Can Probiotics Ease Baby’s Colic?

If your baby has colic—hours of inconsolable crying that are not related to a medical problem—you’ll probably try just about anything to make him feel better. But when it comes to one trending treatment, new research says don’t bother.

As recently as January, studies were suggesting that probiotics—live bacteria thought to regulate digestive systems—could help soothe colic, and they’re widely used in Europe for that purpose. But newer research, in the British Medical Journal turns those findings on their head, saying it offers no benefit at all. In fact, formula-fed infants who were given probiotics cried more than all babies in the placebo group. There was no change for breastfed babies.

And then there’s the issue of side effects, says William E. Bennett Jr., Assistant Professor of Pediatrics at Indiana University School of Medicine. “Probiotics haven’t been studied extensively enough, especially in babies, to determine if there are long-term effects.”

Dr. Bennett doesn’t advocate giving drugs to babies regardless. “We have to be careful messing with things that are normal, and changing things that are part of normal development,” he says.

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How Do I Know If It’s Colic?

Colic is defined by the rule of threes, called the Wessel Criteria: A baby who cries for at least three hours a day, at least three days a week, for at least three weeks. You might also observe these signs:

  • The crying jags are predictable, usually around the same time of day—often late afternoon or evening.
  • The cries are intense, can be high-pitched and seem to come out of nowhere. Your baby will be largely inconsolable until the jag passes.
  • Tell-tale body language—a flushed face, curled up legs, clenched fists and tensed tummy muscles. Your baby will often pass gas or make a poop at the end of it.

If you’re seeing those signs, call your pediatrician (you’ve probably already got her on speed dial). “The first thing I do is reassure my patients that colic is a normal phenomenon,” Bennet says. “It happens in about 25 percent of babies.”

If your infant starts vomiting a lot in addition to those hours of crying, it’s more likely that she has reflux, which warrants another call to the pediatrician.

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What Causes Colic?

The simple answer is: We don’t know. “It’s called colic because centuries ago they thought it was gastrointestinal in origin. Now we think it’s developmental,” Bennett says. “Babies are learning how digestion feels and it’s very upsetting to them.” Other experts believe colic comes from developing nerves in the gut.

What the Research Shows

Not only are probiotics useless in treating colic, but in fact, so are all drugs, according to a 2011 review in Journal of Paediatrics and Child Health.

Although it’s so tempting to want to try a remedy that could possibly work, Bennet cautions against using dicyclomine (sold as Bentyl) because of the potential side effects, or simethicone (sold as Gas-X), which he says is basically a placebo. He also hasn’t seen significant results in alternative remedies such as herbals teas, either.

The two most promising avenues for treatment, the study authors note, are hydrolysed (lactose-free) formulas for bottle-fed infants, and low-allergen maternal diets in breastfed infants. In a 2006 study in American Family Physician, breastfeeding moms who eliminated common allergens from their diets—dairy, soy, wheat, eggs, peanuts and other nuts, and fish—saw a 25 percent reduction in crying and fussing duration, though the babies were still considered to have colic.

As maddening as it may be, you may just have to wait it out—it’s usually dramatically reduced or totally gone within four to six months. “Colic tends to peak between six and eight weeks and improves over time,” Bennet says. Though it sounds like your baby is in agony, and it can be extremely distressing for parents, rest assured that colic won’t have any long-term effects, physical or emotional.

What Parents Can Do

These old school, low-tech remedies are the best advice experts can offer for soothing your colicky baby. At the very least, they’ll calm your nerves, so you’ll be less frazzled and better able to cope.

  • The Five S’s. “The combination of these methods helps a lot of people because it can help calm the child down,” Bennet says.
  1. Make a shushing sound
  2. Hold the baby on his or her side
  3. Sway the baby
  4. Swaddle the baby
  5. Suckle the baby with a bottle, by breastfeeding or with pacifier
  • Keep breastfeeding—don’t switch to formula. (Breastfed babies are less likely to suffer from colic, says Bennett).
  •  Get support and reassurance. Remember that this happens to a lot of babies and it will pass. Soon. Hang in there!

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