How to Treat Infant Colic

How to Treat Infant Colic

Colic, characterized by prolonged periods of inconsolable crying, affects up to 40 percent of young infants. The condition is often dismissed as trivial by the medical profession, but should be treated seriously, as I discuss in my video, Treating Infant Colic by Changing Mom’s Diet. It can contribute to postpartum depression, interfere with breastfeeding, and even lead to the death of the infant at the hands of a parent from shaken baby syndrome.

They’re not just crybabies. Colic is pain.

The medical profession has a scandalous history, not just denying pain relief to infants, but routinely performing surgery on infants with minimal or no anesthesia into the 1980s. One famous case in 1985 was little Jeffrey Lawson, who underwent open heart surgery fully awake and conscious. He had been given a drug to paralyze him so he wouldn’t squirm, but, like in a horror movie, the baby couldn’t move yet could feel everything. This wasn’t some rogue surgeon. Torturing babies was standard operating procedure in the 80s. Not the 1880s, mind you, but the 1980s.

“The liaison between the [American Academy of Pediatrics] AAP and the Society of Anesthesiologists commented that the use of paralyzing agents was a standard and time-honored technique…” The profession has a history of infant pain denial. They didn’t even think babies could feel pain. Even today, most physicians don’t use painkillers or even local anesthesia for circumcisions, a procedure so traumatic the babies show stronger pain responses to vaccinations even months later.

The pain of colic is thought to be caused by gastrointestinal discomfort, like intestinal cramping. In my Peppermint Oil for Irritable Bowel Syndrome and What to Take Before a Colonoscopy videos, I explored the role of peppermint oil in reducing intestinal spasms. Might it help with colic? A few drops of a peppermint leaf solution appeared to cut in half the number of colicky episodes and reduced daily crying from three hours to two hours, working just as well as simethicone, a leading over-the-counter drug for colic. The problem is that simethicone has been shown to have no benefit for colic. So, saying peppermint is as good as something shown to be useless isn’t exactly a ringing endorsement. And the American Academy of Pediatrics warns about the use of peppermint oil in infants.

One study found an herbal tea preparation to be helpful, but parents have been cautioned not to use it. Not only might tea interfere with breastfeeding continuity, but there is a lack of adequate industry regulation. For example, star anise tea is commonly used for colic. Chinese star anise is regarded as safe and nontoxic, but Japanese star anise is poisonous. They look identical, but Japanese star anise contains a potent neurotoxin, and it has been found contaminating star anise tea in the United States. So, we shouldn’t give it to kids.

There is even a report of toxicity from a supposed homeopathic dose of belladonna, also known as deadly nightshade, that evidently wasn’t homeopathic enough. Another report found the same. Just because it’s homeopathic doesn’t necessarily mean it’s safe.

It’s no better when doctors prescribe it, though. The drugs used for colic are made from belladonna, too. The drugs may work, but they should not be used because of their serious side effects.

What about just good old fashioned burping? After all, “[b]urping after feeding is commonly advised by paediatricians, nurses and parenting websites to promote expulsion of gases that accumulate during feeding with aim of decreasing discomfort and crying episodes.” Scientific evidence for the efficacy of burping was lacking until a 2014 randomized controlled trial for the prevention of colic and regurgitation (also known as spitting up) in healthy infants. What did they find? Burping is useless for colic and made the regurgitation worse. Burped babies spit up twice as many times as unburped babies!

So, what’s an effective treatment? The elimination of cow’s milk protein, since colic appears be some sort of allergic response. Decades ago, it was shown that infants fed cow’s milk developed antibody responses to the bovine proteins, which may explain why colic can improve after changing from a cow’s milk formula to either a hypoallergenic hydrolyzed protein formula or a soy-based formula.

Breast-fed infants have similar rates of colic as formula-fed infants, but that might be because breast milk from cow’s-milk-drinking mothers contains cow’s milk proteins. We know cow’s milk proteins can pass through breast milk and cause certain serious allergic reactions, but what about colic? Based on studies of formula-fed infants, colic was already a well-known symptom of intolerance to cow’s-milk protein back in the 1970s. So, thinking colic in breast-fed infants may be caused by cow’s-milk proteins transmitted from mother to infant via breast milk, researchers tried a dairy-free diet for breast-feeding mothers whose infants had colic. Of 19 infants, the colic disappeared promptly from 13 babies, and they were able to show they could bring back the colic in 12 of those 13 by challenging the mothers with a little dairy. For example, a baby boy develops colic that almost completely disappears within a day of his mom eliminating cow’s milk, and then the colic promptly comes back when mom goes back on dairy. The researchers conclude that the treatment for infantile colic in breast-fed infants is a diet free of cows’ milk for the mother—a recommendation that continues to this day.


Isn’t that horrifying about little Jeffrey Lawson’s open heart surgery? I’ve grown more and more cynical over the years, but it still shocks me how terribly wrong the medical profession can be in the face of overwhelming evidence and basic common sense. Now that more women are becoming physicians and graduating medical school classes are approximately 50:50 women and men, hopefully things will change for the better.

More on dairy in infancy and childhood:

More on healthy pregnancies:

In health,
Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven’t yet, you can subscribe to my free videos here and watch my live, year-in-review presentations:

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