What works for treating colic, according to research?

Research Summary
Saurab Faruque
Research Assistant

Crying is normal for an infant and it often lets us know that they are healthy and growing babies. However, excessive crying, or colic, in infants younger than 6 months of age may signal a concern. Health care professionals recognize infant colic as a gastrointestinal disorder. Colic is defined as crying for over 3 hours per day, 3 or more days per week, for 3 weeks or longer in otherwise healthy infants. Colic may cause distress and can disrupt an infant's ability to feed. Parents of a colicky infant often feel exhausted and frustrated, which can lead to a burdened parent-child interaction. Mothers, especially, may be at a higher risk of depression and the burdened relationship may also have unintended consequences for the child’s social and emotional development.

Colic remains poorly understood and research has yet to pinpoint a cause, but excessive crying may be a result of environmental and/or physiological factors. Environmental factors include exposure to tobacco smoke, maternal stress, and maternal diet. Physiological factors include sensory processing capacity, food intolerance, the gut microbiome, and food allergies.

Although it remains unclear what causes colic and how to treat this disorder, some remedies seem to provide more relief than others. A systematic review analyzed the efficacy of common interventions for infant colic including the use of prescription medicines, maternal dietary interventions, and herbal medicines. 

Probiotics, or “good” bacteria, help control the growth of harmful bacteria in our intestines. Researchers found that L. reuteri, a type of probiotic, reduced the crying time in infants by an average of 55.8 minutes a day. They reported that this probiotic appears effective for breast-fed, mixed-fed, and formula-fed infants.

Fennel, an herb that was used in ancient Chinese medicine to relieve an upset stomach, has also been used to treat colic. Researchers looked at two preparations with fennel: tea and over-the-counter “ColiMil”. These preparations showed an average reduction of crying time by 72.1 minutes/day. However, they also reported a high placebo effect. A placebo effect means that other interventions showed similar effects as did the intervention of interest.  In this case, something that looks, smells, tastes, and is packaged to be just like “ColiMil,” but contains no herbs and only vitamins that aren’t related to colic treatment, yielded similar results to the real ColiMil in a large portion of the population that received the fake ColiMil. Because of this, there is no evidence that fennel itself is an effective treatment. 

The use of sucrose solution was also assessed. Infants treated with a sucrose solution showed a significant decrease in crying by 100.8 minutes a day, but high placebo response rates disqualified the efficacy of glucose treatments.

The key to a happy baby might be a happy belly. If your baby is colicky, consult with a pediatrician about adding probiotics, especially L. reuteri, to your baby’s diet. This may help provide relief, not only for your baby, but also for yourself.