In the past, doctors speculated that colic was caused by an infant having stomach pain or upset, though this has not been proven. Despite this, many parents use gripe water, or water mixed with herbs, to soothe a baby's upset stomach, and it has become popular with some parents and supporters of alternative or herbal medicine.
However, parents considering using gripe water as a colic remedy should consult their pediatrician first.
What is colic?
Gripe water is a type of herbal remedy that can be used to treat colic in infants.
Colic is a condition that causes an otherwise healthy and well-fed infant to cry intensely for 3 or more hours per day for 3 or more days per week. Babies with colic will cry inconsolably and may clench their fists and curl their legs during the crying episodes.
Colic starts when a baby is around 2-3 weeks old and may last until a baby is around 4 months old.
Doctors do not know the exact cause of colic, but one explanation is that some babies are more sensitive to stimulation from their environment than others. This overstimulation causes them stress, which in turn makes them cry.
As the babies get a little older, they become better able to soothe themselves and cry less often. Other conditions, such as gassiness, can also cause a baby to cry in a similar way to a baby with colic.
What is gripe water?
Gripe water is a mixture of water, baking soda, and herbs that many parents use as a remedy for colic and stomach upsets in babies.
Most commercially available gripe water contains a mix of the following herbs:
- lemon balm
Many people who use gripe water to soothe colic, believe the colic is caused by a baby's stomach troubles or gassiness. In theory, these herbs should help ease gas, thus relieving the discomfort that is causing the baby to cry.
Gripe water has been around for a long time. It was first used in the 1840s in England to treat a malarial disease known as fen fever. The original mixture of baking soda, alcohol, and herbs became popular with British mothers and nannies by the 1850s. Many thought that gripe water helped calm a fussy baby, which is probably due primarily to the alcohol.
Today, alcohol is not a component of gripe water as scientists know that giving alcohol to a baby can be extremely dangerous. However, many mothers and supporters of herbal medicines still swear by gripe water's calming effect on babies.
Gripe water usually contains a mixture of different herbs, including ginger, fennel, and lemon balm.
Ingredients in gripe water vary by brand. All gripe waters contain a mixture of herbs and water. Most include sodium bicarbonate.
Additional ingredients may include a combination of the following:
- dill oil
- fennel oil
- lemon balm
- preservatives for freshness
When choosing a gripe water, parents should read the ingredients listed. Some ingredients to avoid include:
- gluten, such as wheat
- dairy products
Wheat or dairy can cause upset stomach in babies, sucrose may lead to tooth decay for infants with baby teeth, and alcohol can cause developmental problems in babies.
Also, because gripe water is classified as a supplement and not a medication, it is not regulated by the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA). This means that there is no guarantee that any product will contain the ingredients listed on its label.
How is gripe water used?
Before using gripe water, a parent should first check with a pediatrician. If the pediatrician gives the all clear, parents should then read the instructions on the gripe water. The instructions will include information on how much gripe water to give the baby.
It is best to give the gripe water to the baby without mixing it with anything else, such as breast milk or formula. Most babies like the sweet taste of gripe water and will not spit it out, as they will with some other medications.
Parents should follow the instructions as directed by the packaging and their pediatrician.
Risks and benefits
While most formulas of gripe water are generally safe, there are some risks associated with gripe water. Despite its popularity for colic and gas pains, no adequate studies have shown gripe water to be effective in easing stomach pain.
Risks for using gripe water may include the following:
- it may cause an allergic reaction
- it may introduce bacteria into a baby's digestive system
- if given too soon after birth, gripe water may hinder breast-feeding and delay milk supply
So while many people accept the anecdotal evidence that gripe water may ease their newborn's cries and support its use, parents should consider whether the risks outweigh any perceived benefits.
Also, because the FDA do not approve the use of gripe water for colic, or any other condition, it is not subjected to the same regulations as medicines.
Are there any alternatives to gripe water?
Other treatment options include applying gentle pressure to the baby's belly, and swaddling.
Since many medical professionals do caution against the use of gripe water, parents may want to consider alternative ways of soothing their baby.
Other methods include:
- swaddling the baby
- applying gentle pressure to the baby's belly
- rubbing the baby's belly in gentle circular motions to help work out gas
- if formula feeding, consider switching to a gentler brand as directed by a pediatrician
- if breast-feeding, the mother may want to alter her diet to remove foods that could cause gas or stomach distress, such as spicy food, dairy, and certain vegetables
- distracting the baby
- trying white noise
There are other products available, such as gas drops, that some parents use. However, there is no evidence to prove that these products are better suited for a particular baby than gripe water. Parents should always consult with a pediatrician before using any herbal remedy.
No matter what a parent chooses, the colicky period in a baby's life will pass. Though it may feel like forever while the baby is experiencing colic, colic almost always resolves on its own by the time the baby is 3-4 months old.