Having a colicky, inconsolable baby can be one of the toughest parts of parenthood. Seeing your newborn cry and scream — without the slightest clue as to how you can help — is enough to make most moms and dads want to curl up and cry right along with the child. Making things worse, science isn’t really sure what causes colic, making a quick and simple treatment hard to find in many cases.
“Fussy or colicky babies can be a source of stress for parents, caregivers and doctors,” says Dr. Sonia Ballal, a gastroenterologist atBoston Children’s Hospital. “Right now, we do not completely understand what causes colic, which can make treating it quite difficult.”
Even though there isn’t enough data available to say definitively what causes colic, many of the prime suspects are thought to be gastrointestinal (GI) issues like reflux, constipation and poor motility in the baby’s GI tract. So, if a parent wants to avoid colic in her newborn (or reduce already occurring episodes) it stands to reason that she should do all she can to help her child avoid these conditions. The GI tract of newborns is already populated by billions of bacteria soon after birth. In recent studies, investigators have attempted to alter the flora and fauna of the bacteria in the gut to observe if it could have an effect on colic.
According to a study in JAMA Pediatrics, parents may be able to do just that with probiotics. Probiotics are bacteria thought to have a beneficial effect on the gut. These “good bacteria” can help with digestion and development of our immune system. They’re naturally found in yogurts and soft cheeses and other foods, but can also be easily bought over the counter in capsule, tablet, powder and liquid form.
“These data contribute to growing evidence that probiotics could be positive for infant GI tracts, possibly for a problem that is quite troubling for many parents,” Ballal adds. “Generally, probiotics are well-tolerated, which also make them an attractive treatment choice for children.”
For the study, researchers in Italy followed almost 600 infants for more than two years and found that babies who took probiotics starting their first week of life had fewer problems with constipation and reflux and were less likely to be colicky during their first three months. They also noted that not a single child in the study had any adverse reaction to the probiotics, reinforcing existing data that shows these supplements are safe for young children.
Given their safety, availability and fairly inexpensive price tag, Ballal sees no reason why parents shouldn’t trial probiotics to help alleviate fussiness in a baby currently having difficult crying jags.
She also says mothers may want to take probiotics too, either in the late stages of pregnancy or during breastfeeding, to make sure the child gets as much of the healthy effects of these bacteria early in life. And if you do choose to take probiotics or give them to your infant, Ballal says there’s no reason to spend too much time on researching different brands — it’s one of the few times in medicine that’s it’s perfectly acceptable to let convenience and price drive your decision.
“While understanding the gut bacteria and how to alter it with probiotics is an ever-changing field, we are starting to understand some dose and strain-specificity exists,” she says. “It’s too early to recommend all pregnant or nursing women take probiotics, however we may eventually be able to make such recommendations for certain groups.”
Learn more about Boston Children’s Division of Gastroenterology, Hepatology and Nutrition.