For many of us, the story of Peter Rabbit was an introduction to the soothing powers of chamomile tea. But the fictional reference is there for a reason: Chamomile can be an effective source of relief for gas and potentially colic for babies and toddlers.
Chamomile is a carminative herb, which means it’s known for its ability to prevent gas formation and aid gas expulsion, making it ideal for soothing fussy babies.
“It helps pass gas,” says Paula Gardiner, an associate professor in the department of family medicine at the University of Massachusetts who has done research on the effects of herbal medicine on children. “It also works on the small muscles in the bowel and relaxes them.”
Chamomile has other benefits as well. It is a mild sedative, which is why adults (not to mention Peter Rabbit) often take it before bed, and it also works as an anti-inflammatory. “It’s been used for thousands of years, and it’s one of the most widely used herbs right now,” says Gardiner.
Chamomile for colic is a bit of a grey area, though the same can be said for colic itself, which is sometimes used as a catch-all diagnosis for babies that cry a lot.
The herb is considered safe for babies six months and older, at a time when parents would normally introduce foods outside of breastmilk and formula, usually in a dosage of around 15 millilitres, three times a day (and obviously at a comfortable temperature).
But under six months, it’s a bit of a different question. There is little hard data on the effects of chamomile on infants, but Gardiner notes that a couple of past clinical studies have shown evidence that it can work and without side effects. In one trial, 68 infants with colic, aged two to eight weeks, were given chamomile in combination with other herbs, and colic was eliminated in more than half of the children, with no ill side effects. Another study of 93 breastfed infants with colic found that their crying was reduced in more than 80 percent of those who received the herbal extract.
However, health authorities typically recommend giving only breastmilk and formula to infants in their first few months of life, regardless of whether or not there are proven risks. And parents with infants usually want to err on the side of caution.
“It’s unlikely that parents will be offering babies in Canada anything other than breastmilk or infant formula in that time,” says CJ Blennerhassett, a registered midwife in Halifax. “The World Health Organization recommends that babies have nothing but those two things for the first six months.”
Gardiner considers chamomile to be a safer alternative than gripe water, which is largely a blend of herbs but can also include sodium bicarbonate and, in some cases, alcohol. “I think safety first, so I would be very careful about gripe water,” she says.
There seem to be few side effects associated with chamomile, though anyone with an allergy to ragweed may have trouble with it.
As an alternative to chamomile, there are other carminative herbs that can be made into teas, such as caraway, fennel and coriander, which are known to help digestion.
The world of herbal remedies is a big one, and there are plenty out there with various soothing effects. For chamomile, those benefits are plentiful, even if you’re giving it to babies instead of to fictional bunnies.