Researchers at an Italian university reported today that giving infants a probiotic during their first three months of life can help prevent stomach problems like colic from developing.
The study, published in JAMA Pediatrics, found that administering five drops of the probiotic lactobacillus reuteri results in much shorter crying episodes, less spitting up, and less constipation.
It also saved parents money, said the authors from University of Bari Aldo Moro. “These conditions often cause numerous visits to the pediatrician, changes in feeding patterns, parental anxiety, and loss of parental working days with important socioeconomic consequences,” they wrote.
A probiotic is a dose of live bacteria similar to those found naturally in the body. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has not approved any health benefit claims associated with probiotics.
Probiotics, sometimes called “good bacteria,” can suppress the growth of “bad bacteria” like E. coli, said Dr. Frank Greer, a researcher at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and an expert in infant nutrition.
How Do Probiotics Help?
Although it's well known that probiotics influence the health of the gut, how they do so remains a mystery, Greer told Healthline, “I would certainly feel better about this study if anyone could explain how probiotics make colic better.”
Colic, while common and not life-threatening, can send even the most patient parents over the edge. Babies believed to have colic cry for at least three hours per day, at least three days per week.
The exact cause of colic is unknown. Hunger, acid reflux, gas, cow's milk proteins in breast milk, and overfeeding may all contribute to stomach problems associated with an uncomfortable baby.
“To think that colic can be cured by something as simple as a single probiotic is very unlikely,” Greer said. “It may help some babies with colic, but certainly not all.”
The study reported that infants who received the probiotic cried for about 38 minutes at a time, as opposed to 71 minutes. They spat up three times a day versus almost five times a day compared to infants who received a placebo.
The study involved 554 newborns in nine hospital pediatric units.
Breastfeeding, Crying, and Colic
Dr. Claudia Frye, a pediatrician at UnityPoint Health in Bettendorf, Iowa said babies with colic tend to cry for prolonged periods, often at the same time of day every day. The fact that the study was dependent on parental reporting further calls into question the severity of the crying fits.
“Some parents can have the fussiest baby in the world but tolerate it very well," she said. "Others can get to wits end with their baby.”
Frye said that the study has merit, but she cautioned that if an infant has asthma, eczema, or an autoimmune disorder, a probiotic should not be used.
“The natural process of establishing the right balance of lactobacillus and other micro-organisms naturally in the intestine helps your body do what it is supposed to do with what you eat,” she said. “We need to understand how this works in the body.”
Interfering with that process—by not breast-feeding, giving an infant antibiotics, or keeping a baby in an overly sterile environment—may lead to colic. Colic also can be caused by factors not related to stomach problems, such as an under-developed nervous system.
Although some have speculated that lactobacillus reuteri is present in breast milk, Greer and Frye don't believe it. Frye said the bacteria can colonize a mother's skin, so breast-fed babies might get it that way.
“As a grandfather of five grandchildren below the age of six, all exclusively breast-fed, they all had fussy times of days,” Greer said.
Everyone has varying levels of probiotics in their system, Frye said, so dosing is a challenge. Frye and Greer both noted that the study did not take into account other medications and herbs the children may have been taking.
The study showed that parents who used the probiotic as a preventive measure saved almost $119 per child on health care costs.
BioGaia, a large manufacturer of probiotics based in Sweden, funded the study and provided the lactobacillus used in the experiment.