Do colicky babies have sensory processing problems?

We all know people who are more sensitive to some kinds of sensory information - people who get motion sickness from a ride in the car, or who react to tags on their clothes, for example. In this week's episode of The Family Anatomy Podcast, Dr. Michael Cheng talked about his belief that sensory processing problems could be a factor in a number of mental health difficulties. People with ADHD might be too sensitive to sound in the environment, making it hard to filter out distractions; others might become enraged in response to touch. Some researchers have found links between sensory processing difficulties and a number of other problems, including colic, attention problems, and coping skills.

Andrea DeSantis and her colleagues followed a group of colicky infants for several years, examining a number of difficulties between the ages of 3 and 8, in a study published in the Infant Mental Health Journal in 2004. They found that 75% of the colicky infants in their study demonstrated sensory processing problems when they were older! Kids who spent more hours fussing as babies were more likely to have trouble not only with their responses to sensory information, but in coping with the environment, attention, and behavioural regulation.

It might not be too surprising to parents to hear that many colicky infants overreact to sound or touch. The sensory processing questionnaire that is commonly used to assess for sensory problems includes items that sounds like a description of colic:

... cries easily, displays excessive emotional outbursts, has temper tantrums, poor frustration tolerance, and difficulty tolerating changes in routines ...

DeSantis and her colleagues expressed concern that the behaviours that are typically thought of as indicators of a difficult infant temperament might actually reflect a sensory processing problem! As the kids in the study grew older, parents and teachers began to report differing patterns of other difficulties. Parents of colicky infants saw elevations in aggression and rule-breaking behaviours, whereas the teachers reported higher levels of sadness, anxiety, and withdrawal. It's not hard to imagine that kids who are easily bothered by being touched or bumped, or those who overreact to noise, might have trouble regulating their behaviour too, either acting out or withdrawing in reaction to overstimulation.

As with many of these kinds of studies, further research is needed to clarify relationships among colic in infants, sensory processing difficulties, and later behavioural or emotional problems. Colic has an impact on the family system as a whole, increasing parental stress and decreasing feelings of competence for moms and dads; these factors might also contribute to later difficulties for kids, and those are only two examples of other possible explanations for the results. The number of kids in the study group was also small.

Despite its limitations, the results found by DeSantis and her colleagues may provide helpful information for new parents whose babies are difficult to soothe. If sensory sensitivities contribute to fussiness and crying, changes in the environment (maybe, turning down the ringer on the phone, or carefully choosing clothing that is less irritating) might lead to a happier baby and more relaxed parents! As Dr. Cheng suggested, parents might benefit from paying attention to indicators that their children might be overly sensitive to sensory information, leading to rage, anxiety, or other problems.

You can find DeSantis' study here.

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Note: Posts on Family Anatomy are for education only, and are not intended to replace professional or medical advice. If you need to talk to someone about family or mental health issues, you can get a referral from your family doctor.