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Colic

Should you give gripe water to your fussy baby?

It’s an age-old remedy, but does it work? Here’s what you need to know about giving gripe water to your colicky newborn or baby.

Should you give gripe water to your fussy baby?

Photo: iStock

Gas and tummy troubles are common for newborns and parents naturally want to do anything to help their baby feel better. That's especially true with colicky babies who just won't calm down.

When rocking, burping and singing won’t work (and they often won’t), one option you’ll hear about is gripe water, an old-timey remedy meant to soothe excessive fussiness and gas pains in babies.

What is gripe water?

Gripe water is a liquid herbal supplement marketed to ease stomach discomfort in babies. "It's one of those very, very old-fashioned treatments," says Michelle Ponti, a paediatrician based in London, Ontario.

Because it's considered a dietary supplement, you can buy it online or off the shelf at pharmacies and retailers that sell baby supplements.

Depending on the brand, gripe water for gas can contain water and sodium bicarbonate, as well as a mixture of ingredients like dill, fennel, ginger, lemon, peppermint, agave, and chamomile. Older recipes for gripe water included large amounts of sugar and alcohol.

baby receiving oral medicine rudi_suardi/ Getty Images

Gripe water ingredients

If you haven’t heard of it before, you may be surprised to know that gripe water has a history that dates back to before Canadian Confederation. Developed in Britain in 1851 from a formula that was used to treat malaria, gripe water originally contained a mixture of sugar, sodium bicarbonate and nearly four percent alcohol.

Given that beer at this strength can have a calming effect on fully grown adults, it’s easy to see why the mixture produced results among babies.

Fortunately, gripe water has evolved, though slowly, partly due to alcoholic versions being banned in the United States in 1982. In some countries, like Canada, you can still find some brands of gripe water for babies containing tiny amounts of alcohol, though most modern formulas don’t, and they may feature sugar.

Depending on the manufacturer, it can also contain herbs like dill, ginger, fennel, licorice, chamomile and peppermint. There are also DIY recipes for people who want to make it themselves.

Pretty young mom shopping for groceries / medicine with toddler in pharmacy in the shopping mall joyfully. Images By Tang Ming Tung/ Getty Images

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Does gripe water work?

Some parents swear by it—and it could make sense that sugar and certain herbs might help alleviate some discomfort. But there are no scientific studies that show that gripe water can relieve gas, colic or any other ailment.

Overhead view of a loving mother feeding her newborn baby. High angle view of a new mom giving her baby formula milk while lying on the bed. Single mom caring for her infant child. jacoblund/ Getty Images

While the jury is still out, it's thought to be generally safe and over-the-counter gripe water products continue to please millions of parents around the world.

One of the most famous brands of gripe water, Mommy's Bliss, has fans shouting its praises.

"I’m a new mom to a one month old who has recently become more gassy and fussy likely due to my food choices," writes verified Amazon purchaser, Jennifer. "No one told me I couldn’t eat cabbage or broccoli and breast-feed or pump. I love cabbage and broccoli! I learned the hard way and unfortunately, my sweet baby was in pain. Out of desperation, I purchased gripe water and there was an instant change in my child.  As always consult with your pediatrician before administering anything to your baby."

Does gripe water cause any side effects?

One thing to be on the lookout for if you give your baby gripe water is an allergic reaction. Although unlikely, it is possible your baby will be allergic to one of the ingredients in the formula. Signs of an allergic reaction include hives, itchiness, watery eyes and vomiting or diarrhea.

Also, a main ingredient in many gripe water formulas is sugar, which has the potential to harm your baby's emerging teeth.

Baby with vitamin isayildiz/ Getty Images

Is gripe water safe and should I give it to my baby or newborn?

Health Canada and the Canadian Paediatric Society don’t take a position on gripe water, but many doctors view it with suspicion. “I have never recommended it, nor would I,” says Ponti. “There are no medical benefits to using gripe water. In fact, I recommend against its use.”

You should definitely stay away from versions with any alcohol, says Ponti. And, though most gripe water formulas may be little more than sugar water, she worries that using it may cause parents to overlook other reasons for their baby’s discomfort. “If you have a cranky, irritable, colicky baby, are they in pain for some reason other than colic?” she says.

“Colic is a diagnosis of exclusion, so you don’t want to use gripe water and have a false sense of security that you’re helping your child.”

Administering water to babies (gripe water or otherwise) also goes against the thinking that infants should only be given breastmilk or formula until they’re six months old—a position taken by the World Health Organization.

Read on for some alternatives you can try if you're dealing with a gassy or fussy baby.

Portrait of beautiful young mother giving milk to her baby boy in bed at night Artfoliophoto/ Getty Images

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Alternative: Massage or bicycle kicks

If you have a baby that is quite fussy and seems to have issues with colic or digestion, it's best to speak with a pediatrician. If your doctor rules out any major issues, there are a few ways you can help your baby without gripe water. Gently massaging your baby's tummy can help work out the gas.

Try massaging in a clockwise motion, or just do what seems to feel good for your baby. You can also try increasing your baby's tummy time during the day.

Pulling your baby's legs in and out in a bicycling motion can also help relieve discomfort. Bowel movements and releasing gas become much easier in squatting positions, which bicycle kicks mimic.

Constipation in babies. Mom doing gymnastics with her newborn child to relieve gas, panorama Prostock-Studio/ Getty Images

Alternative: Burping after feeds

Burping your baby after feedings can help prevent gas from developing, so even if your baby drifts to sleep while being fed, consider waking them up before settling them back down to sleep. Placing your child onto or against the shoulder while burping can also help them release any trapped gas as your shoulder gently presses against their tummy.

Father making daughter burp after feeding her SelectStock/ Getty Images

Alternative: Make sure their needs are met

Not sure why your baby is fussy? It might seem obvious, but make sure you've checked to see if your baby needs a diaper change, is hungry, is too cold or hot or seems to be in pain. Sometimes, your baby just wants a bit of entertainment. Take them for a car ride or use a baby swing to help keep them moving and engaged.

single mother comforting her infant daughter at home after feeding and burped skaman306/ Getty Images

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Alternative: Swaddle your baby

Feeling tucked in and secure might be all your baby needs to calm down. Swaddling is a classic way to keep your baby feeling snug. Learning how to do a blanket swaddle is great, but it can be hard to get a good tuck when your baby wakes you up in the middle of the night.

You can find various clothing and blankets with specific shapes that make swaddling a breeze, so you can keep your baby cozy whenever they need some help.

Overhead view of parents with newborn daughter sitting on bed at home Cavan Images/ Getty Images

Not sure which swaddled to try or maybe you're overwhelmed by the task of burrito wrapping? These velcro-based swaddled make it so much simpler—even for grandparents.

Alternative: Change up your feeds

If you’re bottle-feeding your baby, it might help to change the style of nipple to one that's a slower flow.

If the gassiness is severe and accompanied by colic or a dramatic change in their stools, your baby might have a milk protein allergy and require a hypoallergenic formula. This would also be a reason to remove dairy from your diet if you're breastfeeding. However in most cases, elimination diets while breastfeeding won't help your baby's gas or fussiness.

Talk to your baby's doctor if you think they might have a milk protein allergy.

Ponti’s sense is that gripe water is one of those old-fashioned remedies that has managed to stick around in the public consciousness through word of mouth. Of course, there’s also the sense among parents with a colicky baby that they have to do something.  If they get that urge, Ponti advises a different approach. “The safest course is to always seek advice from a medical professional,” she says. 

As she stands in her home, a new mom smiles while giving her infant son a baby bottle. SDI Productions/ Getty Images

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This article was originally published on Mar 16, 2022

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