Colic in Babies: Here’s What The Science Says About Breastfeeding & Diet

This is a guest post from Stephanie Canale, M.D., a family physician at UCLA and co-founder of Lactation Lab. Canale is a mom of two young kids and currently resides in Los Angeleswhere her practice focuses on young families.

For parents or caregivers of babies with colic, it’s understandable why so many continue to search for answers, solutions and treatments. It can be heart-wrenching to watch a baby cry in pain and not be able to do anything to help.

Colic is a condition that is not very well defined. Back in the 1950’s colic was described as a condition that affects up to 25 percent of normal newborns and characterized by crying for more than 3 hours per day, for more than 3 days per week and lasting more than 3 weeks. It typically starts at 2 weeks of life, peaks at 6 weeks, and then resolves by 12 weeks.

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There is no doubt that colic, fussiness, gas and irritability account for numerous concerns from parents. A colicky baby is a tough baby and newborns are already tough! It’s made harder by the fact that colic can impact sleep — which, with a newborn, is everything! — and that there’s not one clear way to treat it, other than let time work its magic.

There are many theories about what causes colic, but no definitive answers. The truth is its probably a combination of one or more of the following and varies for each child:

  • Immature nervous system
  • Immature gut
  • GERD (gastroesophageal reflux disease)
  • Slow gut motility
  • Milk protein allergy
  • Food sensitivities

Assuming your baby is breastfed, diet is typically the first thing your pediatrician will look at and is generally the “easiest” to address. I put easiest in quotes because it’s a fairly simple elimination diet, but I also understand that not eating some of your favorite foods can be tough! The good new is that with diet changes, we typically see results within days.

Although there is very little published data on foods to avoid and the exact reason why certain foods may act as they do on your baby’s tummy, it’s generally thought that FODMAPS, highly indigestible, slowly absorbed carbohydrates called fermentable oligosaccharides, disaccharides, monosaccharides and polyols, are a culprit.

These are foods that are tough to digest and typically produces gas in adults. The list of FODMAPS is similar to the list of foods to avoid for adults who suffer from IBS.

Some examples of foods containing FODMAPS are: apples, pears, watermelon, asparagus, garlic, onions, un-ripened soft cheeses (e.,g, ricotta), cashews, beans, and artificial sweeteners, such as mannitol, sorbitol, xylitol and maltitol.

A small study of 18 women looked at the effect of decreasing FODMAP intake on colic in babies. The results showed a subjective decrease in fussiness. While this was a small sample and doesn’t give us objective data, it certainly suggests that a FODMAP diet is worth a try.

You can find a full list of FODMAP foods here. The bottom line is that eating a low FODMAP diet may decrease colic symptoms and even though the exact mechanism of action is not well known, there’s no downside (other than missing some of your favorite foods) not to give it a try.

I recommend removing these foods from your diet for 2-3 weeks before deciding if the FODMAP diet is effective.

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