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Gripe water is safe for babies with colic, but no studies show that it works

The Healthy Skeptic

Gripe water has supporters among parents with colicky babies, but there is no scientific evidence that the herbal tonic actually works.

June 20, 2011|By Chris Woolston, Special to the Los Angeles Times
  • Mommy's Bliss Gripe Water is about $12 a bottle.
Mommy's Bliss Gripe Water is about $12 a bottle. (Mommy's Bliss )

Baby wrangling is a tough job in the best of circumstances. Add colic to the mix and … well, that borders on the cruel and unusual.

Unfortunately, it's not unusual at all. According to the National Institutes of Health, roughly 1 out of 5 babies gets colic, which means they cry inconsolably at least three hours a day, at least three days a week. The crying often starts like clockwork at a particular time of day, usually in the evening. Nobody knows what causes colic, and it's hard to say exactly what babies are feeling. But they're often gassy, and they certainly act like their stomachs are hurting. Colicky babies often draw up their legs, clench their fists and generally act like they're very unhappy with the world and every single person in it, parents included.

With so many crying babies out there, it's no surprise that a lot of parents are willing to try just about anything to get some peace and quiet. Many swear by gripe waters, herbal tonics available at drugstores and health food stores everywhere. A study published this month in the journal Pediatrics found that about 9% of babies are given herbal products in their first year of life; of all the options out there, gripe water was the most popular choice.

Little Tummys Gripe Water from Prestige Brands contains deionized water, sodium bicarbonate, ginger extract, fennel extract and fructose, among other ingredients.

Parents are directed to treat their baby up to six times a day. They can either use a dropper that comes with the bottle or add the water to their baby's bottle. The recommended dose for babies 1 month to 6 months old is 1 teaspoon. You can expect to pay about $10 for a 4-ounce bottle, which contains about 24 doses.

Mommy's Bliss Gripe Water (formerly called Baby's Bliss), produced by Mommy's Bliss Inc., takes a very similar approach. The directions are essentially the same as for Little Tummys, and the two products have the same active ingredients, although fructose is higher up on the list for Mommy's Bliss. A 4-ounce bottle costs about $12.

The claims

The label for Little Tummys Gripe Water claims it provides "safe, gentle relief of gas and stomach discomfort from colic and hiccups." Dean Siegal, director of communications for Prestige Brands, says, "We have a customer base of parents who absolutely love this."

The website for Mommy's Bliss says that it is "recommended by pediatricians nationwide as an effective herbal alternative to traditional medications." It also says that its active ingredients — fennel, ginger and sodium bicarbonate — are "known to be beneficial in easing nausea and discomfort due to baby stomach gas and other colic symptoms."

The company has received many testimonials from happy (and relieved) parents, says marketing director Stephanie O'Brien.

The bottom line

Many parents swear by gripe water, and the products probably can help calm some little stomachs, says Dr. Anne Eglash, a family physician and clinical associate professor of family medicine at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health in Madison. If the discomfort is only mild, "trying gripe water isn't a bad thing," she says.

But there's a big difference between a mildly upset stomach and full-blown colic, says Eglash, who co-authored a review article on colic treatments in the Journal of Family Practice in 2006. If a baby is crying inconsolably for hours a day, "giving gripe water isn't going to do much," she says.

Gripe waters have never been tested as remedies for colic or anything else. An article published in Pediatrics in April notes that there is some "encouraging" evidence that fennel extract and some herbal teas could relieve colic symptoms, but researchers concluded that the studies so far have been weak and unconvincing.

"People are trying this and many other unproven treatments because they are desperate," says Dr. Edzard Ernst, co-author of the Pediatrics study and a professor of complementary medicine at the Peninsula Medical School in Exeter, England.

Eglash says that ginger, fennel and other ingredients found in gripe waters should be safe for babies. But there have been concerns in the past: In 2007, the FDA recalled apple-flavored Baby's Bliss Gripe Water after detecting the intestinal parasite cryptosporidium in a sample. The investigation started when a 6-month-old fell ill after taking the product.

Colic is poorly understood, and doctors don't really have a lot of solutions to offer frustrated and weary parents. Eglash, who is also a lactation specialist, encourages parents to cut dairy out of their baby's diets, which often seems to help.

But the best remedy may be simple patience. Most colicky babies grow out of it by the time they're 3 months old, according to the National Institutes of Health. The message for parents: Hang in there. Whether you try gripe water or any other remedy, things will get better. And quieter.

Curious about a consumer health product? Send an email to health@latimes.com.

Read more at latimes.com/skeptic.

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