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OBJECTIVE: Social learning has been identified as a factor that increases vulnerability to the development of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). This study aimed to distinguish between child-mediated and parent-mediated modes of transmission of illness behavior. The reporting of infants' symptoms and treatment seeking for these symptoms, by mothers, was examined over the period during which infants were aged 0 to 18 months. Thus childrens' imitation of excessive maternal illness behavior could be ruled out as a possible cause of differences in treatment seeking. METHODS: Questionnaire data from the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children (ALSPAC) were analyzed, comparing illness-related parenting in 73 mothers who reported taking medication for functional bowel symptoms (mostly IBS) with parenting in 154 mothers who reported past or current stomach ulcers (SU). RESULTS: There were no significant differences between the groups in the reported incidence of infants' symptoms. However, mothers with bowel symptoms had taken their infants to the doctor for a greater number of conditions than mothers reporting SU. This difference was not due to increased treatment seeking for gastrointestinal symptoms. CONCLUSIONS: Mothers with functional bowel symptoms are more likely to seek treatment when their infants experience symptoms, providing evidence of early social reinforcement of illness behavior. Such reinforcement may increase the child's vulnerability to a range of functional disorders, including IBS.

Original publication




Journal article


Am J Gastroenterol

Publication Date





694 - 702


Adult, Female, Gastrointestinal Diseases, Humans, Infant, Learning, Maternal Behavior, Mental Disorders, Patient Acceptance of Health Care, Sick Role, Socioeconomic Factors