A compelling connection exists between colicy babies and postpartum depression, according to a study conducted by a Brown Medical School professor and Rhode Island Department of Health family health experts.
The study is the first to establish a link between colic and depression using a large sample of de-mographically diverse women. Results will be presented May 2 at the Pediatric Academic Socie-ties’ 2006 Annual Meeting in San Francisco. The meeting is the largest academic pediatric gathering in the world.
Pamela High, M.D., served as lead researcher on the study. High is a clinical professor of pediat-rics at Brown Medical School and director of developmental-behavioral pediatrics at Hasbro Children’s Hospital. She is also head of the Infant Behavior, Cry & Sleep Program run by the Brown Center for the Study of Children at Risk, which is supported by Women & Infants Hospi-tal of Rhode Island.
The research team also included researchers from the Rhode Island Department of Health’s Divi-sion of Family Health, who provided data and analytic support. They are Hannah Kim, senior epidemiologist, Samara Viner-Brown, chief of data and evaluation and director of the Pregnancy Risk Assessment Monitoring System, or PRAMS, and Rachel Cain, PRAMS coordinator.
High warned that the work does not show a direct cause-and-effect relationship between a fussy baby and a depressed mom. “We can’t say that inconsolability causes depression or that depres-sion causes inconsolability,” High said. “However, we did find a link between the two. And this won’t surprise anyone who knows a mother coping with a fussy baby.”
High helped found the Infant Behavior, Cry & Sleep Program - aka the Colic Clinic - in Provi-dence 13 years ago. Since then, High and other Colic Clinic staff have helped hundreds of fami-lies having trouble with their infants’ crying, including newborns with colic, which is clinically defined as crying at least three hours a day, three days a week, during the first three months of life. After conducting an exam and taking a medical history, clinic staffers help new mothers - and fathers - console their babies, pinpoint the cause of the crying, and take care of their own needs.
“At the clinic, it is not unusual to see mothers who are very tired and sometimes very anxious and depressed,” High said. “Moms are trying hard to understand their child’s needs and meet those needs. Sometimes they feel inadequate when they can’t console their baby.”
The study is based on responses to the Rhode Island PRAMS, an ongoing, confidential survey of women who have recently given birth. The state is one 32 participating in PRAMS, which is funded by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and aims to improve the health of new mothers and their babies.
Each month, women are randomly chosen to receive the survey, which covers topics such as prenatal care, smoking, and nutrition and breast-feeding.
High is a member of the Rhode Island PRAMS steering committee. The committee could choose a few state-specific questions that would be added to the standard survey. The survey already asked about depression. Wondering if there was a connection to colic, High suggested another: “How inconsolable is your baby?”
The new question appeared on Rhode Island’s first PRAMS survey, administered in 2002, and again in 2003. A total of 4,214 new mothers got the questionnaire and 2,927 responded. The majority of mothers were white, married, had household incomes over $40,000 per year and had health insurance. Most of their babies were between two and four months of age.
The results: 19 percent of mothers reported moderate to severe symptoms of postpartum depres-sion. And 8 percent reported that their babies were difficult to console. Responses showed a strong connection between the two. Mothers reporting depression were more than twice as likely to report infant inconsolability. And women with inconsolable babies were more than two times as likely to report depression. Even when other variables were controlled - such as age, race and income - the two were closely related.
“Depression and inconsolability are strong predictors of one another,” High said. “One in three women with fussy infants acknowledged that they were depressed.”
Researchers say the study sends a clear message to pediatricians: If you are treating a colicy baby, check on the moms, too. Ask them how they are feeling and if they have support from family and friends. When appropriate, refer women to mental health providers.
“This study is a terrific example of the use of survey data to further our understanding of mater-nal and child health issues and develop recommendations for improving public health practices,” Viner-Brown said. “It also shows the benefits of partnerships between state governments, univer-sities and hospitals.”
The Pediatric Academic Societies (PAS) Annual Meeting is the largest international meeting that focuses on research in child health. The PAS consists of the American Academy of Pediatrics, Ambulatory Pediatric Association, American Pediatric Society, and Society for Pediatric Research.
Revision date: June 20, 2011
Last revised: by Sebastian Scheller, MD, ScD