Some complementary and alternative therapies to treat colic show promise


A review of the evidence on the use of complementary and alternative (CAM) therapies to treat babies with colic has shown some that some treatments – including probiotics, fennel extract and spinal manipulation – do appear to help, but that overall the evidence on the use of these therapies is limited so should be treated with caution.

Researchers from the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) at the University of Bristol and the University of Manchester reviewed published ‘systematic reviews’ on the use of CAM therapies to treat babies with colic. Systematic reviews bring together all the studies on a topic, to understand the totality of the evidence available.

Colic can be distressing for both babies and parents, but it’s not clear what causes it. This makes treating it difficult, and many parents resort to CAM therapies because of this lack of conventional treatments.

The review included 16 systematic reviews on a variety of therapies, including probiotics, herbal medicine, acupuncture and manipulation such as chiropractic massage. The researchers found that while probiotics, fennel extract and spinal manipulation all showed promise as treatments, these results should be treated with caution because of issues with the studies. These issues included small sample sizes, possible bias in the findings, the measurement of outcomes through parent diaries which are highly subjective, and the inability to ‘blind’ therapists for many treatments, especially those that involved manipulation of the baby. Research into the use of probiotics for babies who are formula-fed was also lacking, which is significant as formula already contains probiotics.

The team, which included researchers from the NIHR Bristol Biomedical Research Centre (BRC) and NIHR Applied Research Collaboration West (ARC West), also concluded that acupuncture and soy are not recommended to treat colic.

Dr Rachel Perry, Senior Research Associate in the NIHR Bristol BRC’s nutrition theme at the University of Bristol, said: “Many parents will know how distressing looking after a colicky baby can be. But doctors don’t really understand what causes it, which makes it difficult to treat. This gap in conventional medical knowledge leads many parents to try complementary and alternative therapies.

“Our review does show that some treatments – probiotics, fennel extract and spinal manipulation – do appear to help, though the studies that showed this weren’t big enough or well-designed enough to be sure of the results. This is especially true for probiotics, where some of the findings from earlier, poor quality studies were rather oversold. But our findings do point to where future research efforts should be focused.”


‘An overview of systematic reviews of complementary and alternative therapies for infantile colic’ by Rachel Perry, Verity Leach, Chris Penfold, Philippa Davies in Systematic Reviews [open access]

Further information

About the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR)
The National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) is the nation’s largest funder of health and care research. The NIHR:

  • Funds, supports and delivers high quality research that benefits the NHS, public health and social care
  • Engages and involves patients, carers and the public in order to improve the reach, quality and impact of research
  • Attracts, trains and supports the best researchers to tackle the complex health and care challenges of the future
  • Invests in world-class infrastructure and a skilled delivery workforce to translate discoveries into improved treatments and services
  • Partners with other public funders, charities and industry to maximise the value of research to patients and the economy

The NIHR was established in 2006 to improve the health and wealth of the nation through research, and is funded by the Department of Health and Social Care. In addition to its national role, the NIHR supports applied health research for the direct and primary benefit of people in low- and middle-income countries, using UK aid from the UK government.

About NIHR Bristol BRC
The National Institute for Health Research Bristol Biomedical Research Centre (NIHR Bristol BRC) is a partnership between University Hospitals Bristol NHS Foundation Trust and the University of Bristol. We are one of 20 BRCs across England funded by the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR).

The Bristol BRC launched in April 2017. We conduct innovative biomedical research to drive through improvements in health and healthcare and encourage closer working with industry.

We have world-leading scientists working on many aspects of health, from the role played by individual genes and proteins to analysing large collections of information on hundreds of thousands of people. We have extensive experience in taking science from the laboratory bench or computer and developing it into new drugs, treatments or health advice.

What sets the Bristol BRC apart is the strand of exciting and ground-breaking population health research that runs through it. This is about examining patterns of health and illness in large groups of people. We have expertise in interpreting this information to learn about causes of disease. Uniquely, we can combine this work with our laboratory-based science and the knowledge of the doctors working directly with patients to identify possible treatments and find out how effective they are.

About NIHR ARC West
The NIHR Applied Research Collaboration West (NIHR ARC West) co-produces better, more equitable, appropriate and sustainable health and care across the West. It does this through applied health research projects and implementing research evidence, regionally, nationally and internationally. Co-producing research with partner organisations and the people affected by the research is at its heart. To achieve this, its researchers work with health provider organisations, including local NHS and public health, the wider health and care sector including voluntary sector organisations, patients and the public, and other ARCs and academic groups.



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