Trying to soothe a colicky baby is not for the faint-hearted. The hours of crying, high-pitched screaming and watching your little one writhe in pain can make any parent feel helpless. But recent research has shown that giving your infant probiotics—specifically, a probiotic strain known as BB-12—might be able to offer some colic relief.

A randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled clinical trial published in 2021 found that when breastfed infants with colic who were 12 weeks of age or younger were given a daily liquid suspension of 1 billion colony-forming units (CFU) of BB-12 probiotics, they had 50% fewer crying episodes, a 56% reduction in crying time per day and an hour more of sleep per day, as compared to infants receiving placebo.

"Even though colic is considered a benign condition, colic can put a lot of stress on caregivers," notes pediatrician Lauren Crosby, MD, who practices in Beverly Hills, and is a scientific advisor for TruBiotics. In the 2021 study, parents of the infants given BB-12 reported significantly higher quality of life scores too, Dr. Crosby shares. "Something all families can get excited about!" she adds.

Related: Do I need to give my baby vitamins? A dietitian shares what you need to know

What causes colic?

"The true cause of colic is not known," Dr. Crosby tells Motherly, "But there are several theories, such as a general immaturity of a baby’s nervous system or of their digestive system, an infant who is easily overstimulated or an imbalance of the bacterial population in the baby’s gut microbiome."

It’s a myth that gas causes colic: Some colicky babies also have gas due to the amount of air they swallow when crying—but it’s not gas that causes the crying.

Colic is a diagnosis of exclusion, Dr. Crosby notes, which means that other potential causes of the excessive crying have already been ruled out by your pediatrician.

What are the symptoms of colic?

Colic is typically diagnosed by the 3/3/3 rule: When an infant under 3 months of age cries for more than three hours, more than three days a week. 

Additional signs your infant has colic are listed below: 

  • A regular period of nonstop, inconsolable crying, typically late in the day
  • High-pitched crying or screaming bouts that last one to three hours or more
  • A red face or pale skin around the mouth
  • May pull in their legs, stiffen their arms, arch their back or clench their fists when crying
  • A healthy and happy disposition at all other times of the day

Colic is a condition where a baby cries a lot more than most babies do, says Dr. Crosby. "But the baby acts normally/content between bouts of crying because typically, these are otherwise healthy babies." Most babies seem to outgrow colic by the time they turn 3 months old.

How can taking probiotics for colic help?

In infancy, probiotics under the genus bifidobacteria dominate the digestive tract, whereas in adulthood, those under the lactobacillus genus become more dominant, states Pam Cebulski, general manager consumer brands, and senior vice president of marketing at TruBiotics.

Bifidobacterium animalis BB-12 is a specific bifidobacteria strain that has been extensively studied for its ability to address an infant’s digestive challenges by increasing beneficial bifidobacteria in the gut and supporting a baby's developing digestive system. "As the most documented bifidobacterial strain in the world, BB-12 has been shown to soothe digestive upsets, reduce excessive crying and fussing, and improve sleep duration," notes Cebulski.

Other types of probiotics such as L. reuteri and B. breve may help with colic, too, but none have been as well studied as BB-12.

Related: Taking a probiotic in early pregnancy may reduce morning sickness

Should you give your infant probiotics?

Even babies without colic can benefit from taking a probiotic, notes Dr. Crosby. "I work with families who breastfeed, formula-feed, and do a combination of both. No matter what their choice is, a probiotic might be an option to help support their digestive health."

A probiotic may also be helpful if your baby was born via C-section. "I recommended that babies born by C-section, whether breastfed or formula fed, take probiotics because they don’t have the same intestinal bacterial colonization as babies who are born via vaginal delivery do," she notes. "C-section babies have a less diverse gut microbiome which can impact the development of the immune system, allergies, eczema, irritable bowel, inflammatory bowel disease and obesity."

Check in with your pediatrician

If you're curious about incorporating a probiotic, speak to your child's pediatrician, who can recommend a specific strain and brand. "Different probiotic strains are researched for different health benefits. I suggest identifying the health benefits you want for your child, speaking with their pediatrician, and then selecting the strain(s) researched for their specific needs," notes Dr. Crosby.

Featured experts

Pam Cebulski is general manager consumer brands and senior vice president of marketing at TruBiotics.

Lauren Crosby, MD, is a pediatrician who practices in Beverly Hills, and a scientific advisor for TruBiotics.

Sources

Chen K, Zhang G, Xie H, et al. Efficacy of Bifidobacterium animalis subsp. lactis, BB-12® on infant colic - a randomised, double-blinded, placebo-controlled studyBenef Microbes. 2021;12(6):531-540. doi:10.3920/BM2020.0233

Maldonado-Lobón JA, Blanco-Rojo R, Maldonado J, et al. Efficacy of Bifidobacterium breve CECT7263 for infantile colic treatment: an open-label, parallel, randomised, controlled trialBenef Microbes. 2021;12(1):55-67. doi:10.3920/BM2020.0105

Odamaki, T., Kato, K., Sugahara, H. et al. Age-related changes in gut microbiota composition from newborn to centenarian: a cross-sectional studyBMC Microbiol 16, 90 (2016). doi:10.1186/s12866-016-0708-5

Sung V, D’Amico F, Cabana MD, Chau K, Koren G, Savino F, Szajewska H, Deshpande G, Dupont C, Indrio F, Mentula S. Lactobacillus reuteri to treat infant colic: a meta-analysis. Pediatrics. 2018 Jan 1;141(1). doi:10.1542/peds.2017-1811

A version of this story was originally published on Jan. 3, 2018. It has been updated.