Gripe water for babies: Does it work?

Gripe water is a popular herbal remedy for colic in babies that's been around since the 1800s. Modern gripe waters include ingredients such as ginger root, fennel seed extract, and sodium bicarbonate. While many parents use gripe water to soothe fussy babies, there's no evidence that it helps with colic, and it might cause constipation and vomiting. Probiotics and dietary changes are a safer and more effective way to relieve colic.

baby crying while lying on their back
Photo credit: / damircudic

What is gripe water?

Gripe water is an herbal liquid that's meant to soothe baby gas, colic, hiccups, and fussiness. The original recipe for gripe water comes from doctors in Nottingham, England. In the 1800s, they used a mixture of dill seed oil, sodium bicarbonate, alcohol, and other substances to treat symptoms of malaria in children.

A pharmacist named William Woodward discovered that the concoction seemed to relieve gastrointestinal upset in infants. He may have taken the name "gripe" from "watery gripes," which is what doctors called upset stomach at the time.

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Today, gripe water is a popular remedy for colic. Having a baby with who cries inconsolably day and night can make parents desperate for solutions – and sleep. Parents around the world use gripe water to soothe their fussy babies, even though there's no research to show that it works.

What does gripe water do?

It's not clear that gripe water does anything to help babies, since it's not a proven remedy. Because it's sold as a dietary supplement, not a medicine, gripe water isn't regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

Babies with colic cry or fuss without an obvious reason. Doctors don't know exactly what causes colic, but they believe the fussiness stems from digestive problems like gas or extra sensitivity to formula or breast milk.

At first, doctors assumed that any relief babies got from gripe water came from the high alcohol content. In the past, some formulations contained as much as 9 percent alcohol. Gripe water was so boozy that some parents became hooked on the stuff.

Thankfully, gripe waters on the market today don't include alcohol. They contain a variety of herbs and often the antacid sodium bicarbonate (baking soda). Because acidity hasn't been shown to cause colic, it probably doesn't help much. But the dill in some formulations may help to relieve gas and belly pain (one study found that dill essential oil helped post-c-section moms with gas and intestinal pain).

Most of the effects of gripe water seem to come from its sweetness, which babies find soothing. (In studies, sugar water made colicky infants less fussy.) Today's gripe waters don't usually contain sugar, but may contain sweeteners like agave. Also, some of the herbs in gripe water (like fennel) are naturally sweet.

Gripe water ingredients

Ingredients vary based on the brand you buy, but usually include water, baking soda, and a variety of herbs. Some gripe waters also contain sweeteners. Here's what you're likely to find:

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  • Ginger root extract
  • Fennel seed extract
  • Sodium bicarbonate (baking soda)
  • Chamomile flower extract
  • Lemon balm leaf extract
  • Passionflower extract
  • Preservatives
  • Water
  • Agave or other sweeteners

Can I give gripe water to a newborn?

Always talk to your baby's doctor before giving gripe water to your newborn. There's no evidence to show that it helps with colic, and it might hurt. In one study, gripe water didn't improve colic symptoms, but babies who took it had more vomiting and constipation.

Is gripe water safe?

It's hard to say. Some experts warn against using gripe water (and giving your baby any herbal teas or remedies) because it's impossible to know what strength, dosage, and quality of herbs are in these products.

According to the National Capital Poison Center, children have developed seizures and infections from herbal teas and remedies, lead poisoning and mercury poisoning from traditional remedies, and liver damage from dietary supplements. Herbal remedies could also cause an allergic reaction.

In the past few decades, major gripe water brands in the U.S. have been recalled for being contaminated with a parasite that causes intestinal infections, and for containing an undissolved ingredient.

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That said, it's unlikely that a gripe water sold in the U.S. would hurt your baby. If you want to try gripe water, talk to your baby's doctor first.

Alternatives to gripe water

If you have an especially fussy baby, a good place to start is with a visit to your doctor. An exam can rule out possible causes of colic, such as allergies or intestinal problems.

Colic is one infant ailment that doesn't have a quick fix or simple solutions – though it usually lessens with time and wanes by the time babies are 4 months old. Here are some things to try:

  • Anti-gas drops (simethicone). These haven't been proven to help with colic, but are commonly used to relieve gas pain in babies.
  • Probiotics containing the good bacteria Lactobacillus reuteri can help reduce the symptoms of colic in breastfed babies.
  • If you breastfeed, temporarily avoiding allergenic foods like dairy, eggs, peanuts, tree nuts, fish, soy, and wheat may help improve your baby's colic.
  • If you formula-feed, there's some evidence that switching to a hydrolyzed formula can relieve colic.
  • Baby bottles designed to minimize air bubbles (often marketed as having "internal ventilation systems") can potentially reduce gassiness and therefore decrease the symptoms of colic.

You can also try comfort measures. Rocking or swaddling, baby wearing, and loud white noise from your dryer or vacuum can be soothing to a fussy baby. Check out our video on soothing a colicky baby for more tips.

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Stephanie Watson
Stephanie Watson is a freelance health and lifestyle writer based in Rhode Island. When she’s not busy writing, Watson loves to travel, try new cuisines, and attend as many concerts, shows, and plays as she can fit into her busy schedule.