Understanding Colicky Babies

Crying baby infant toddler little person
Frustrated parents and pediatricians have spent years trying to explain why some babies have colic. New research suggests that these babies may have an under-developed "calming mechanism." And, although their little faces turn purple and they scream bloody murder, research also found that the children aren't actually in pain.

Dr. Deborah Friedman, Chairman of Pediatrics at St. Luke's Roosevelt Hospital in New York City, discussed theories and some tactics to quiet colicky babies on The Saturday Early Show.

Colic is defined as crying on and off for more than three hours a day, three or more days a week. The type of crying is not just a few tears but screaming, often complete with flailing arms, arched back and a red faces. The fits happen mostly in the late afternoon or evening. It affects 10 to 20 percent of newborns.

Babies typically outgrow colic by the time they're three or four months old. Colic has not been shown to have any long-term impacts on a child's overall physical health.

Colic's cause remains a mystery. Friedman stresses that colic is not an illness or disease. She says these are not sick babies, they are simply crying babies. Friedman sees colic as a behavior, an indicator of temperament. Some people are very calm and others are more irritable. Babies with colic are simply more irritable or demanding.

Recently, a group of researchers hypothesized that the "soothing mechanism" in the brain of a baby with colic is not fully functional. This means that it's more difficult for some babies to stop crying than others. Once this brain circuitry develops fully, the child will be able to calm down more quickly, in essence, outgrowing their colic.

As a result of prolonged crying and sucking in lots of air, many babies with colic do become quite gassy and develop a distended abdomen. Of course, that is uncomfortable and needs to be taken care of. However, this intestinal problem does not cause the colic, it is a result of it.

Sometimes, however, colic-like behavior can indicate that something more serious is wrong with a child.

It is essential that parents don't judge their parenting skills on the amount of time their baby spends crying. Colic often decreases a parent's self-esteem. Studies show that mothers of babies with colic are more likely to think about harming their child. Also, in cases of babies being shaken violently, offenders cite crying as the top reason for their violent behavior. If anything, Friedman says, parents concerned about colic are more likely to be good parents. They notice that their baby seems to be crying a lot and they call the doctor to find out what's going on.

Three hours of squalling a day is normal in babies. Infants that far exceed that may be reacting to something else. There may be too much or too little stimulation and affection. It seems to be largely a matter of the baby's temperament and the pattern of living unique to each household, as well as other factors still being explored.