What is gripe water and can it really relieve tummy trouble in babies?
Unfortunately for many parents, newborns and trapped wind tend to go hand in hand. Young babies have immature digestive systems, hence all that pesky gas, and sleep-deprived parents will often turn to anything purported to ease their child’s pain, including herbal remedies such as gripe water. But while it’s practically a household name, having long been associated with soothing the cries of colicky, unsettled babies, does gripe water actually work?
What is gripe water?
When it was first developed back in 1851, by English pharmacist William Woodward, gripe water’s original formula comprised sodium bicarbonate, alcohol, dill oil and sugar. What’s possibly more shocking is that it wasn’t until 1992 that the alcohol content was officially required to be removed in Britain, due to the obvious toxicity concerns.
These days, gripe water still contains sodium bicarbonate alongside a range of herbs, including dill oil, but the alcohol and sugar should definitely not be present!
How does gripe water work?
Lots of parents swear by gripe water – but just how is it supposed to work? ‘Babies often get air bubbles stuck in their stomach,’ explains Abbas Kanani, pharmacist at Chemist Click. ‘This can be caused from gulping air when crying excessively, causing a build-up of gas, resulting in bloating and swelling of the abdomen. A growing digestive system can also contribute to painful spasms and discomfort.
The sodium carbonate in the gripe water can help to neutralise acidity, which can accumulate as a result of the stomach producing acid.
‘Gripe water helps to aid digestion, which can help move the air bubbles along. The sodium carbonate in the gripe water can help to neutralise acidity, which can accumulate as a result of the stomach producing acid thinking that food is present, providing relief.
‘Dill is a natural herb also contained in gripe water, which is thought to soothe cramping and bloating. Certain brands of gripe water may also contain other herbs that are thought to ease symptoms, such as fennel.’
What is gripe water used for?
Because of its reputation for being able to dispel painful gas bubbles, gripe water is often hailed as a remedy for colic in babies. It is also sometimes marketed as a pain reliever for teething and hiccups. But for all the anecdotal evidence, is gripe water actually effective?
Does gripe water really work?
Sadly, there is no compelling evidence to suggest that gripe water is effective and, what’s more, as a herbal supplement it has not had to undergo rigorous tests to ensure efficacy.
‘Gripe water is not classified as a medication,’ reveals Kanani. ‘This means that it has not had to endure the same testing that a traditional medication would have to undergo before it is brought to market. Lack of evidence makes it difficult to categorically say whether or not gripe water works from a clinical point of view. However, despite being brought to market over 150 years ago, it continues to be a staple in many new mothers’ medicine cabinets.’
Is gripe water safe to use from birth?
It’s very important that you check the ingredients of the gripe water you are looking to purchase: because it is not classified as a medication, its manufacture is not regulated in the same way and therefore ingredients may vary from brand to brand.
Obviously any brands that still include a percentage of alcohol, however small, are not safe for babies, and you should also seek out varieties without sugar.
Until the age of six months, your baby only needs either breast milk or formula milk of a combination of the two.
It’s also important to remember that, until the age of six months, your baby only needs either breast milk or formula milk (of a combination of the two); supplements such as gripe water should be given sparingly.
And, according to Kanani, gripe water is not suitable for newborns. ‘Gripe water should not be given to babies under the age of one month,’ he says. ‘Also, do not give gripe water to your child if they are allergic or intolerant to the ingredients, or if they have kidney problems.’
Gripe water: side effects
While, these days, the ingredients in gripe water are generally deemed safe, it’s important to keep an eye out for possible allergic reactions.
‘Because ingredients can vary slightly depending on the brand of gripe water, and also the fact that it is not an actual medication and therefore will not have any listed side effects in the British National Formulary (BNF), it is difficult to say whether gripe water has potential side effects from a clinical point of view,’ says Kanani.
‘Most brands that make gripe water use the ingredients dill seed oil and sodium bicarbonate,’ he adds. ‘These ingredients are generally considered to be safe. However, if your baby develops any unusual symptoms, such as hives, vomiting or changes in bowel movements, you should contact your GP or pharmacist for advice.’
8 gripe water alternatives
If your baby seems to be struggling with trapped wind, is distressed or seems uncomfortable, there are ways you can attempt to soothe them without the use of food supplements. Here are 8 gripe water alternative methods to try:
- Baby massage
Many babies find a massage soothing, and it can be a wonderful way to bond with your baby. Check out local baby massage classes, or search for online demos. When massaging your baby, make sure they are nice and warm throughout. Some babies protest at having their nice snug clothes removed, in which case you can leave them on. If you’re massaging them without clothes, use an oil such as organic sunflower oil and make sure your hands are nice and warm! Baby massage is a lovely way to round off the day before or after a warm bath – around the time a lot of babies seem to get fussy.
- Warm bath
Being held gently in a warm bath is a natural way to soothe unhappy, colicky babies. The gentle lap of water is a nice distraction for them, while the warmth relaxes and calms. You might like to gently place a warm wash cloth over their tummy for extra comfort.
- Bicycle baby’s legs
Gently moving your baby’s legs in a cycling motion can sometimes help to dislodge painful gas bubbles.
- Apply gentle tummy pressure
Light pressure on your baby’s abdomen can result in relief from wind and gas. Gently lie your baby across your lap, with their tummy against your legs, and rub their back gently but firmly. And offer plenty of tummy time during the day when they’re happier! (Remember, never put your baby to sleep lying face down.)
- Use white noise
White noise is a tried and trusted method of soothing colicky babies used by parents for decades. The theory is the ‘shushing’ sound reminds them of their time in the womb, soothing and calming them. The noise of a hairdryer, vacuum cleaner or extractor fan can work wonders, and you can also download white noise apps on your phone.
- Try ‘tiger in the tree’ hold
The combination of rocking and gentle pressure applied to your baby’s tummy makes this one a winner. Lie your baby across one arm (whichever is most comfortable for you), so that their head is resting in the crook of your elbow and your hand is holding them firmly beneath their nappy. Rest them against your body for security. You can gently rock your whole body from side to side, while using your free hand to rub their back.
- Change bottle teats
If your baby is bottle fed, is your baby getting trapped wind because the flow of their milk is too fast? Opt for a slow-flow teat, or choose one designed to stop air passing through it. Remember, when bottle feeding, always tip the bottle so that the milk completely fills the teat before offering it to your baby, to stop them gulping down air.
- Check the formula
When making up formula, leave it to settle for at least five minutes after making it up, to ensure any air bubbles created from shaking it have disappeared. If you’re concerned your baby might have a cow’s milk allergy or intolerance, always consult your midwife and/or GP before making changes.
Colic and breastfeeding
It’s important to note that there are some common misconceptions surrounding breastfeeding and colic in babies. While it’s true that strong flavours, such as garlic or spicy foods, may alter the taste of your breastmilk, a 2017 study has found that this should not cause your baby to become more gassy or colicky, and that many mothers restrict their own diets unnecessarily. This includes typically “gassy” food such as broccoli and cabbage – while they might make you gassy, this will not transfer to your breast milk!