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Can Probiotics Cure Your Baby’s Crying?

June 18, 2014

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Few sounds are as disturbing as that of a crying baby. For parents of a colicky newborn who wails inconsolably, the stress can be downright brutal. “Colic” is most commonly defined as when an otherwise healthy baby cries uncontrollably for more than three hours a day, at least three days a week, for three or more weeks. Yes, that’s a lot of tears! It typically begins around two to three weeks of age and resolves on its own by three to four months. 

There are various theories about what triggers colic, but the cause is ultimately unknown. Some theories hypothesize that colicky babies are in digestive pain, while others believe that these babies have sensitive nervous systems and cry because they are over-stimulated. No one really knows, and because there is no known single cause, there is no real treatment. 

My husband and I just made it through four months of inconsolable crying. For hours every day, my daughter screamed in what appeared to be excruciating pain, and she eventually refused to eat. Nothing we did could soothe her; she would cry until she was purple and sweaty, until her screams faded into whimpering yowls, until she finally passed out in a limp pool of exhaustion in our arms. We treated her aggressively for both food allergies and acid reflux, but nothing helped. Her “colic” was crippling: we stopped seeing friends, we stopped cooking dinner, we stopped going to the gym, we even stopped having conversations with each other—how could we talk over the screaming? The carryout meals we ordered sat cold on the counter every evening as we rocked her. After she finally fell asleep, her screams continued to ring in my ears. My nerves were so shattered I had no appetite and couldn’t sleep during the few opportunities I had. 

The good news is that colic is temporary and has no lasting effects on a child’s wellbeing. The bad news is that parents must survive the 24/7 reality of a baby who screams relentlessly. The stress caused by colic can lead to postpartum depression, marital conflict, and even child abuse. Dismissing colic as simply a rite of passage for new parents glosses over the very real anguish it causes both babies and their families. After all, the sound of screaming babies is used during military training to prepare Navy SEALS to endure torture! 

There is a growing body of evidence, however, that something surprisingly simple might bring colicky babies relief: probiotics. Research has shown that giving colicky babies a supplement of “good bacteria”—specifically, the strain Lactobacillus reuteri—can significantly reduce crying time. Both a 2011 and 2012 study found that L. reuteri reduced crying time by 50% in breastfed infants. A recently published study found that the prophylactic use of L. reuteri could even prevent colic from developing to begin with. (The research isn’t airtight, however. Yet another recent study found that the probiotic had no benefit.) 

How L. reuteri might benefit infants is unclear, but it appears that at least in some cases, “colic” is in fact a gastrointestinal problem that the probiotic helps to heal. In adults, probiotics are known to improve intestinal function, boost the immune system, and reduce inflammation. The same may be true for babies, and because there are no known negative side effects to L. reuteri, it can’t hurt for desperate parents of colicky babies to give it a shot. 

When my doctor recommended probiotics as a final effort to soothe my daughter’s crying, I didn’t have much hope. But within 24 hours of giving my daughter the first dose of L. reuteri (I used Gerber Soothe Colic Drops), I noticed an immediate improvement. She cried less, ate more readily, and her body was relaxed in a way it had never been before. Several weeks later, it is now safe to say that she is significantly and dramatically better. 

Was it the probiotics? Or did my daughter finally just outgrow whatever plagued her, as everyone promised would happen? Maybe it was a combination of both? I’ll never know, but I will faithfully continue to give her her daily probiotics, say a quiet prayer of gratitude that she seems to feel better, and definitely recommend L. reuteri to any friends enduring the nightmare that is colic in the future. 

Have you had an experience with a colicky babe? Share your story in the comments below.