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Ask Dr. Sears: Can Colic Be Inherited?

Q. Is it possible for colic to be inherited? My husband's daughter claims that since her son suffered from colic, our new baby will probably be colicky too. Neither of my children from my previous marriage had colic, so I'm a little skeptical. Is there any truth to this, or is it just another old wives' tale?


A. It was once thought that colic was entirely the result of a baby's temperament. While high-strung babies are indeed more prone to colic, new studies have shown that the two most common causes of colicky abdominal pain are gastroesophageal reflux (GER) and food or formula allergies. While neither condition has a high risk of inheritability, there is a slightly increased chance of a family tendency. There's no need to be overly concerned, but you may want to take the following steps to ensure your child's comfort and contentment:

Breastfeed. Because breast milk is digested so much faster than formula, breastfed babies are less likely to experience GER (the regurgitation into the esophagus of stomach contents and irritating acids). Breast milk is also a natural laxative, so your baby is less likely to suffer colicky abdominal pain due to constipation. Breastfed babies tend to swallow less air during sucking and swallowing  -- and less air means less bloating. But a breastfed baby may experience abdominal discomfort from an allergy to a food in mom's diet. If you have a family history of dairy or wheat allergies (the two most common offenders), you may want to avoid or limit anything that contains these foods during pregnancy and lactation.

Use a hypoallergenic formula if bottle-feeding. If your baby does start getting colicky and the pediatrician suspects that an allergy to formula is to blame (a few clues: diarrhea or constipation, bloating, drawing legs up to abdomen with painful outbursts of crying), ask about less allergenic brands. Experiment until you find one that agrees with your baby.

Feed twice as often, half as much. This is my rule for just about any intestinal upset in infants. Too much food too quickly overwhelms a baby's intestines, causing excessive gas, bloating, and abdominal discomfort. Feeding your baby a smaller amount more frequently helps his immature digestive system handle the food more easily.

Keep calm. There are some babies who cry frequently for temperamental reasons. One theory goes like this: Any unresolved stress experienced by mom during pregnancy causes a high level of stress hormones to circulate through her bloodstream and affects her growing baby. The infant is born with an "overcharged" nervous system, which prevents him from settling quickly into his new environment. So try to remain as calm and worry-free as possible. Remember, you are relaxing for two.

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