Science Has Maybe Found A Way To Help Colicky Babies (Please, Fingers Crossed)

For his first week or so on earth, my son was a model baby, slipping easily in and out of sleep and fussing only when he obviously needed to be fed. Then everything changed.

For varying stretches — sometimes 20 minutes, sometimes two or more soul-sucking hours — he’d scream and wail, and nothing my husband and I tried helped. We swaddled and shushed. We ran the vacuum cleaner and the faucet while desperately bouncing him on a birthing ball. His crying fits often began in the evening, but they didn’t adhere to any clear pattern, so friends and family left wondering what the hell we were talking about when we fearfully whispered about the 9-pound creature trying to ruin us. 

Our son’s pediatrician, thankfully, confirmed that we were not nuts. Our baby, like many others, had colic, meaning he cried for more than three hours a day, three days a week, for more than three weeks. Beyond that, the pediatrician couldn’t offer much help. Doctors do not fully understand what colic is or how to stop it, and so we white-knuckled it through the next few months until — as suddenly as it had began — the colic lifted. It was baffling and draining, and the memory of those crying jags still gives me instant anxiety.

This week, the American Academy of Pediatrics published a late holiday present for spooked parents of colicky babies like yours truly. A new review of four double-blind, randomized, controlled studies found that a probiotic ― formally known as Lactobacillus reuteri DSM17938 ― can reduce crying and fussing in breastfed babies with colic.

After 14 days, nearly 60 percent of breastfed infants receiving the probiotic improved, which the researchers defined as a 50 percent reduction in the babies’ baseline amount of crying. By 21 days, two-thirds had improved. (Because only one of the four trials included formula-fed colicky babies, there simply isn’t enough data at this point to say whether probiotics could help them, too.)

“Many parents search desperately for something that will treat or even ‘cure’ their baby’s colic,” said Holly Klaassen, founder and editor of The Fussy Baby Site, a well-known community for parents of colicky and “high needs” babies. “Unfortunately, doctors haven’t been able to provide many answers to this point, which leaves many parents feeling extremely frustrated.”

Klaassen told HuffPost that she fields questions about treatments for colic every single day. 

Though the new review holds promise, it by no means suggests that probiotics are a cure ― again, because doctors and researchers still do not fully understand why up to a quarter of otherwise healthy babies cry and fuss so much.

What is clear is that the infant’s digestive system is a major factor, whether it’s dealing with bacterial changes or is simply not developed enough yet. And broadly speaking, probiotics — which are live “good” bacteria — can improve gut health through a number of mechanisms that, once again, are not fully understood. 

Because such major questions remain — and because one of the four studies concluded probiotics don’t make much of a difference — an editorial accompanying the review in the journal Pediatrics argued that it is too soon to recommend probiotics for colicky babies, breastfed or not. The editorial pointed out that the incidence of colic in infants who are not given probiotics drops with time as well, from 20 percent in the first six weeks of life to 11 percent by weeks eight or nine.

But nine weeks can feel like an eternity when you’re spending hour upon hour failing to comfort your screaming baby. Research shows that colic can strain family relationships, increase the risk for parental depression and impact breastfeeding.

Parents who are interested in trying probiotics should talk to their child’s doctor first, said Dr. Javay Ross, a primary care pediatrician with UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital Oakland, who did not work on the review but has read it and told HuffPost she was encouraged by its findings. She has already recommended probiotics to at least one parent of a colicky baby.

“We’re just in the beginning stages of general pediatricians incorporating this into practice,” Ross said. “A year from now, we’ll have a better sense of whether this is a game changer for real.”

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