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Can Breastfeeding Help With Colic? An Expert Explains

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A colicky baby isn't just heartbreaking for a parent to watch — it's also incredibly hard to deal with. When your little one is screaming for hours on end, and you have no idea how to stop it or prevent it from happening again, you'll try pretty much anything. Luckily, there are plenty of suggestions out there, including breastfeeding to help with colic. Since previous research has linked colic to gut issues, it makes sense to wonder if breast milk — and the act of breastfeeding itself — can help.

But before you start trying out different potential colic remedies, make sure your baby is actually suffering from colic. Dr. Joel Lim, pediatric gastroenterologist, tells Romper, "Colic is excessive, inconsolable crying during the first three months of life." Excessive is the key word there. Of course babies cry and get fussy, but Lim says colic is characterized as crying lasting for three hours or more each day, and happening three or more days in one week. If this is occurring with no other obvious cause, and if the infant isn't showing signs of any other illness and is a healthy weight and generally healthy, then they likely have colic.

Doctors and researchers don't actually know the exact cause of colic, but they do have an idea of what may be going on. "Some factors that have been proposed are cow's milk protein intolerance or allergy, and stomach issues — which include gassiness, sensitivity to stimulation, and inability to calm themselves due to a developing nervous system, to name a few," says Lim. Some research has shown a correlation between an infant having colic and the mother consuming cow's milk, which has led professionals to suggest that if breastfeeding mothers avoid cow's milk and other similar allergens, this may help a colicky baby.

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But more research is needed, and this still isn't proof that breastfeeding is a remedy — or cause — of colic. "The prevalence of colic is reportedly similar in both breastfed and formula-fed infants," says Lim. There is just no proof or evidence that breastfeeding can help with colic. Breastfed babies can still be colicky, and, in fact, many are. A study from 2002 looked at 856 mothers and found that breastfeeding does not have a protective effect on the development of colic. That said, Lim points out that this shouldn't discourage you from breastfeeding as it "provides a number of benefits to your baby."

So what can you do for your screaming, fussy little infant? When you're feeling absolutely desperate to make the tears stop coming, there are a few natural ways to go about the situation. Lim says that while managing colic can be "challenging," there are some things to try. These include "limiting the swallowing of air, which may include frequent burping" and "promoting physical contact and gentle movements, like side-to-side rocking." If you are breastfeeding, modify your diet, especially if you suspect an allergy or intolerance (this is something you'll want to discuss with your child's pediatrician).

Lim also recommends a probiotic. "Comforting probiotic L.reuteri has the most support regarding dietary strategies to help address colic symptoms when there is not an underlying medical condition, like a cow’s milk protein allergy. It is a probiotic similar to those found in breast milk." You can find probiotic supplements, like infant drops, in drugstores and online. Before you introduce a probiotic to your infant, however, be sure to speak with your pediatrician.

And in the end, just remember this: colic generally only lasts the first three months of a baby's life, so this isn't a forever type of situation. You've got this. Be sure to reach out for help if you're feeling overwhelmed or stressed.

Studies referenced:

Clifford T, Campbell K, Speechley K. (2002) Empirical Evidence of the Absence of an Association With Source of Early Infant Nutrition. Arch Pediatr Adolesc Med, https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jamapediatrics/fullarticle/204059.

Leung, A. (2003) Dietary manipulations for infantile colic. Journal of Paediatrics and Child Health, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2791658/.

Experts:

Dr. Joel Lim, pediatric gastroenterologist and Gerber Medical Director