Cow’s milk proteins can pass through breast milk—which may explain why maternal dairy-free diets are so effective in treating infant colic.
Vegetables tested head-to-head to see which boosts immune function best.
Colic affects up to 40% of young infants. Characterized by prolonged periods of inconsolable crying, the condition is often dismissed as trivial by the medical profession, but should be treated seriously. 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; they just gave him a drug to paralyze him so he wouldn’t squirm. But, like a horror movie, he couldn’t move, but could feel everything. This wasn’t some rogue surgeon; torturing babies was standard operating procedure in the 80s. Not the 1880s, mind you, the 1980s.
The liaison between the American Academy of Pediatrics 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 think babies could feel pain.
Even today, most physicians don’t use painkillers or even local anesthesia for circumcisions, for example—a procedure so traumatic that 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 videos on irritable bowel and relaxing the colon before a colonoscopy, I explored the role of peppermint oil in reducing intestinal spasms. So, might it help with colic?
A few drops of a peppermint leaf solution appeared to cut the number of colicky episodes in half, and reduced daily crying from three hours to two hours, working just as well as a leading over-the-counter drug for colic, called simethicone. The problem is that simethicone has been shown to have no benefit for colic. So, saying peppermint is as good as 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 this neurotoxin has been found contaminating star anise tea in the U.S. So, we shouldn’t give star anise tea to kids.
There’s even a report of toxicity from a supposed homeopathic dose of belladonna, also known as deadly nightshade, that evidently wasn’t homeopathic enough. And then another report. 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 should not be used because of their serious side effects.
What about just good old fashioned burping? Burping after feeding is, after all, commonly advised by pediatricians, nurses, and parenting websites to promote expulsion of gases that accumulate during feeding, with the aim of decreasing discomfort and crying episodes. But, scientific evidence for the efficacy of burping was lacking—until this 2014 randomized, controlled trial for the prevention of colic and regurgitation (also known as spitting up) in healthy infants. So, what did they find? Useless for colic, and made the regurgitation worse. Burped babies spit up twice as many times as un-burped babies!
So, what’s an effective treatment? The elimination of cows’ milk protein—thinking colic may be some sort of allergic response. Decades ago, it was shown that infants fed cows’ milk developed antibody responses to the bovine proteins, which may explain why colic can improve after changing from a cows’ milk formula to either a hypoallergenic hydrolyzed protein formula, or a soy-based formula.
Now, breast-fed infants have similar rates of colic as formula-fed infants. But, that might be because breast milk from milk-drinking mothers contains cows’ milk proteins. We know cows’ 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 cows’ milk protein back in the 70s. So, thinking colic in breastfed infants may be caused by cows’ milk proteins transmitted from mother to infant via breast milk, they tried a dairy-free diet for breastfeeding mothers whose infants had colic.
Of 19 infants, the colic disappeared promptly from 13. And, in 12 of those 13, they were able to show that they could bring back the colic by challenging the mothers with a little dairy. For example, baby boy develops colic that almost completely disappears within a day of mom eliminating cows’ milk, and then promptly comes back when mom goes back on dairy. The researchers conclude that the treatment for infantile colic in breastfed infants is a diet free of cows’ milk for the mother—a recommendation that continues to this day.
To see any graphs, charts, graphics, images, and quotes to which Dr. Greger may be referring, watch the above video. This is just an approximation of the audio contributed by Katie Schloer.
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M Glatstein, D Danino, I Wolyniez, D Scolnik. Seizures caused by ingestion of Atropa belladonna in a homeopathic medicine in a previously well infant: case report and review of the literature. Am J Ther. 2014 Nov-Dec;21(6):e196-8.
J S Radesky, B Zuckerman, M Silverstein, F P Rivara, M Barr, J A Taylor, L J Lengua, R G Barr. Inconsolable infant crying and maternal postpartum depressive symptoms. Pediatrics. 2013 Jun;131(6):e1857-64.
R Shamir, I St James-Roberts, C Di Lorenzo, A J Burns, N Thapar, F Indrio, G Riezzo, F Raimondi, A Di Mauro, R Francavilla, R H Leuchter, A Dargue, P S Huppi, R G Heine, M Bellaiche, M Levy, C Jung, M Alvarez, K Hovish. Infant crying, colic, and gastrointestinal discomfort in early childhood: a review of the evidence and most plausible mechanisms. J Pediatr Gastroenterol Nutr. 2013 Dec;57 Suppl 1:S1-45.
Isn’t that horrifying about the 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 graduating medical school classes are approximately 50/50 women and men, I hope things will change for the better.
More on dairy in infancy and childhood:
More on healthy pregnancies:
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What about the studies that show a “u-shaped curve,” where too much sodium is bad, but too little may be bad too?
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