Colic psychology

I’ve just found a surprisingly psychological New Yorker article on colic, the persistent and mysterious episodes of crying that affects some newborn babies.

I always thoughts that colic was just discomfort caused by trapped wind but apparently this is just one theory and the cause of colic is still medically unexplained.

The crying tends to stop after a few months and although thought to be physically harmless it can cause a great deal of discomfort to both baby and parents.

The New Yorker article, written by the talented physician and writer Jermone Groopman, notes that some of the most important discoveries about colic have not focused on the biology of the babies digestive system but on the psychology of parenting and carer-child interaction.

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. In the mid-nineties, he studied forty-five children between the ages of three and eight who had had colic as infants (and had been seen at his clinic). He found that thirty-four of them—about seventy-five per cent—suffered from behavioral problems, including a limited attention span, tantrums, and irritation after being touched or coming in contact with particular fabrics or tags in their clothing. “Some of the kids would get very annoyed and refuse to put on a hat,” he told me. The children apparently objected to the sensation of having fabric on their head.

Lester speculates that many colicky infants are so sensitive to stimuli that physical contact with their parents is unlikely to soothe them, a theory that may be supported by data from societies in which babies are held continuously. Ronald Barr, the co-author of the 1997 study on infant cries, 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 day and night, breast-feed every 13.69 minutes for the first one to two years of life, and respond within fifteen seconds to any fret or whimper,” Barr, who now teaches at the University of British Columbia, told me. “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.”

A great deal of clinical psychology work concerned with difficult behaviour in children focuses on how people respond to certain behaviours. It is often the case that our natural reactions inadvertently reinforce and maintain the problem.

This can be the case even with severe difficulties like self-harm. Imagine that the parents of a child go through a period where they are so caught up in work they don’t have much time for the child no matter what he or she does.

The child accidentally harms themselves and suddenly gets a great deal of attention because the parents, who are not ‘bad parents’, just massively overworked, want to make sure their child is OK.

The child works out that harming themselves gets them attention but this causes resentment, so the parents act more negatively towards the child he or she does not harm themselves, meaning that caring attention is all the more attractive.

Although this type of cycle is most likely to crop up with children with learning disabilities, you can see how less severe versions (replace self-harm with tantrums) could easily occur. Or perhaps how the same cycle could occur in a child with learning disabilities in a specialised care environment (replace parents with staff).

Similar sorts of response-reaction cycles seem to occur in colic and Groopman’s article recounts how for even the youngest babies, social relationships are of prime importance.

Link to New Yorker article ‘Colic Conundrum’.


  1. Posted August 23, 2008 at 1:20 am | Permalink

    Instead of the behavioural explanation you’ve suggested, I wonder if this ‘sensitivity’ may be linked to the concept of ‘central sensitisation syndrome’ that is proposed by Yunus and colleagues. In this, several disorders involving ‘functional’ problems of the gut (irritable bowel syndrome), pain (fibromyalgia), mood (anxiety and depressive disorders), and auto-immune disorders such as rheumatoid and psoriasis are explained by over-sensitivity of the CNS. This might explain why some babies become over-stimulated and have colic go on to develop ADHD or dyspraxia where hypersensitivity to textures of clothing or food are common. I wonder whether there has been any work on colicky babies and the development of disorders like fibromyalgia where it’s been shown that there is hypersensitivity to sound as well as elevated pain perception.

  2. Posted August 23, 2008 at 12:07 pm | Permalink

    Sensory hypersensitivity is often reported by those with an ASD (Autistic Spectrum Diagnosis); it can be a problem, but some forms are potentially useful: see for example Ashwin et al 2008 “Eagle-Eyed Visual Acuity: An Experimental Investigation of Enhanced Perception in Autism” (

  3. Nicole
    Posted January 26, 2009 at 3:10 pm | Permalink

    The only thing we have found that works (and the only organic option) is Wellements Gripe Water. You can find it here:

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