How Safe Is Gripe Water For Babies?

What Is Gripe Water

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Five-year-old Alisa is perfectly healthy. But when she turns colic she is uncontrollable, leaving her first-time mother Hana worried. During one such episode, Alisa’s grandma gave the baby gripe water, and surprisingly she stopped crying. However, Hana was not convinced. She wasn’t sure if gripe water is safe for babies.

Since generations, we have been using gripe water for babies, but we didn’t know if it is good for the little ones. MomJunction gives you a brief background on gripe water, and tells you about its effectiveness and most importantly its safety.

What Is Gripe Water?

Gripe water is a water-based, over-the-counter dietary supplement sold as a tonic to soothe colic, indigestion, teething pain, flatulence and hiccups in babies.

The first commercially available gripe water was sold by the 19th century British pharmacist William Woodward. During an outbreak of malaria in the 1840s in England, a group of doctors formulated a medicine to treat the disease. Then they noticed that the wonder medicine seemed to soothe colic babies and provided them relief from minor tummy problems. The medicine was, eventually, noticed by William Woodward, who modified the formula to sell it commercially.

Gripe Water Composition

The original Woodward gripe water was composed of water, dill oil, sodium bicarbonate, sugar and 3.6% alcohol. It is believed that Woodward chose the word ‘gripe’ because back in 19th century Britain, gastroenteritis was referred to as watery gripes (1).

In modern times, most manufacturers have dropped alcohol as an ingredient due to objection from medical practitioners and parents. However, some brands still use it.

The other ingredients stay the same, including sugar, but could differ based on the country where the gripe water is manufactured. A few brands have been using artificial sweeteners that can be harmful to your baby.

Is Gripe Water Safe?

There is no scientific evidence to prove that gripe water is safe or unsafe for the baby. Its impact is subjective. Whereas many mothers have found gripe water helpful, some found it of no significant benefit to the baby but not necessarily unsafe.

Nevertheless, the original formula of gripe water contained 3.6% alcohol, which is definitely bad for your baby’s health. Gripe water was formulated in an era when there was little scientific research on the side-effects of various edible items on a baby. By late 20th century, there was significant progress in the general know-how about baby food safety. Despite that, some modern-day gripe waters contain parabens, vegetable carbon or dairy products that must be completely avoided.

Below we decipher some prominent ingredients in gripe water, to help you decide whether or not to give the supplement to your baby:

  1. Alcohol is certainly bad for the baby: Most researchers, doctors, and even mothers will concur that alcohol is bad for your baby’s health (2). It was originally believed that it was the alcohol content in the gripe water that had the soothing effect on the baby. But research has shown that alcohol is not a necessary ingredient and, in fact, may make the baby addictive to gripe water. There have been cases where adults got addicted to gripe water that contained alcohol (3).
  1. Sodium bicarbonate can alleviate acidity: Sodium bicarbonate or baking soda is an ingredient that has been consistently used in gripe water since its formulation. It is called sarjikakshara in India. The thing is that it has no role in soothing a colic baby if he is crying due to reasons other than acidity. Sodium bicarbonate works at dealing with the acid reflux the baby may have due to underdeveloped esophageal valve present at the point esophagus meets the stomach.

However, excess consumption of sodium bicarbonate can lead to a condition called milk-alkali syndrome. It is a condition where the amount of calcium in the blood surges due to a heavy intake of calcium (from milk) and alkali like sodium bicarbonate (4). Since babies younger than six months consume only breast milk, they can be at a greater risk of developing this problem in case they are repeatedly administered gripe water. In the long run, this can affect the baby’s kidneys. Sodium bicarbonate is also not recommended for premature babies and babies born with kidney problems (5).

  1. Certain herbs can help digestion: Dill seed oil and fennel seed oil are the two plant oils that are commonly used in gripe water quite often interchangeably or together since both belong to the same plant family. Fennel, or saunf as called in India, is a common mouth freshener served after meals primarily for its ability to mitigate indigestion. Research has proven that giving fennel seed oil to babies significantly relieves colic behavior especially if the baby is crying due to gastrointestinal discomfort (6). Although fennel and dill continue to be popular natural remedies for indigestion, there are no elaborate studies to conclusively prove their therapeutic uses for babies. Their use can be subjective where a particular baby may show relief due to fennel oil, some other may have an allergic reaction.
  1. It is the sugar that actually soothes: Studies have shown that it is the sweet taste of sugar has a calming effect on colic babies. The claim has been widely supported by various anecdotes where babies were given something sweet to calm them down. But excess sugar can be harmful to the gums and teeth since it can lead to decay in the developing teeth of the baby. Before buying gripe water, look for the quantity of added sugar mentioned on the label. Also, maintain a watch on how much gripe water you are giving your baby to prevent feeding him excess sugar.
  1. Gripe water ingredients are capable of providing relief independently: The isolated ingredients of gripe water are independently capable of providing relief to colic babies. This means there is no need to take the risk of giving a mix of ingredients to your baby when you can provide them one at a time. For example, your colic toddler would stop crying whenever he is given sugar syrup or a sweet fruit to eat. You don’t have to feed him dill oil and sodium bicarbonate. Perhaps, it this argument that puts gripe water in a vague zone.
  1. No scientific evidence about the effectiveness: Scientific research has not yielded conclusive evidence that gripe water treats colic babies. Most researchers now categorize gripe water as an alternative medicine for colitis (7). This means it is not a formal medicinal treatment for a colic baby and can be suggested as an over-the-counter remedy for temporary relief.
  1. It does not cause diarrhea or constipation: Gripe water does not lead to diarrhea as generally perceived by many parents. There was an instance in 2007 when a certain brand of gripe water was found contaminated with a diarrhea-causing pathogen called Cryptosporidium (8). The case was subjective, and the gripe water was contaminated during the manufacturing process. Parents also share instances where their baby developed a regressed toilet schedule after consuming gripe water, but there is no evidence that directly links gripe water with constipation or diarrhea.

There are no clinically proven side-effects of gripe water. There could be specific side effects of the ingredients present in gripe water, such as artificial sweeteners, sodium bicarbonate or alcohol.

Therefore, if you find an allergy-causing ingredient, then you can opt for a brand of gripe water that does not contain the substance.

[ Read: How To Get Rid Of Baby Hiccups ]

Gripe water is safe depending on the ingredients:

In 1993, the United States Food And Drug Administration (USFDA) started retaining shipments of Woodward gripe water since it was categorized as a non-prescriptive drug (9). Since then, gripe water brands are being marketed as a dietary supplement that a parent can give his baby or toddler as per their discretion.

The formulation of gripe water has changed substantially since the 1840s. Alcohol is no longer an ingredient in nearly all brands of gripe water. Modern gripe waters contain water, sugar or vegetable glycerin as a sweetener, sodium bicarbonate, and dill or fennel oil.

Some Indian variants of gripe water may even contain mint oil. Mint is good for digestion but certain babies and toddlers can have an allergy towards it since it can elevate the intensity of the acid reflux. Also, the smell of menthol may have adverse effects on babies and toddlers (10). It is thus advisable to see the label of ingredients of the gripe water before giving it to the baby.

Most parents vouch for the goodness of gripe water. The most visible positive effect is the baby’s ability to sleep peacefully due to relief from pain and discomfort caused by gastric problems. In any case, always consult your pediatrician before giving your baby gripe water. You must also consult the pediatrician about the dosage instead of following the instructions given on the label. The younger the baby, the more careful you need to be about introducing gripe water.

What Are The Uses Of Gripe Water?

Since its first commercial availability, gripe water has been touted to have several benefits for colic babies and those suffering from gastrointestinal problems. Below are some of the common ailments gripe water is used for:

  1. Colic babies: Gripe water has been historically advertised for colic. It is popularly known to soothe babies that have a tendency to break into chronic colic.
  1. Fretful babies: Babies that tend to have anxiety due to shock or pain can be comforted with a dose of gripe water. It works in the same way as it does with colic babies.
  1. Flatulence: Gripe water brings relief in babies feeling full due to flatulence or gas.
  1. Baby tummy problems: Gripe water is often recommended for babies suffering from gastrointestinal troubles, including acidity. It is recommended even for constipation, though it is not meant for it. We’ll tell you more about this later. These are the core ailments that you can target using gripe water. Following are some other ailments that gripe water is commonly used or recommended for.
  1. Gripe water for teething: Gripe water companies recommend gripe water when the baby begins to teeth. Teething can cause irritation in babies, which in turn may make them cry quite frequently. This frequent crying causes the baby to swallow a lot of air since there are no teeth to obstruct. This may indirectly lead to flatulence. Therefore, gripe water is given during teething to soothe the baby’s crying and flatulence.
  1. Gripe water for hiccups: Hiccups are caused by irritation of the diaphragm in the abdominal cavity. The irritation can be stimulated by flatulence, acid reflux or general indigestion. Gripe water can help treat these problems, which may have led to hiccups. Please note that gripe water does not directly treat baby hiccups, instead targets the probable causes for diaphragm irritation.

[ Read: How To Burp A Baby ]

Gripe Water For Newborns

Gripe water manufacturers recommend it for babies as young as two weeks old. While such babies have the above-mentioned problems, you must always consult a pediatrician before giving gripe water to an infant. Usually, babies of that age are not given anything other than breasmilk. Babies have sensitive digestive systems and therefore breast milk is the safest thing they can and should consume.

[ Read: When Can Baby Drink Water ]

How To Give Gripe Water?

You can give gripe water to your baby in a teaspoon or with the help of a dropper. Most brands mention the recommended dosage in units of teaspoon. Measure the quantity using a teaspoon and then use a dropper to give it your baby. Gripe water usually shows effect within minutes but it depends on numerous factors such as the age of the baby and the severity of his condition.

Generally, gripe water is given once in a day but sometimes the brands might recommend a higher frequency. In that case, start with limited quantity dosage or consult your pediatrician for the exact quantity.

Just like any other dietary supplement, gripe water has an expiry date and you must never administer it beyond expiry.

When To Give Gripe Water To Your Baby?

Gripe water should preferably be given only when your baby shows symptoms of colic, indigestion or flatulence and can’t be soothed by any other means. You must avoid giving it to him on an empty stomach since the stomach lining in babies is delicate and could be affected by the alkaline sodium bicarbonate.

Can Gripe Water Be Added To Formula Milk?

Many parents are tempted to add some gripe water to their baby’s formula milk while making the formulation. But you should not be doing so because replacing any amount of water in formula milk with gripe water is a bad idea.

Also, manufacturers recommend against mixing gripe water with formula milk since there is a risk of adverse chemical reaction. Therefore, if you plan to administer gripe water to your baby, do it after he completes his feed.

Now we know about gripe water and its usage, let us see if we can replace it with safe alternatives that provide comparable relief to the baby.

[ Read: How To Treat Baby Colic ]

Gripe Water Alternatives

There are other reliable ways of making your baby feel better:

  1. Tummy massage: Tummy massage is a great way of releasing abdominal tension and gas. Baby massages are also good for the muscles and can provide the necessary stimulus for the baby to grow.
  1. Change formula milk: Check if the formula you are using is not suiting your baby. Switch the brand to see if it brings any improvement in your little one’s condition. You should consult your doctor before moving to a new brand.
  1. Make him burp: Your baby could be cranky because of some gas stuck in his stomach. Hold him in your arms and gently tap his back to get rid of the excess air trapped within. Sometimes burping is enough to make him feel good.
  1. Swaddle the baby: Wrap your baby in a soft blanket with only the head out. The warmth of the blanket and the feel of a soft fabric can soothe him down. You may even hold him in your arms while he is swaddled.
  1. Feed him breast milk: In case you are alternating between breast milk and formula, then switch to a complete breast milk diet. Exclusively feeding your baby with breast milk until the age of six months is the best way to keep his gastrointestinal tract healthy. This invariably helps in preventing those situations for which gripe water is recommended. In fact, feeding your baby anything except breast milk, even gripe water, before six months can expose his stomach and intestines to illness-causing bacteria.

[ Read: Ways To Soothe A Crying Baby ]

You must have also heard of homemade gripe water as an alternative for regular gripe water. While it may seem safe, homemade variant also has the same ingredients used in standard over-the-counter gripe water. The homeopathic versions of gripe water are not safe as they contain ingredients such as chamomile and vegetable charcoal. Chamomile has been linked with cases of infant botulism, which makes it a definite no-no for your baby (11).

While we do not vouch for the safety of gripe water, what we would suggest is read the ingredients, and make an informed choice after consulting your pediatrician.
Have you given gripe water to your baby? What was your experience? Share it with us here.

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