Gripe Water: Is It Safe For Your Baby?

Do you give your child a spoon of gripe water every time he gets cranky? No doubt, your little one loves it; but first, find out if it is safe for him.

By Jayanthi Madhukar

Gripe Water: Is It Safe For Your Baby?

What does a parent do to calm a colicky baby? Literally everything — from doing a jig while holding the crying baby to trying out every trick possible, the agony seems endless. One of the well-meaning pieces of advice that comes forth is, "Give the baby some gripe water." An ageless remedy, gripe water is considered effective for treating gas and flatulence in babies, and many swear it is the best.

What is gripe water?

It is a water-based tonic which is used to tackle colic, indigestion, flatulence and even hiccups in babies. Gripe water was first sold commercially in the 19th century, in Britain, by a pharmacist named Woodward. It was used to cure the ‘gripes’ or gastroenteritis. From then, this effective combination of water, dill oil, sodium bicarbonate, sugar and about 2–3 per cent alcohol has found its place in almost every infant’s household. 

However, due to increasing levels of awareness and protests from the medical fraternity, most of the modern-day manufacturers of gripe water have dropped the alcohol from their composition. These days gripe water is sold as a dietary supplement.

Also Read: Knowing when to start your baby on solids

“It works very well for my baby,” says Arpita, mother of a five-month-old infant. “My daughter loves the taste and seems to quieten down within ten minutes of giving her half a teaspoon of gripe water.”

But, is it safe?

Dr Tara M S, an expert on child development and an independent paediatric consultant, believes that gripe water does not harm a child. "It may be effective to treat gas in babies. However, total dependence on it to calm a colic infant is not right. If you are buying gripe water to treat indigestion in your baby, check the ingredients of the bottle first," she says. The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not approve the use of gripe water to treat colic, or any other condition in small children.

And, before you reach for that bottle of gripe water to treat your child’s indigestion, first understand why he is having that discomfort.

Alternatives to gripe water

Dr Tara explains, “A baby develops excessive gas if the feeding technique or the foods are not right. Sometimes, even the mother's diet can cause gas in breastfed babies. If proper care is exercised, the baby will not get excessive gas in the first place. If the infant is fed on time, burped after every feed and the lactating mother takes care of her diet, the baby will not have severe episodes of indigestion, flatulence or gas.”

These days, there is tremendous pressure on a lactating mother to re-join work or do household activities. Therefore, busy working mothers usually opt for formula food after a few months of breastfeeding their child. As such food can cause gas in babies, mothers may opt for gripe water to calm the crying baby.

Dr Tara advises, “Instead of reaching for gripe water every time your baby cries, try to understand the cause of his discomfort. Simple home methods that our grandparents and parents followed are effective to avoid gas in infants too. Sadly, these home remedies have been lost over time.”

She reminisces about how her own mother used to place a warm betel leaf smeared with oil on the tummy of a baby who may be experiencing discomfort in the stomach. “It worked then, so I don’t see why it won’t work now.” 

Another effective alternative is to boil water with a few ajwain (carom) seeds. Let it cool down completely. Filter the water before giving a spoonful to the baby. “This is as good as gripe water without the alcohol,” she says.

Components of gripe water

Alcohol: This ingredient is not good for an infant. Newer versions of gripe water have reduced alcohol content. Still, a baby can get addicted to it. “Such artificial ways to suppress flatulence and indigestion are always a no-no,” says Dr Tara. “Instead, a baby’s system should be encouraged to fight it out internally.”

Sodium bicarbonate: Then comes sodium bicarbonate or baking soda. It is usually used to relieve acid reflux. But when gripe water is given frequently, the calcium (in breast milk) and the sodium bicarbonate (alkali) will create what is called ‘milk-alkali’ syndrome. In short, if given frequently, gripe water will affect the delicate digestive system of babies younger than six months, who are exclusively on breast milk.

Herbs/spices: Ajwainsaunf (fennel seeds) or dill seeds are believed to soothe a colicky baby. In a study, 'The effect of fennel (Foeniculum Vulgare) seed oil emulsion in infantile colic', published in Alternative Therapies in Health and Medicine, researchers reveal that the use of fennel oil emulsion eliminated colic in 65 per cent of infants.  

Sugar: The question is, how does a baby accept the taste of such herbs and spices present in gripe water? This is where the next component of gripe water comes in — sugar. The sweet taste of the gripe water soothes the baby in the throes of a colic attack. However, adding sugar to a baby's diet early on is not a good idea. Ensure that you are not regularly feeding gripe water to your baby. 

Although gripe water has no adverse side effects, Dr Tara advises using it sparingly. “I would still say that burping the baby properly will take care of his indigestion and flatulence. Gripe water should be used as an absolute last resort when everything else fails.”

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