Photo by Maureen Noce Photography

Our son George was born over a month ago and we have been very fortunate to have not experienced colic with him. Colic is very distressing for parents.  It is a very common reason that parents bring their babies into my office, wondering if their baby is ill or if they are doing something wrong.  

The fact of the matter is that colic is benign.  This means that it does not mean your child is unwell or that your parenting abilities are lacking.  It will typically go away all on its own by the time your baby is 3-4 months old.

What is colic?

There is no official definition of what defines a colicky baby.  Generally, researchers use a guideline of crying for greater than 3 hours a day for 3 or more days per week for at least 3 weeks in an otherwise healthy baby less than 3 months of age.  

What causes some babies to be colicky?

Unfortunately, no one knows what causes colic.  There are a number of theories including gastrointestinal, biologic and psychosocial sources.  

The word colic comes from the Greek word “kolikos”, which roughly translates to colon.  This is why a large number of theories for the cause of colic focus on stomach or gas related reasons.  

Some of the possible gastrointestinal causes of colic that have been researched include: cow milk protein intolerance, lactose intolerance, gastrointestinal immaturity, and alterations in gut flora.

Not all probiotics are equal

One of the most common probiotics is Lactobacillus.  Probiotics have been researched as a potential treatment for infants with colic, specifically with Lactobacillus reuteri.  All other types of probiotics have not shown consistent results in trials and are not recommended as potential treatments.  

Probiotics containing L reuteri have only shown some potential benefit in breastfed infants.  The same results were not found in formula fed infants.  

Do probiotics work for treating colic?

Lactobacillus reuteri has been shown to improve an infant’s colic by 50% after two weeks of treatment.  

Approximately 25% of infants will not respond to treatment with L reuteri.

These results were only found in infants that were breastfed and not formula fed. 

Many physicians will opt to allow colic to run its course rather than treat with probiotics.  Colic will disappear on its own by 12 weeks of age. 

Probiotics are generally very expensive so their use should be weighed as cost versus potential benefit.

Side effects of probiotics

The most common side effects of L reuteri are constipation, gas, vomiting and skin reactions (though rare). 

Other ways to soothe colicky infants

The mainstay of calming a colicky baby is using a variety of soothing techniques and parent support and education.  

First try changing your feeding technique.  Try bottle-feeding in a more vertical position.  Utilize the help of a lactation consultant for breastfed infants. 

Then try other soothing techniques:

  • Try a pacifier
  • Go for a walk in the stroller or baby carrier
  • Increasing or decreasing sensory stimuli
  • Tummy massage
  • Rocking the baby in your arms or an infant swing
  • A warm bath
  • White noise

If you have a colicky baby, know that you are doing the best you can.  Take breaks from the crying baby by placing them in their crib and ask for help from friends and family.  

This post was co-authored by Erin Manchuk, BScPharm, BCGP and Stephanie Liu, MD, MSc, CCFP, BHSc.

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