The generally accepted definition of colic is when a baby cries for three or more hours a day, three or more days a week. Do the math and it adds up to a lot of inconsolable crying. For this reason, a colicky baby can really take a toll on its parents’ sleep and sanity.
Doctors are unsure of the exact causes of colic in babies, but according to the National Institute of Health, about one out of five babies will struggle with it. Many colicky babies kick into high gear at night, but it’s different for every child.
With no guaranteed solutions on hand, parents often look to herbal remedies and other alternatives to prescription medications. Gripe water has been a popular choice for more than a century but is still unfamiliar to many parents.
Developed by a pharmacist in England in the 1800s, the original gripe water consisted of alcohol, sodium bicarbonate, dill oil, sugar and water. The alcohol content (more than 3 percent!) may raise eyebrows today, but it was a common remedy for babies in the 1800s. The sodium bicarbonate was supposed to settle a baby’s gassy belly, while the sugar was included to “help the medicine go down.”
Modern gripe water comes from many manufacturers, but usually stays somewhat true to the first recipe. For example, alcohol is still an ingredient in several versions of gripe water. Other ingredients, like fennel seed oil, are often added to some in an effort to enhance the formula.
The FDA doesn’t regulate gripe water, so consumers need to be wary of the bold claims that may be advertised. But most parents aren’t looking for a magic bullet. They would settle for anything that brings even moderate relief.
So does gripe water work? There haven’t been a significant number of studies, so most of the information on the subject is anecdotal. A family physician who co-authored a colic treatment study for the Journal of Family Medicine stated in a Los Angeles Times article that gripe water has a positive effect on some babies, but is unlikely to help with an inconsolable child. And there was a study at New York University where fennel seed oil (which is an ingredient in some varieties of gripe water) was shown to provide relief for babies with colic symptoms.
Despite the lack of concrete evidence, many parents still swear by gripe water. I’ve used it several times for my 2-week-old daughter, with mixed results. Sometimes it seems to calm her down and other times it has no effect.
Critics would point out that because gripe water is often used as a last resort, it’s purely coincidental that it sometimes “works,” because the baby was near the end of its crying spell anyway.
Even if gripe water doesn’t have a major impact on colicky babies, parents can take heart in knowing that their misery is temporary. Most babies grow out of the symptoms of colic by the time they reach 3 months old.
Grant Olsen covers outdoor adventures, travel, product reviews and other interesting things. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.