Now, a new analysis of these popular approaches finds little convincing evidence they work.
Although some encouraging results were found for fennel, mixed herbal tea, and sugar solutions, Edzard Ernst, MD, PhD, who conducted the analysis, has this suggestion: "The advice is not to use any complementary treatment on them, because some of them are not risk free. All of them cost money."
Instead? "Just apply common sense and TLC, which seem to be the best treatment for that condition anyway," says Ernst, a professor of complementary medicine at Peninsula Medical School, Universities of Exeter and Plymouth in the U.K.
If that's not enough, he concedes, fennel tea is probably OK.
Colic: When and How It Strikes
The cause of colic is still not known. It occurs most commonly in the first four months of life.
Besides constant crying, the baby may curl up the legs, clench the fists, and tense up the abdominal muscles. Crying can begin for no apparent reason. It can persist for three hours or more on a single day.
Doctors consider it to be colic when the crying occurs more than three hours daily, three days a week for more than three weeks in a baby who is otherwise healthy.
About one in five babies develop colic. A drug used in the past, dicyclomine hydrochloride, was found effective. But after reports of severe and potentially fatal side effects, it fell out of favor.
Colic Treatments: The Possibilities
In searching possible complementary medicine colic treatments, Ernst and his team found studies from medical databases through February 2010.
They narrowed the analysis down to 15 clinical trials. Ernst says all had flaws.
The studies looked at different treatments, including:
- Herbal products, such as fennel extract and teas with chamomile, licorice, and other ingredients
- Sugar solutions
- Chiropractic manipulation
- Probiotics (the use of ''friendly bacteria")
- Reflexology (applying pressure to points in hands and feet to promote bodily functions)
Despite the encouraging results for fennel, mixed herbal teas, and sugar solution, Ernst writes that design flaws in the study make it impossible to recommend the treatments.
His best advice? ''See a doctor who can differentiate between serious problems and simple colic." Once that's done, he says, "you don't need to worry about him being seriously ill."
Patience can help. "It goes away, treated or untreated," Ernst says.
Colic Treatments: More Options
Lawrence Rosen, MD, a pediatrician in Oradell, N.J., disagrees with Ernst's advice to do nothing about colic.
"There are always limitations to these studies," he says of those reviewed by Ernst.
"There have been some recent studies on probiotics that did find a significant difference," he says, with reduced crying times.
For parents looking for relief for their child, Rosen says he suggests:
- Fennel or chamomile tea
- Infant massage (parents must learn the technique from a medical professional)
Before parents try any of these, he says it's important to first rule out other problems, such as a blockage in the intestines.
Among other suggested measures from the American Academy of Pediatrics:
- Strap the infant to a soft-side baby carrier in the front of your body.
- Gently rub the baby's back.