Melatonin is secreted during the night in adults but not in infants. It has a hypnotic effect as well as a relaxing effect on the smooth muscle of the gastrointestinal tract. It is plausible that breast milk, which consists of melatonin, may have an effect on improving infants' sleep and reducing infantile colic. Our first goal was to assess the differences in the prevalence and severity of infantile colic and nocturnal sleep between breast-fed infants and supplement-fed infants. The second was to characterize the profile of melatonin secretion in human breast milk compared to artificial formulas. Ninety-four mothers of healthy 2 to 4-month-old infants filled a questionnaire regarding irritability/potential infantile colic and sleep characteristics. For the second part, we measured melatonin levels in breast milk of five women every 2 h during 24 h and in three samples of commonly used artificial formulas. Exclusively breast-fed infants had a significantly lower incidence of colic attacks (p = 0.04), lower severity of irritability attacks (p = 0.03), and a trend for longer nocturnal sleep duration (p = 0.06). Melatonin in human milk showed a clear circadian curve and was unmeasurable in all artificial milks.
Conclusions: Exclusive breastfeeding is associated with reduced irritability/colic and a tendency toward longer nocturnal sleep. Breast milk (nocturnal) consists of substantial melatonin levels, whereas artificial formulas do not. We speculate that melatonin which is supplied to the infant via breast milk plays a role in improving sleep and reducing colic in breast-fed infants compared to formula-fed ones.