Gripe water is an age-old remedy for colic. But what is colic, you may ask? When a newborn baby cries for more than three hours each day, three days a week for three weeks, he is said to have colic. If someone says you have a colicky baby, it basically just means he’s cranky as the devil. Though the exact cause of colic is unknown, many attribute it to gastrointestinal upset.

Woodward's gripe water logoGripe water originated as a remedy for colicky babies in England in the mid-1800s. Pharmacist William Woodward adapted it from a remedy to treat “fen fever” — a fever that plagued many babies and resembled malaria in its symptoms. Woodward had discovered that the remedy also worked to effectively relieve gassy babies — and so gripe water was born. The original Woodward’s Gripe Water featured a baby Hercules in his cradle wrestling with two snakes, a fitting image since a colicky baby may appear to be fighting off snakes, and features the same emblem today (check it out at right).

The original gripe water was quite a concoction — it included alcohol, sugar, water, dill oil and sodium bicarbonate. Quite surprisingly, alcohol was taken out of the gripe water formulation only as recently as 1992, probably because there were some reports of adults becoming addicted to gripe water. (And of course, the minor issue of giving alcohol to children).

People don’t know exactly why gripe water works to calm crying babies, but those who say it does swear by it. An article published in the Journal of Royal Society Medicine in 2000 links the efficacy of gripe water to its sweetness, noting that giving a baby a taste of anything sweet might help to calm him down.

Many companies produce their own gripe water these days, but in Britain, Woodward’s Gripe Water is still the most popular, with some mothers buying numerous bottles at a time to soothe their crying infants. Here is the U.S., gripe water is manufactured by Mommy’s Bliss, Colic Calm, and Little Remedies, among others.

Some mothers of fussy babies also swear by Mylicon, (actual name: simethicone) — an anti-foaming agent that works to reduce bloating and gassiness, administered through a dropper to newborns.

I’ve tried gripe water and Mylicon myself, and I’ve found both to be mildly effective. I also found that giving my son weak chamomile tea (cooled down first, of course) just before he goes to bed for the night to be just as effective (and a lot less expensive). To be honest, as any parent who is in the throes of caring for a colicky newborn baby knows — even a little relief is appreciated.

I’m going to share a little secret with you though: What I’ve found to be the most effective to calm fussy or colicky babies is Dr. Harvey Karp’s 5 S’s. You see, in his book, “The Happiest Baby on the Block,” Karp explains how the first three months of a baby’s life should be considered the fourth trimester — the baby really comes out into the world too early. The best way to calm him down in this new world he’s entered unwillingly? Mimic the sensations of the womb as best as possible by using the 5 S’s — Shushing, Swinging, Side-Lying, Swaddling, and Sucking. You’ve gotta see it to believe it. And once you do, you’ll be a believer for life.

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Gripe water logo: Leena J/Flickr