The last thing a parent wants to hear while desperately asking the pediatrician why their baby won’t stop crying is this: “Well, maybe he’s just colicky.” Ugh. Colic is a term dreaded by parents. It feels like a blow-off, a well-that-just-the-way-your-baby-is. Your doctor gives you a sympathetic smile, like he has no idea he’s sending you home to a life of standing in front of the washing machine, while you hold your baby in their car seat on the vibrating machine because it is the only thing that will make them stop screaming. And that you’ve learned how to sleep standing up as a result.
Doctors don’t know why some babies are “colicky,” why some babies cry randomly and excessively (or, like my firstborn son, every night from 4 pm to 6 pm for the first two months of his sweet little life.) But, a new study shows that there may be an answer.
Your baby’s abnormal gut bacteria may be to blame. Yes, gut bacteria.
The new research identifies a distinct bacterial “signature” in the guts of infants with colic. Colic, of course, is a term that described babies who cry for more than three hours a day without a medical reason. In other words, babies who seem to cry just because they know they can.
In the first weeks of life, the research found, colicky babies had a higher number of bacteria from a group called Proteobacteria in their guts compared to babies without colic. These bacteria are known to produce gas, which may cause pain in little ones who are just learning how to work out their new digestive systems. The pain leads, of course, to inconsolable crying.
Study researcher Carolina de Weerth, a developmental psychologist at Radboud University Nijmegen in the Netherlands, notes, “For a long time, many researchers and professionals have believed that colic could just be one extreme of the normal crying curve in young infants.” She adds, “This study shows how, at least in some cases of colic, abnormalities in early colonization of the infant intestines may lead to colic behavior.”
Babies are born with sterile bowels, so various bacteria have the chance to form and grow within the gut a few hours after birth. Colicky babies also had lower numbers of anti-inflammatory bacteria, which may reduce gut inflammation and pain, de Weerth said.
But fear not, gut bacteria or no, there is light at the end of the loud, tear-filled tunnel: Abnormalities in gut bacteria appear to disappear after the first few months, suggesting they are temporary.
Other studies have suggested that colicky infants are experiencing headaches or migraines (funny, so are the parents!) While no one cause has been determined, these new studies do give parents and doctors more insight into what causes colic.