It all started in the 1950s when American paediatrician, Morris Wessel, declared that a baby who cried for more than three hours a day, more than three days a week, more than three weeks in a row suffered from colic.
The term, originally intended to describe a spasm in the gut, is now a label for healthy babies who are unsettled, fussy and crying … all the time (or, at least, that’s what it feels like).
“There are lots of theories on what causes newborns, that are generally healthy, to be fussy, from maternal diet to maternal medications and prematurity,” explains Dr Sarah Gleeson, GP Obstetrician and co-founder of Family HQ,
“There are some theories that their uncontrolled crying might be directly related to some sort of intestinal origin, and they are in some physical discomfort or pain.”
However, Dr Gleeson highlights the first 12 weeks of a baby’s life as a period of substantial neurological development.
“They are going through some significant developmental changes, and this is going to be part of the reason why some babies are very fussy in those first three months,” she says.
Dr Gleeson points to Dutch researchers, Dr Franx X. Plooij and Dr Hety van de Rijt, who authored The Wonder Weeks.
In 1992, they discovered that, in the first 20 months of life, babies and infants go through a series of mental developments known as leaps.
They describe that while babies go through a leap (which can last a few days to a number of weeks), they are fussy, irritable, clingy and cry more than normal. Once the leap is over, the baby will have achieved a new skill.
Within the first 12 weeks, the researchers identify three leaps – no wonder they can seem unsettled.
“Another thing to consider when we talk about fussy babies is the way we raise and nurture babies in the Western world,” adds Dr Gleeson.
“Traditional Western babies cry more.
“If you compare Western and non-Western societies, non-Western babies are routinely held more, they are more generously breastfed and they are responded to more promptly.
“This is probably a result of the last 100 years of parenting education that says we should put our babies to sleep in a dark, quiet room by themselves.
“They’re probably crying because they are just cranky, lonely or hungry.”