While colic is common among infants, researchers remain unclear on what causes the condition. A new study suggests that a mother’s relationship happiness and level of social support might play a role.

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The risk of colic may be higher for infants of mothers who are unhappy with their relationships and have poor social support.

Researchers from Pennsylvania State University (Penn State) found that infants of mothers who reported low relationship happiness were more likely to have colic than infants of mothers who reported happier relationships.

Furthermore, the team found that mothers who reported receiving greater social support from their partners, friends, or family were less likely to have a baby with colic.

The findings were recently published in the journal Child: Care, Health and Development

Colic is a condition characterized by fussiness and excessive, inconsolable crying for more than 3 hours per day, 3 days per week, for more than 3 weeks. Babies with colic often cry at the same time each day, and most crying episodes occur in the late afternoon or evening.

According to the American Pregnancy Association, around 20 to 25 percent of babies experience colic, and the condition normally reaches a peak at 6 to 8 weeks of age.

The causes of colic are unknown, though intestinal gas, overfeeding, an immature nervous system, and lactose intolerance are believed to be some of the possible triggers.

Now, senior study author Kristen Kjerulff, professor of public health sciences at Penn State, and colleagues suggest that low relationship happiness and social support among mothers may put their infants at risk of colic.

Kjerulff and team reached their findings by assessing the data of 3,006 women aged between 18 and 35 years who were a part of Penn State’s First Baby Study. All women had given birth to their first child between January 2009 and April 2011.

As part of the study, mothers were required to report how happy they were with their partner, how much social support they received from their partner, and the level of social support they received from family members and friends.

Around 11.6 percent of new mothers reported that their infant had colic.

The researchers found that the happier mothers were in their relationship during and after pregnancy, the less likely they were to have an infant with colic. This finding remained even after accounting for postpartum depression.

Additionally, the risk of colic was lower for infants of mothers who reported greater social support from their partners. In particular, the team found that the more partners helped with infant care, and the greater a partners’ love and affection for the baby, the lower their infant’s colic risk.

Mothers who reporting receiving greater social support from family and friends also had infants with lower risk of colic.

The researchers were interested to find that the lowest risk of colic was found among infants of single mothers. While this finding was deemed statistically insignificant, the team points out that single mothers reported having higher levels of general social support, which may contribute to lower colic risk for infants.

“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,” says Kjerulff. “Love makes a difference.”

In future research, the team plans to assess whether parental relationships and social support affect the risk of health complications related to infant colic, such as food allergies.

In the meantime, the researchers believe that their findings indicate that fathers play a significant role in their children’s risk of colic.

Mothers’ significant others have a role to play in reducing the burden of colic. Society should avoid pinning the blame for colic on mothers’ competence, self-esteem, or depression. We need to impress upon society the importance of supporting families in their care of newborns.”

Chandran Alexander, first author, Penn State College of Medicine

Learn how acupuncture may alleviate infant colic.