Babies fuss. They cry. They can be sad, inconsolable little bundles of … ahem, joy … that simultaneously break your heart and drain your patience.
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It’s only natural to want to find relief for colic, gas and all the other things that make babies uncomfortable and angry. You don’t want your baby to be unhappy. And you deserve a break, for goodness’ sake.
So, when ads for gripe water follow you around the internet, or your friends tell you what a difference it made with their colicky little ones, your wheels start turning.
What is this miracle brew, and how does it work?
We asked pediatrician Christina Vernace, DO, whether gripe water is good for colicky and fussy babies. And it turns out, it’s a complicated answer.
“The problem is there’s really no scientific evidence that confirms gripe water is safe or effective,” Dr. Vernace states. “It’s not something we tend to recommend because it’s not regulated. We can’t guarantee its safety.”
Dr. Vernace explains what gripe water is and what the controversy is all about.
What is gripe water?
Gripe water is an over-the-counter remedy that claims to relieve symptoms of colic, gas and fussiness in babies.
Because it’s an herbal remedy and not a medicine or food, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) doesn’t regulate gripe water. That means it hasn’t been evaluated to be safe or effective. And there aren’t any set standards that manufacturers need to follow when making it.
So, there’s no assurance that it will work or be safe for your baby, Dr. Vernace notes.
What’s in gripe water?
Gripe water has been around since the 1800s. Its original formulation was a combination of less-than-baby-friendly ingredients — namely sugar and alcohol.
The combination worked wonders for colicky babies of the 19th century. Nothing like a nip of the hard stuff to make a cranky baby fall asleep quickly.
But, of course, we now know that neither alcohol nor sugar should be part of your baby’s diet. (And if you didn’t already know that, now you do. Please don’t give your baby alcohol.)
These days, gripe water is sold under several different brand names, each with its own combination of ingredients. The most common ingredients are fennel, ginger, sodium bicarbonate (baking soda) and various flavorings.
The trouble is, none of those ingredients have been proven to get to the root of the causes of a colicky or gassy baby.
“We know that ginger and fennel can relieve stomach discomfort in adults and kids, but babies’ bellies are different. And they haven’t been proven to work in babies,” Dr. Vernace explains. “And if your baby has colic, stomach discomfort is not necessarily contributing to this complicated diagnosis. So, those ingredients don’t support their claim that they relieve colic symptoms.”
As for sodium bicarbonate, let’s reach back to Chemistry 101 for a second. Baking soda is a base (an antacid). That means it neutralizes acid.
But acid isn’t the root of most babies’ gassiness, Dr. Vernace says. So, using baking soda to remedy your baby’s upset tummy doesn’t really add up.
What are the risks of gripe water?
Sure, you may be thinking, but so-and-so uses gripe water and it worked for their baby. Why not give it a try?
When you’re overwhelmed with a fussy little baby and looking for a bit of relief, it makes sense that you’d want to consider anything that just might do the trick.
It’s true. Some remedies, like gripe water, may work — even if we don’t scientifically understand why. And if you want to try gripe water for your baby, that’s your choice.
“If I have a parent in my office who says they use gripe water and feel like it helps, I’m not going to tell them they have to stop,” Dr. Vernace says. “But I do think it’s important they understand that it’s not without some risk.”
Again, a big concern is that gripe water isn’t regulated by a government agency. So, there’s no oversight. That means the ingredients it contains and the process used to manufacture it are essentially at the discretion of the company making the stuff.
That lack of regulation can lead to potential for harm.
Over the last 15 years or so, various brands of gripe water have been recalled because they posed certain dangers to babies.
The website for the American Academy of Pediatrics shares several gripe water recalls. One recall was made after a brand of gripe water may have contained cryptosporidium, a parasite that comes from contaminated water and can cause severe watery diarrhea. And there was a recall for a brand that contained an “undissolved ingredient” that could be a choking hazard.
In another case, gripe water contaminated with the bacteria Pseudomonas aeruginosa caused septic shock in a 9-month-old baby.
Alternatives to gripe water
If you’re feeling bummed about this less-than-optimistic gripe water news, we get it. It’s hard to consider walking away from a product that seems like it could have been the answer to the sleepless days and nights. You just want relief for your baby. And a few moments of quiet would probably be great for you, too.
Don’t worry. There’s still hope.
Gassy babies can usually be soothed with methods like:
- Bicycling their legs.
- Changing formula.
- Gas drops that use the ingredient simethicone.
As for colic, Dr. Vernace explains that it’s a “diagnosis of elimination.” In other words, your baby’s healthcare provider will first want to look for other causes for an uncommonly fussy baby before landing on a colic diagnosis.
“You don’t want to assume your baby has colic if there is something else happening,” Dr. Vernace cautions.
Babies with colic will have frequent episodes of inconsolable crying.
Dr. Vernace explains the “rule of three”:
- Colic starts in babies under 3 months old.
- These babies cry for three hours at a time.
- They cry inconsolably at least three times a week.
Colic is usually managed with soothing techniques like rocking, swaddling, warm baths, white noise and using a pacifier. Research published by the National Institutes of Health suggests the probiotic Lactobacillus reuteri may also provide relief for babies with colic.
“If you’re concerned about gas, fussiness or colic symptoms in your baby, the first step should be to talk with a children’s healthcare provider, like a pediatrician, about it,” Dr. Vernace advises. “They can help figure out what’s causing their symptoms and suggest the best remedies.”