Keep Crying: Colic Treatments Don't Work

A colicky baby presents an unsettling challenge for a parent an infant crying without a known reason, and often without a way of calming him down. But while parents may turn to the Internet for a solution, a new review of studies finds that there is little to suggest the "solutions" they find will help, and some could present a danger.

The review analyzed 15 randomized clinical trials (a gold standard in health studies) that looked at alternative treatment s for colic and found that none of them could be adequately shown to remedy crying due to colic. Some could also present significant side effects.

"Despite a plethora of promises to the contrary, there is no truly effective alternative," study researcher Dr. Edzard Ernst, a professor of complementary medicine at Peninsula Medical School in England, told MyHealthNewsDaily. Ernst is referring to the fact that there's no alternative to just soothing your baby with some TLC.

It is unknown what causes colic. A number of theories have emerged in an attempt to explain the fussy disposition , tying it to cramps or the uneven development of the baby's digestive system, but it remains unclear.

As there are no tests for colic it is currently identified only by the crying by someone too young to express reasons for it. Colic is diagnosed based on what is known as the rule of 3s: a healthy baby under 3 months of age who, without another explanation, cries for 3 hours at a time 3 or more days per week. The crying also seems to increase in the late afternoon.

The review by Ernst and colleagues looked at a variety of treatments, ranging from chiropractic manipulations and probiotics to herbal tea, sugar solutions and fennel.

"The average parent might waste money and time on useless treatments. A baby receiving spinal manipulation might suffer severe complications," Ernst said.

While none of the treatments examined passed muster, Ernst singled out chiropractic manipulations as a treatment not worth further study as a colic remedy because of a lack of benefit and the risks involved.

But for understandably frustrated parents, the evidence on alternative treatments is that simply trying them out isn't a good game plan. To be sure, some of the trials, such as those for fennel extract, herbal tea and sugar solutions, were more promising than others, but none were shown conclusively to work or what the difference would be between an effective dose and a dangerous one.

"The message for the community should be not to use alternative medicines until we know what to expect from it," said Dr. Nora Esteban, assistant director of pediatric hospital medicine at The Children's Hospital at Montefiore in New York, who was not involved in the study. "We just see so many babies get intoxicated with these forms of home remedies or over-the-counter medications."

"During infancy, there is very poor tolerance," said Esteban, explaining that small doses that would do nothing in an adult can hurt a child. "There is this misconception that natural remedies are safe, but we definitely know that is not the case. Even things that seem so benign as fennel can be neurotoxic, and cause seizures and potentially death," she said, noting that she has seen it happen in her practice.

She noted that some of the remedies examined in the studies are recommended for other situations, but not appropriate or safe for treating colic.

For example, sugar water is often recommended for situations when babies will undergo something painful, such as a vaccination . But it can present a problem when it is used for a chronic ailment like colic.

"For one episode, I don't think anyone would argue it certainly can be done," Esteban said. "With colic, it's usually something that happens several times a day."

In addition to the simple issue of giving the baby a lot of sugar, she said another problem is that some babies begin teething earlier than usual, and if they are having sugar water regularly, "you could affect those baby teeth, and even having early teeth affected can lead to future dentation problems."

But that does not mean parents are completely without options to soothe their unhappy babies. White noise, swinging or a car ride may help.

Esteban recommended general soothing techniques, such as spending time with the baby and rubbing them gently.

Ernst had similar advice in treatment, recommending "none except tender loving care (which is free and safe)."

Esteban said "every pediatrician wishes they could have an answer, because it's very distressing and it makes life difficult for families."

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Joe Brownstein
Joe Brownstein is a contributing writer to Live Science, where he covers medicine, biology and technology topics. He has a Master of Science and Medical Journalism from Boston University and a Bachelor of Arts in creative writing and natural sciences from Johns Hopkins University.