KIDS
July 23, 2009

Colicky Babies, Depressed Dads

Mothers who are depressed while pregnant have a greater likelihood of having a baby with colic...

Babies cry when they are hungry, thirsty, uncomfortable, ill, and often for no apparent reason. Parents respond to their crying infants by addressing all the likely problems — changing diapers, feeding, holding, stimulating, swaddling, and checking for signs of injury or illness. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't. Learning to read and respond to an infant's signals is one of the earliest tasks of parenthood.

A baby like this can make a parent feel inadequate, helpless, angry, lonely, and very tired.

When an infant cries and cannot be consoled for more than three hours a day, more than three days in a week, it is defined as having "excessive crying," or "colic." A baby like this can make a parent feel inadequate, helpless, angry, lonely, and very tired.

Colic typically starts within a few weeks of birth and lasts for 3−5 months. It is a major source of stress for the whole family, and much research has gone into determining its causes and treatments. Understanding more about which babies are at risk for colic, and whether physical, environmental, genetic or other conditions may predispose them would allow doctors and parents to try to decrease the risk and/or to be better prepared for their infant's difficult temperament.

Maternal depression, both during pregnancy and after the birth, has been associated with colic in infants, but the impact of the baby's father's emotional state has not been explored until a recent study, published in the July issue of Pediatrics. This study found that if a father is depressed during the pregnancy, the infant is more likely to have colic.

The study was a Prospective Study one. The researchers studies 4 426 multi−ethnic infants born between April 2002 and January 2006 and used a standardized questionnaire that screened for depression in both the pregnant mothers and the baby's father during the 20th week of pregnancy. Then, after the babies were born, they assessed infant crying patterns at two months of age, using the standard definition of excessive crying, greater than three hours per day on more than three days in the preceding week. The study found that both maternal and paternal depression during pregnancy were associated with an increased likelihood of colic at two months and that each parent's emotional health had an independent impact on the risk of colic.

So what is the reason for this Correlational study between paternal depression and infantile colic? Perhaps fathers, who are depressed during the prenatal period, continue to experience low moods once the child is born. Their ability to interact with their babies in an effective and nurturing way may be impaired, and their entire family may be stressed by their negative moods. Depressed parents may react more irritably or more aggressively towards a crying infant and this may perpetuate the cycle of inconsolable crying. It is also possible that having a colicky child makes a parent's prenatal depression more likely to be sustained during the first few months of life, because of the increased demands of caring for a difficult baby. Researcher's also postulated that if the mother had to spend more time caring for the emotional needs of her spouse, she might be less available to her infant and the infant might become frustrated and cranky. Additionally, it is possible that the infant's colicky temperament is the earliest expression of an inherited trait of the same emotional vulnerability that lead to the father's depression.

It is likely that there is no single explanation as each family is unique. However, the evidence is clear that a father's mental health should be assessed prenatally and postpartum as part of effective prenatal and pediatric care. If a father is found to be depressed, or if a pregnant woman reports that the baby's father is depressed, appropriate referral for intervention should be given. While it is natural for expectant parents to feel additional financial, emotional, and physical burdens during pregnancy, it is important to help expectant couples to identify their stressors and to think about their potential coping mechanisms and support systems. Many pediatricians have a "meet and greet" visit for couples who want them to care for their child. This provides an excellent opportunity to address these issues. If stress levels seem over and above the norm for the situation, the parent should be evaluated for a potential mood disorder.

A baby's mental and physical well−being is very closely linked to the mental and physical health and emotional availability of its parents. Expectant couples should discuss their fears and concerns with their doctors, and should consider counseling if they feel they are becoming overwhelmed and coping poorly. Providing an emotionally healthy environment, by attending to signs of parental distress may decrease the risk of colic and improve the quality of the family's earliest weeks of life together.

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