Penn State study: Helpful dads can mean less colicky babies

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Penn State School of Medicine research finds mothers with happy relationships with their partner and/or friends were less likely to have colicky babies.

Happy mother, happy baby?

That may not be so far from the truth, according to a recent study by researchers with the Pennsylvania State University School of Medicine.

The study found that women with more social support and a happy relationship with their partner — if they had one — were less likely to have colicky babies. The same was true of mothers who said they had supportive people helping care for their baby, offering advice, or whom they  were just available to confide in.

Colic is a frustrating condition in which healthy babies go through long periods of distress, often crying several hours a day, no matter what caregivers do to try to relieve their suffering. 

“Mothers’ significant others have a role to play in reducing the burden of colic,” said Chandran Alexander, an assistant professor of pediatrics at Penn State and an author of the study. “Society should avoid pinning the blame for colic on mothers’ incompetence, self-esteem, and depression.”

Babies of women who said they were unattached were the least fussy. But, said the researchers, those women reported high levels of social support.

Researchers said that finding suggests social support is important in lessening colic.

“If you don’t have a partner, you can still have lots of social support, lots of love, and lots of happy relationships, and all of that’s going to be better for the baby,” said Kristen Kjerulff, a Penn State professor of public health sciences and another author of the study. “Love makes a difference.”

The findings came out of the First Baby Study, an inquiry into what impact the type of first delivery might have on subsequent childbearing. More than 3,000 women ages 18 to 35 who gave birth at 78 hospitals in Pennsylvania were interviewed by telephone between January 2009 and 2011. The interviews were conducted during pregnancy, one month after childbirth, and at other regular intervals. The mothers were asked about social support and whether their offspring had any of a variety of problems, including colic.

Maternal stress and anxiety have been associated with newborn fussiness for some time, but the Penn State study looked at the influence of relationship quality and support.

Colic, for the purposes of the study, was described as crying or fussing for three hours or more a day. In this study, 11.6 percent of the infants were considered colicky.

Of the women who reported having colicky babies, more than 32 percent said that after birth their relationship happiness was low; fewer than 10 percent said their relationships were happy or very happy. Relationship happiness during pregnancy also mattered; more than 16 percent of those unhappy with their relationship had colicky babies, compared with nearly 11 percent who were happy or very happy.

All kinds of social support coincided with fewer reports of colicky babies.

Women who said they had someone to love and make them feel wanted were among those who less frequently reported have fussy babies than did those who did not have those kinds of relationships.

Alexander, a study author and a pediatric gastroenterologist, said he wanted to study colic after seeing many first-time mothers with colicky babies make frequent trips to doctors.  Some were prescribed therapies that were often unproven and expensive.

“We need to impress upon society the importance of supporting families in their care of newborns,” Alexander said.

Results of the study were reported in the journal Child: Care, Health and Development.