Life with a colicky baby can be quite trying. Inconsolable crying and fussiness that can't be soothed wears on parents' nerves just as clearly as it signals a baby in distress. No one knows what causes colic in a baby but a number of studies have evaluated the use of probiotics to make life easier for the baby and its entire household. A new study, conducted a little differently than most, indicates that probiotics are actually no help in most cases.
Probiotics are beneficial microbes that naturally inhabit the human body. Yogurt's claims to boost the immune system and regulate digestion are based on the probiotics that turn milk into yogurt. Once consumed, these same probiotics take up residence in the gut, where their health benefits are most useful.
Colic causes severe, fluctuating abdominal pain associated with a build-up of gas or intestinal obstruction. About 20% of all babies become colicky during the first three months of life. They cry inconsolably for a minimum of three hours a day, at least three days a week, for three weeks or longer. Breastfeeding can become a problem and the stress can magnify postpartum depression and other parental stresses.
Valerie Sung, a pediatrician at Australia's Royal Parkville Hospital, used probiotic supplements to explore just how useful probiotics really are when fussy babies take them.
The Sung research team recruited 167 babies for the study. Each baby was younger than 3 months and had met medical guidelines for colic. Some of them were breastfed and some were formula-fed. Eighty-five of them were randomly chosen to receive probiotic supplements and the remaining 82 received placebos. Neither the researchers nor the parents knew which baby was getting probiotic or placebo.
The goal of the study was to see how long each baby cried each day one month after the trial began. Additional markers included:
- Duration of crying or fussy spells
- Number of episodes per day
- Sleep duration at day 7, 14, 21, 30, and 180
- Mental maternal well-being
- Family function
- Parental quality of life at 1 and 6 months
- Measure of microbiota in the baby's feces
- Fecal calprotectin levels at 1 month (a biochemical marker for intestinal inflammation)
At the one-month milestone, the average daily time spent crying or fussing was reduced in both groups (probiotic or placebo). Even though duration of distress was reduced, the babies in the probiotic group were fussy for an average of 49 minutes longer than those given placebo, with the formula-fed babies in the probiotic group exhibiting the most distress.
No measurable improvements were noted for family or maternal well-being, baby's sleep quality, or composition of gut microbiome. No adverse events developed during the study.
In previous studies, parents knew their child was getting probiotics and could optimistically report improvement or the study involved only breastfed babies.
Source: Sung, Valerie, et al. "Treating infant colic with the probiotic Lactobacillus reuteri: double blind, placebo controlled randomised trial." BMJ. BMJ Publishing Group Ltd. Apr 1, 2014. Web. Apr 15, 2014.