News Release

New study links colic, maternal depression to family problems

Pediatricians urged to discuss parental well-being during infant check-ups

Peer-Reviewed Publication


Providence, RI –Some families with new babies face excessive infant crying, or colic. And some new mothers go through maternal post-partum depression (PPD) following childbirth. Neither situation is considered healthy, but a recent study published in the Infant Mental Health Journal has found that the combined impact of colic and PPD can have a highly toxic outcome. Researchers have linked colicky babies and maternal depression to decrease in overall family functioning.

"We found that severe depressive symptoms in the mothers were related to fussy, or difficult infant temperament, more parenting stress, lower parental self-esteem and more family-functioning problems," says senior author Barry Lester, PhD with the Bradley Hasbro Children's Research Center (BHCRC) and Brown Medical School.

Dr. Lester founded the Colic Clinic at the Infant Development Center at Women and Infant's Hospital in Providence, RI, and is the foremost colic researcher in the country. His new book Why is My Baby Crying? was published last month by Harper-Collins and is touted as 'the parent's survival guide for coping with crying problems and colic'.

"Colic is ultimately defined by the parental threshold for infant crying," says Lester and his co-authors, "so one possibility is that cry-related problems like colic act as a catalyst for dysfunction in already stressed families."

Examples of family dysfunction might include poor communication, confusion over roles, difficulty in solving family problems, poor family interaction and a lack of emotional responsiveness.

Other studies have shown that depression can alter the way a mother perceives and responds to her baby's cry signals. In light of this, the authors conclude that the co-occurrence of infant colic and maternal depression might be especially risky for infant development outcomes such as behavior skills or forming relationships.

"Forty-four percent of the women showing up at the Colic Clinic are depressed which is pretty devastating and now we have evidence to show that it's harmful to the whole family," says Lester.

Maternal postpartum depression (PPD) has been described as the most common unrecognized postpartum complication and occurs in 15 to 20 percent of women following childbirth. According to the American Psychiatric Association, PPD symptoms include loss of pleasure or interest in usual activities coupled with sleep or appetite changes, loss of energy and/or recurrent thoughts of death for at least 2 weeks.

The authors hope the study will prompt pediatricians to ask more questions about parental and family well-being during an infant's regular check-up.

"By recognizing the potential risk that crying and maternal depression presents, pediatric healthcare providers have an opportunity to refer treatment that could potentially prevent future problems within the family," the authors conclude.


The study was published in Volume 26(1) of the Infant Mental Health Journal.

Founded in 1931 as the nation's first psychiatric hospital for children, Bradley Hospital ( remains the premier medical institution devoted exclusively to the research and treatment of childhood psychiatric illnesses. Bradley Hospital ranks in the top third of private hospitals in the country receiving funding from the National Institutes of Health. As an affiliate of Brown Medical School, Bradley employs active clinical researchers. Its research arm, the Bradley Hasbro Children's Research Center (BHCRC), encompasses a wide range of research areas including autism, colic, childhood sleep patterns, HIV prevention, development in high risk infants, obesity, eating disorders, depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and juvenile firesetting. Bradley Hospital is a partner of Lifespan, a health care system based in Providence, RI.

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