An expecting or new mother fears a lot of possible future scenarios, but one of the more common and everyday issues that she is, unfortunately, more likely to face is also one of the most mysterious, baffling, and frustrating: colic, which one in five infants are said to have. In this article, we’ll go over the definition of colic as well as the link it has to diet - namely, the mother’s. We’ll offer tips for how you can modify your diet, including foods to avoid during breastfeeding, to prevent colic.
What is Colic?
Colic is one of the more challenging problems a new parent can face. It’s when your new baby cries in a prolonged, intense, and frequent way despite being otherwise healthy. Colicky babies most often have their episodes in the evening, making it even tougher on already-tired parents who desperately want peace and quiet. Naturally, it’s heartbreaking to watch your baby suffer and not know why, and colic is all the more frustrating because it doesn’t seem to have any particular cause and no amount of soothing seems to help.
Does Your Baby Have Colic?
Defined as an infant crying intensely for three or more hours a day, three or more days a week, for three or more weeks, colic usually peaks when an infant is about six weeks old and declines after they reach three or four months of age. It can happen to any baby: breastfed or formula-fed, male or female, premature or full-term.
Symptoms of colic include:
- Intense, often high-pitched crying that resembles screaming or an expression of pain
- Crying that doesn’t seem to be tied to any particular reason such as needing to be fed or get a diaper change
- Intense fussiness that continues even after the crying stops or declines
- Predictable timing of crying episodes that occur especially in the late afternoon or early evening
- Facial discoloration such as a reddened face or pale mouth
- Body tension in the legs, arms, fists, back, or abdomen
- Colic episodes followed by a bowel movement or passing of gas that may bring temporary relief
- The baby closing their eyes tight or opening them wide, furrowing their brow, or even holding their breath
- Crying that disrupts eating and sleeping patterns
It’s important to note that colic is a condition that occurs in otherwise healthy babies. If your baby is intensely crying on a regular basis, it’s important to rule out the possibility of a non-colic cause that is leading to pain or discomfort in your baby, such as illness. If your infant experiences excessive crying, you should schedule an appointment with your doctor to see if an underlying cause can be found instead of assuming that it must be colic. Together, you will be able to determine if your baby does indeed have colic.
Can Your Diet Really Upset Your Breastfed Baby?
While the causes of colic are unknown, there is much speculation about what may lead to this condition. Theories for potential reasons include an imbalance of healthy gut bacteria, childhood migraine, overstimulated senses, acid reflux, an undeveloped digestive system, food allergy, and tobacco exposure.
Another popular theory is that colic may be tied to the diet of the breastfed baby’s mother. According to WebMD, “A study published in the [November 2005] issue of Pediatrics suggests that excluding highly allergenic foods from a nursing mother's diet could reduce crying and fussiness in her newborn's first six weeks of life.”
There are several reasons to believe this may be the case. First, it’s known that the diet of a breastfeeding mother does affect the infant. If the mother consumes something that upsets the stomach of the newborn, this can lead to discomfort and crying. There also seems to be a link between colic and gastrointestinal distress; colicky infants are often gassy and passing gas is often followed by relief.
There are, in fact, several studies that have shown that a change in the mother’s diet can lead to a significant diminishment of colic symptoms, namely in how long the babies cried each day. Other studies have found a link between the consumption of certain foods by the breastfeeding mother and colic in breastfed infants. Ultimately, research suggests that an elimination diet may help ease symptoms of colic.
Learn more: What to eat while breastfeeding
Foods to Avoid
One category of colic foods to avoid while nursing is those that many people have an allergy to, such as:
- Cow’s milk
- Peanuts, tree nuts
With cow’s milk being the most common infant allergy. In one 2005 study, 74% of breastfed babies whose mothers ate a low-allergen diet eliminating all of the above ingredients showed significant improvement in colic.
Another type of colic baby breastfeeding food to avoid is the category of foods that often creates a lot of intestinal gas, namely cruciferous vegetables. This includes cabbage, cauliflower, broccoli, and brussels sprouts. One 1996 study found that mothers who ate diets high in cabbage, cauliflower, and broccoli were more likely to have colicky babies. As these foods are high in fructans, which are difficult to digest, they can cause gas and bloating.
It is often assumed that foods that are unhealthy for adults will also be unhealthy if they make it into a breastfed baby’s diet, which is why many sources recommend that breastfeeding mothers looking to reduce colic should avoid unhealthy foods such as highly-processed foods and foods high in saturated or trans fats.
While it is debatable whether chocolate is healthy for you or not, with dark chocolate in particular often being cited as a healthy food, the same 1996 study that linked certain cruciferous vegetables with colic also found that mothers who ate a lot of chocolate were more likely to have colicky babies. However, it isn’t specified which type of chocolate, and it very well may be that milk chocolate may have this effect due to containing cow’s milk. It’s also thought that the problem may be the acidity of chocolate, which can cause acid reflux.
Breastfeeding Diet for a Colic-Free Baby
While various sources may name a list of foods to eat while breastfeeding to avoid colic, there isn’t any scientific evidence pointing to the possibility that including certain particular foods in your diet can help colic. That being said, it is reasonable to conclude that a generally healthy lifestyle and diet with a variety of nutritious foods is what will be best for the mother and, in turn, the baby.
As such, a healthy diet for breastfeeding mothers to avoid colic may include:
- Plenty of water to stay hydrated
- Fruits and non-cruciferous vegetables
- Whole grains
- Lean proteins
- Apple cider vinegar
It’s particularly worth noting that there have been studies that have shown that probiotics can help colic by helping infants form a protective barrier against harmful bacteria and stimulating the immune system. One 2007 study found that “colic improved in a dramatic 95% of babies given Lactobacillus reuteri once per day for 1 month.” While it is not wise to begin a course of probiotics on your own, it may be something worth speaking to your doctor about.
If you want to go the more natural route, foods high in probiotics include:
- Sourdough bread
- Some cheeses
However, because many of these contain common allergens like dairy, wheat, and soy, kombucha has alcohol in it, and sauerkraut and kimchi are based on the cruciferous vegetable cabbage, you may not want to take the risk of eating them. For that reason, a doctor-approved probiotic dietary supplement might be the best route for mums who are considering probiotics as a solution to colic.
If you do decide to change your diet in response to colic, especially if you want to start probiotics or try an elimination diet, it’s important to consult a medical professional such as a dietitian, who can monitor you and your baby’s nutrition and health and make personalised recommendations.
At the end of the day, the unfortunate truth is that there is no “cure” for colic. However, you can be reassured by the fact that - diet change or no diet change - colic doesn’t last forever; there is an end in sight. Colic is not your fault and while you can do your best to treat it, you should never feel guilty that it is happening. Do your best, take care of yourself and your baby to the best of your ability, and - sooner or later - the colic will pass.