Colic: The Unhappy Hour(s)

It's the “C word” in new parent circles. While many parents are forewarned about colic and worry that their baby might have it, many don’t even know what colic is. So, this post explains what colic is, and what (if anything) you can do about it.

Q. What is colic, anyway?

It is known as the Rule of Three’s. It starts around three weeks of age. The baby cries for about three hours straight (beginning right around “happy hour” —ironic, right?). And, it lasts until the baby is three months old. About 15% of all babies are afflicted with this malady.

Q. What causes colic?

Although scientists have been studying colic for years, no one knows exactly what causes it. Many experts think the problem is due to immaturity of the gastrointestinal or digestive system. So over the years, doctors have tried treating it with medications to reduce gas, relax the intestinal muscles, or cause sedation. None of these medications really help. The best treatment for colic is time….all babies eventually outgrow colic.

Some babies who seem “colicky” actually have a medical diagnosis. So, it is important to check in with your baby’s doctor if you've got a chronically fussy baby on your hands. Some babies have heartburn (gastroesophageal reflux disease or GERD). Those babies are usually miserable all day and night or around feedings—not just for a three hour period everyday. Other babies may have a cow’s milk protein allergy and don’t start to show signs of discomfort until several weeks of being exposed to the milk protein going through mom’s breast milk or in standard cow’s milk-based formula.

Q. What can I do to help my baby with colic?

What’s a parent to do? (Because, of course, we are all compelled to do something to help our babies feel better even when the doc tells you there is no treatment but time.) After browsing the net, you’ll no doubt find many colic treatments that make miraculous (and unregulated) claims.

My advice before starting any treatment is to ask yourself this question: Am I treating my child to make myself feel better (because I feel I am doing something), or does the therapy really work?

Q. Are there any new studies on treating colic?

A study published today in the journal, Pediatrics examines the scientific evidence supporting the most popular complementary and alternative therapies for colic. So, there isn't any breakthrough research here…it just puts this issue into perspective. Here’s what they found: Of 1764 studies done between 1991-2008, 15 were considered reasonable enough to review. Of those, only 8 of them were well designed. And here’s a key point: most of the purported treatments and effectiveness reported in a study have not been independently verified by other studies. Good science is like a good recipe—it can be repeated with the same results.

That said, let’s take a look at the therapies:


  1. Spinal manipulation—Four studies were reviewed. Some parents reported improvement in the studies, but all the studies had methodical weaknesses. One study on chiropractic treatment showed no improvement in the number of hours a baby cried.
  2. Herbal remedies—Herbs included chamomile/fennel/licorice/vervain/balm mint tea or fennel seed oil*. Three studies were reviewed. The small number of children enrolled in the studies limited the strength of the findings. But, parents noted a significant reduction in colic symptoms compared to the untreated group. Fennel is thought to work by having a relaxing (antispasmodic) effect on the gut and increasing the gut’s motility.
  3. Sugar remedies—Babies were given either a glucose or sucrose* solution. Five studies were reviewed. Both sugary supplements seemed to help reduce colic symptoms.
  4. Probiotics—Two studies were reviewed. In one study, one group of babies received a probiotic (L reuteri) and the other group received anti-gas drops (simethicone). 95% of parents reported improvement with the probiotic, compared to just 7% with the anti-gas drops.
  5. Massage therapy—One study showed conflicting results. 93% of parents reported improvement in symptoms, yet 21% said there was no effect after the treatment itself. This calls into question if symptoms just improved with time.
  6. Reflexology—There was no difference between targeted and nontargeted therapies which suggests that there is just some healing power of touch!

*More than one study found similar results.

Bottom line: None of these treatments are truly supported by the scientific evidence we have to date. More research is in order to help these babies and their parents!

Q. Given the lack of data, what do you recommend to your patients?

If everyone in the house is miserable, I suggest trying “gripe water” (a combination of ginger and fennel) or a daily dose of L. reuteri probiotics. Both products are available in pharmacies and online. I don’t make any promises, but I have seen some scientific evidence of their benefit and safety. I’d certainly like to see more research on colic, though!