Should I give gripe water to my baby?

Gripe water has been around for ages, but can it really help babies with colic?

Parents with a colicky baby are often willing to try just about anything to get their little one to 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 home remedy meant to soothe excessive fussiness and gas pains in babies.

What is gripe water?

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 Canada, you can still find some brands of gripe water that contain very small amounts of alcohol, but 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, and there are DIY recipes for people who want to make it themselves.

“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.

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Does gripe water really work?

Well, who knows really? People have been looking for ways to deal with colic forever, and it’s still one of those things that many babies just go through during their first few months of life.

There seems to be anecdotal evidence that modern gripe water works, and it makes sense that sugar and certain herbs might help alleviate some discomfort. It’s even marketed to help relieve other conditions, such as stomach cramps, hiccups and teething. But there aren’t any studies that offer conclusive proof of its efficacy.

Should I use it?

This is the big question. 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.

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.



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