are exploring this premise at the University of California, San Francisco, where a recent study showed that mothers who suffer migraine headaches are significantly more likely to have babies with colic than mothers without a history of migraines.
The work prompts the question of whether colic may be an early symptom of migraines, and raises the possibility that reducing stimulation may help, just as reducing light and noise can alleviate migraine pain.
“We’ve known about colic for a really long time,” says Amy Gelfand, MD, a pediatric expert with the school’s Headache Center, who presented the findings at the American Academy of Neurology’s Annual Meeting in April. “But despite this fact, no one really knows why these babies are crying.”
In the study, mothers who suffered migraines were found to be 2.5 times more likely to have colicky babies. Overall, 29 percent of infants whose mothers had migraines had colic, compared to 11 percent of babies whose mothers did not have migraines.
Gelfand and her colleagues believe colic may be an early manifestation of conditions known as childhood periodic syndromes, believed to be precursors to migraine headaches later in life.
Babies with colic may be more sensitive to stimuli in their environment, just as migraine sufferers. They may have more difficulty coping with the onslaught of experiences after birth as they are thrust from the dark, warm, muffled life inside the womb into a world that is bright, cold, noisy, and filled with touchy hands and bouncy knees, Gelfand theorizes.
Colic is defined as intense, unexplained crying lasting more than three hours a day, more than three days a week, for more than three weeks. It is often at its worst at around the same time each day, in many cases in the early evening. Typically, it appears within the first month of life — when new parents are already feeling exhausted and overwhelmed — and often disappears rather suddenly by the time the baby is 3 to 4 months old.
If your baby is experiencing colic, take comfort that your mom is right: this, too, shall pass. When your baby is very young, cultivate a peaceful environment, with less background noise (yes, turn off the TV!) and minimal visitors. Seek advice from your doctor. You can try some of the traditional techniques for soothing your baby — turning her over on your lap to rub her back, rocking her, playing soothing background music, or even putting her carrier on top of a running clothes dryer. Just keep in mind that for some babies, the best strategy may be none of these. Some babies may actually need decreased stimulation and may do best swaddled in a darkened room.
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