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Health: I'd had enough of tears before bedtime

Kathryn Ogg suspected that her newborn baby's screaming was not entirely due to colic. Thanks to her health visitor, she uncovered a problem that is surprisingly common in breastfed infants.

It must be your fault.Your new baby doesn't just cry occasionally, but screams for hours day and night, writhing in pain. Suddenly everyone becomes an expert, everyone has an explanation: it's normal for babies to cry; it's just wind; try gripe water; look at you - you're tense and the baby senses it. Of course, you are tense by now: you see your baby in quite considerable pain , and nothing you do seems to help.

Madeleine was my second daughter. The first, Marthe, had no real health problems apart from a little eczema, endless colds and a tendency to glue ear. From breast-feeding her I had learned to avoid things that upset her like onions, spicy food, and orange juice. This time round, it would be easier.

But during the first fortnight of her life, Madeleine exhibited all the symptoms of classic colic. The screaming started in the early evening and continued unabated until about 10.30pm when she would fall asleep, exhausted, on my lap. We tried everything - colic drops, the `colic dance' (bouncing around the room rocking her), but nothing worked. It got worse as she got older.

Baby books tend to the blame the mother. The Macmillan Guide to Family Health says that excessive crying can occur when "an inexperienced mother is often anxious about her competence to look after a new young life". All imply that colic is something you can do little about, other than wait until the baby outgrows it. In the Baby and Child Health Care Handbook, Miriam Stoppard suggests that the mother takes a sedative if the crying gets too bad.

If Madeleine had been my first, I too would have carried on counting off the nights to 12 weeks, when colic, traditionally, is thought to subside.

But when the screaming started during the daytime as well, I went to my health visitor. I couldn't accept that this was something I just had to put up with. To my relief, she took me seriously and having heard Madeleine cry, agreed that the baby did sound very distressed. Then she asked whether I drank much milk.

Of course I did, I replied. Weren't all breast-feeding mothers meant to drink milk and eat cheese to keep up their own milk supply? She said the baby might be reacting to cow's milk, ingested through my breast milk; she suggested I try cutting milk from my diet for a week.

The result was dramatic. Two nights after cutting back my intake, Madeleine's crying lasted only 20 minutes. The next night, she did not cry at all.

It took a week to fully clear my system of cows' milk and associated products, but by then I had a contented, happy baby.

I became scrupulous over my diet; occasionally however I unknowingly ate something which contained milk (the number of products which do is surprising - pies, frozen chips, even some sliced turkey). The symptoms, in Madeleine, would start within hours: screaming, frequent vomits and blotchy skin. But as long as my diet was clear from cow's milk, my baby was happy.

Yet none of the mothers I knew had ever been told that their babies' colic might have been a reaction to cows' milk protein through their breast milk. One mother, whose baby had exhibited identical symptoms and who had suffered through nearly four months of screaming and occasional vomiting, went to her doctor when her baby developed bad eczema after eating yoghurt. When she asked if it might be a reaction to the yoghurt she was told "not to go down the allergy route" and the baby was prescribed steroid cream to clear her skin.

Yet despite the dismissiveness of some doctors, several studies have shown that cows' milk protein in breast milk can be a major contributing factor to colic and allergy. In Sweden, a qualitative study of 19 breast- fed babies suffering from colic showed that for 12 of them the colic stopped when their mothers cut all cows' milk protein from their diet.

Where babies are formula fed, alternative options to cows milk exist from soya to goats' milk baby formula. Although no dietary changes should be made without discussing it with either a doctor or a health visitor, they may be worth considering. A 1995 study which took 79 formula-fed infants known to be suffering from cows' milk protein intolerance, showed that when they were switched to a whey-hydrolysate formula, there was an 80 per cent improvement in symptoms, particularly colic and eczema.

Other studies however - including one from St George's Hospital published this year in the BMJ - concluded that diet contributed little to mothers' reporting of colic and that "dietary change should not be the primary intervention" But this study was questionnaire-based only and included no active change to the mother's diet.

We were to discover that it wasn't just our new baby who was suffering from cows' milk allergy. During my investigation of the topic, I discovered a description which matched my elder daughter, Marthe, exactly: nose congestion, snoring, increased mucus flow, bright red cheeks, eczema, "sand-paper" surface on the face, upper forearms and thighs, frequent coughs and recurrent middle-ear infection.

After consulting our GP we took Marthe off all cows' milk products, replacing them with goat and ewe milk, for a period of three months. The result was immediate: for the first time in her life her skin was completely clear of eczema, her snoring disappeared, the constant round of colds and runny noses stopped and the glue ear has yet to return.

I have since discovered that as babies, both my sister and I had a sensitivity to cows' milk. We both grew out of it and I fully expect my daughters to outgrow it.

Is it because most babies grow out of colic, that proper research into its causes does not seem to be taking place? Or is it a question of funding - since using questionnaires after the event is cheaper than active intervention in the mother's diet?

For us, the misery of colic has been solved thanks to an enlightened health visitor and a sympathetic GP. It won't be the answer for everyone, but for my daughter it has been a simple and effective solution. Without it, I dread to think what the first months of Madeleine's life may have been like for her - and her family.