The probiotic Lactobacillus reuteri may help treat colicky breastfed babies less than 3 months old, report researchers.
An international study has found that a specific probiotic group is twice as likely as a placebo to reduce crying by 50 percent after three weeks of treatment for colicky babies who are exclusively breastfed.
While we don’t know what causes colic, we do know it can be hard to handle. The condition is defined as “episodes of crying that last for more than three hours a day, for more than three days a week, for three weeks, in an otherwise well-fed, healthy child.”
The condition, which affects one in five families, is most common in babies less than three to four months old—and typically goes away over time, but that doesn’t make it any less frustrating and distressing for new parents. There’s been no effective treatment for colic.
“…a few minutes of crying can seem an eternity, let alone more than three hours of crying a day.”
The Murdoch Children’s Research Institute led the study on the probiotic Lactobacillus reuteri DSM 17938.
Valerie Sung, the lead author and pediatrician, says many studies have looked at the role of probiotics in treating colic, but this particular strain shows promise.
Although previous studies of Lactobacillus reuteri for infant colic have shown conflicting results, this collaborative study confirms that Lactobacillus reuteri is effective in reducing crying in breastfed babies with colic—although conclusions cannot be drawn for formula-fed babies.
“Families of exclusively breastfed babies with colic now have an option of trying something that may help, whereas in the past, there really was no effective option available,” says Sung.
Evaluating the probiotic
The study, published in Pediatrics, combines raw data from four major high-quality, double-blind, placebo-controlled Lactobacillus reuteri trials, in Italy, Poland, Canada, and Australia.
The team worked together to analyze data from 345 babies less than three months old with colic. It is the first and largest analysis of Lactobacillus reuteri for treating infant colic, and the results were compared with babies who received a placebo.
Lactobacillus reuteri is the most commonly found lactobacillus species in the human gut, though not always and often in relatively low numbers. Animal studies indicate that it may change pain perception in the guts of rats, modulate how the gut contracts, and increase the protective effects of the mucus layers of the gut.
Both human and animal studies have shown it can reduce gut inflammation and kill bacteria, or stop their unwanted effects. Interestingly, the probiotic has the ability to inhibit the bacteria E. coli—which has been shown to be more abundant in the guts of babies with colic than those without.
Sung, an honorary fellow at the pediatrics department of the University of Melbourne, led the Australian part of the trial. It was the la
rgest trial and the only one to include both breastfed and formula-fed babies. It took place in 2011 and included 167 babies with colic.
At that time, researchers found that Lactobacillus reuteri was ineffective. However, when this information was combined with the three other international trials, it seems Lactobacillus reuteri is effective for babies with colic who are exclusively breastfed.
“Because of the controversial results, we decided to team up with the other researchers from the other three high-quality trials to combine the data, creating more power and accuracy in determining the probiotic’s overall effectiveness,” says Sung.
What about formula-fed babies?
And while the study is hopeful, the lack of studies on formula-fed babies mean it’s not necessarily an automatic cure.
“Unfortunately, I am not aware of any trials to examine the probiotic’s effectiveness for formula-fed babies with colic. This is a challenging area of research, because nowadays, many baby formulae have added probiotics and prebiotics which can potentially contaminate research results,” she says.
According to Sung, the effectiveness of this treatment will require assessment on a case-by-case basis.
“It is also important to remember that each probiotic strain works differently. Lactobacillus reuteri is the only probiotic strain that may help crying babies who are breastfed.”
‘Hang in there’
But for new parents struggling with a colicky newborn, it may help.
“Having been a parent of a crying baby, I know that a few minutes of crying can seem an eternity, let alone more than three hours of crying a day,” says Sung.
“For any parent worried about their baby’s crying, it is important to seek help from their local doctor. Once the doctor has made sure there is no medicaImogen Crump-Melbournel reason for the baby’s crying, then a three week trial of the probiotic Lactobacillus reuteri may be helpful for babies who are breastfed.
“Most of all, it is comforting to know that the crying period does end after four months. So to all parents of crying babies, hang in there.”