Herbal Remedies for Colic

A new baby's arrival is as warm and rejuvenating as the first day of spring. Parents and grandparents revel in the child's beauty, adjust to make loving room for the newest family member, and dream of the happiest and best of futures.

This idyllic picture fades, however, when the infant acquires an unsightly rash, cries continuously at a high pitch, or runs a fever. Parents wonder whether something is seriously wrong with the baby, with them, or even with the whole idea of being parents.

To see a baby suffer is distressing, to say the least, yet it may reassure parents to learn that most of a newborn's problems are not serious and are not a result of poor parenting. Some can be treated with herbal preparations. Below are a few common hurdles new parents may encounter, with suggestions for possible herbal approaches to treatment.

As parents, you are the primary providers of your child's health care. Herbal remedies can safely be one part of a holistic approach to caring for your new baby, but like pharmaceutical drugs, they should be used cautiously and wisely. Never assume that a product is safe to use without restraint just because it is "natural."

Currently, herbal products are not regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in the same way as pharmaceutical drugs, so standardization and quality control vary. The herbs mentioned in this article are generally regarded as safe for children at the recommended dosages.


Ken Johnson sounded distraught on the phone. Arriving home from work at 6:00, he had found his wife, Erica, trying simultaneously to cook dinner and pacify six-week-old Nancy, who was crying nonstop and squirming and kicking in her mother's arms. Ken took Nancy and tried feeding her, rocking her, singing to her, carrying her, and bouncing her. Nothing seemed to work for more than a minute before she started crying again. Erica said that Nancy's fussiness hadn't started until shortly before he came home. After several hours of misery for all, Nancy decided she was hungry, nursed, and fell asleep, but her parents were exhausted. Both wondered whether they had done something to cause the crying or whether something was physically wrong with Nancy.

Nancy's parents were experiencing a first bout with colic (sharp pains in the intestine), a common cause of crying in babies. I told Ken that while a normal six-week-old may cry as much as two-and-a-half hours a day, a baby with colic cries more than three hours a day for three or more days a week.

Colic is not a sign of serious illness, bad temperament, or inadequate parenting. No one knows what causes it, although many possible causes have been suggested—the baby's developmental stage, emotions, and food intolerance among them. All babies out-grow colic without sustaining any long-term or serious damage, but it is distressing for both the baby and the baby's family.

About 15 to 20 percent of all babies develop colic; it is more common in firstborns. Babies with colic may appear miserable, but they are generally healthy in every other respect. They eat well and gain weight; they don't have fevers or diarrhea or any other symptoms. If your baby develops colic before two weeks of age, has colic beyond three months of age, or has diarrhea or fever, consult a health-care professional.

The colic cry sounds like a cry of pain and is intense, high-pitched, and continuous. Colic is usually worse in the evening when parents are getting home, trying to fix dinner, and unwind. It usually peaks when the baby is about six weeks old and is almost always over by three months. The screaming and crying may be accompanied by vigorous kicking, and the baby is difficult to console. While crying, babies with colic often pull up their legs, make tight fists, have a swollen abdomen, and burp or pass gas.

Herbal remedy: A 1993 study showed that 3 to 4 ounces of an herbal tea containing chamomile, fennel, vervain, licorice and lemon balm was significantly more effective than water containing sugar and flavoring in relieving infant colic. Which herb or herbs in the tea might be responsible for this result is unknown, however. Although none of the babies in this study experienced any adverse effects from the herbal tea, some babies may be allergic to one or more of the ingredients.

If you're fearful that your baby might be allergy-prone, one approach, recommended by pediatricians when introducing new foods to babies, is to try only one herb at a time, administered in very, very small doses.

(Do not give any baby more than the recommended doses of herbal tea listed below. Filling up on tea means less room for the milk your baby needs to grow. Start with ½ teaspoon of tea at first, and watch the baby for several hours for any adverse reactions—such as watery, itchy eyes, sneezing, wheezing, coughing or hives—before administering more.) Once you are sure that your baby isn't allergic to the herb, follow these dosage guidelines:
  • Infants younger than 1 year—no more than 1 teaspoon three to four times daily
  • Children 1 to 3 years old—up to 1 ounce (2 teaspoons) four times daily

Greg Edgecomb called me one evening because his three-week-old daughter, Nicole, had developed a fever of 102 degrees F and was not interested in nursing. She also seemed sleepier than usual. I asked Greg to bring Nicole to the emergency room so I could check whether she had a serious infection or just the beginning of a cold.

Although a child's fever can be frightening, a fever is the body's way of raising its temperature to fight off an infection. In other words, a fever is not a disease but a symptom of many common childhood illnesses.

A baby's body temperature normally varies as much as 1 degree over the course of a day, with lower readings in the morning and higher ones in the afternoon. Children tend to run slightly higher temperatures than adults, normally from 97.1 to 99.5 degrees F when measured orally or in the ear. A temperature above 99.5 degrees F is considered a fever.

Infections including colds and flu are most common causes of fever, but over-bundling (too many clothes or covers) also can cause fevers in babies. A fever raises the heart and breathing rate and increases fluid loss.

Herbal remedies: Children's Tylenol (acetaminophen is more effective than any herb and is very safe when used as recommended. But for those who prefer the herbal approach, bitters such as Angostura bitters or gentian, have long been recommended by herbalists to reduce fever, as has catnip tea, which is traditionally recommended to treat low-grade fevers, help a child relax, and induce sweating. Scientific studies have shown that echinacea directly inhibits the growth of some bacteria and stimulates the immune system, and it is often used to treat infectious illnesses characterized by fever. Elderflower tea is sometimes used in combination with catnip or peppermint and yarrow to treat fevers, and licorice root, which has antibacterial and anti-inflammatory properties, is used to treat fevers accompanying inflammation. Modern herbalists recommend a tea from yarrow flowers, to reduce fever and as a general tonic. Any of these herbal remedies may be given as a tea at these dosages:

  • Infants younger than 1 year—no more than 1 teaspoon three to four times daily
  • Children 1 to 3 years old—up to 1 ounce (2 tablespoons) four times daily

If a child is less than one month old or has a temperature greater than 103 degrees F, see your health-care professional.

Sleep Problems

At her son's four-month check up, a tired Suzanne asked when Nathan would outgrow his need for middle-of-the-night feedings and whether giving him rice cereal at bedtime would help him sleep better.

One of the most common and frustrating problems parents face is getting their children to sleep through the night. Most infants awaken every few hours to nurse until they are three to four months old. By the age of six months, more than 80 percent sleep at least five hours at a time. Illness, pain or allergies can interfere with babies' sleeping patterns, as can a change of routine, getting overtired, taking medications or eating foods that contain caffeine. The best way to treat sleep problems is to prevent them in the first place or treat the underlying problem if there is one.

Herbal remedies: Traditional folk medicine has long relied on herbal teas as sleep aids. In Europe and increasingly in North America, sleep pillows filled with a combination of dried sedative herbs are being tucked into the sleepless child's bottom sheet. Alternatively, sedative herbs can be added to the evening bath to help the child relax and feel drowsy.

Herbs traditionally used to treat insomnia include lemon balm and catnip, which are believed to be soothing and sedating; chamomile flowers, which are among the safest and most widely us ed herbal remedies for children; hops, proven sedatives that are traditional ingredients of European sleep pillows and may also be added to bathwater; lavender flowers, which possess a very pleasant, soothing scent; and sweetened with honey; valerian, which has been shown to hasten sleep in adults without causing the morning-after feeling common with many sleep medications.

Taking care

Your new baby is living during a wonderful age as far as health care is concerned. Contemporary mainstream medicine recognizes the value of complementary therapies in the treatment and prevention of illness, giving you a host of options to choose from when caring for your child. Herbal remedies, used for thousands of years by some cultures, are relatively new to many Westerners, but with a reasoned, cautious approach, you may find that they help your newest family member in gentle, soothing ways.

Kathi Kemper, M.D., is a pediatrician practicing in Seattle, Washington, where she is on the staff of Swedish Medical Center.

The article is adapted from The Holistic Pediatrician, copyright © by Kathi J. Kemper, M.D. Reprinted by arrangement with HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.

Excerpted with permission from Herbs for Health magazine, March/April 1997 issue by Kathi Kemper, M.D. Visit Herbs for Health online at www.discoverherbs.com; call (515) 247-7571.

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