I have a new baby which is great for me because I happen to love babies. Particularly babies that I made myself. Unfortunately, this baby has terrible gas. No matter what combination of rubbing, patting, tickling and swinging around by her legs we try, she refuses to pass wind from either end. Instead, her belly swells up like a balloon and she cries, cries, pukes and cries.
Then I remembered Gripe Water. I’ve never tried it before because our first child farted and burped up a storm. But I remembered from some book or blog or bus stop graffiti that the remedy was the bee knees for gassy babies.
So I did what every good parent does and googled Gripe Water only to discover the truth.
Gripe Water, a combination of sodium bicarbonate and random herbs, doesn’t work. There’s no empirical evidence to suggest it does anything. It was thrown together by a British chemist in the 1851 and, for some reason, struck a chord with parents.
Over the last few days I’ve been asking various health professionals about Gripe Water, trying to get a handle on why this particular brand of snake oil has taken off while my Professor Nicholas J. Johnson Cat Anus Liniment languishes on shelves.
“I don’t really work with babies” said my GP. “But I know a lot of parents who swear by it.”
That’s fair enough. I’ve never seen a kid under twelve at my GP. There’s a bowl of condoms on the front desk and pictures of naked men on all the walls. I should find out what thats about.
“It’s a natural remedy so results will probably be mixed.” said the maternal nurse from the council. “But the only way to know if it is right for you is to try it. It’s not going to harm your baby.”
This “well, it’s not going to kill them” brand of medicine seems popular. In fact, the Australian government now insists that harmless but probably useless over the counter medicines be branded with an AUST L while the more clinically tested products are given an AUST R.
At the chemist, I took a more hardline approach.
“It’s an alternative remedy.” The chemist said, smiling sweetly.
“Yes…” she said warily, looking over her shoulder.
“But isn’t homeopathy just water? Weren’t there a bunch of studies that proved it didn’t work?”
“Some customers do like to try these remedies.”
“But you agree things like Gripe water don’t work.”
“No, but parents have to try something.”
“Well that is ridiculous.”
And it is ridiculous. If nothing works for curing colic or reflux or gas then parents need to try, well, nothing. Anything else is a scam. A snake oil. An exercise in flim-flammery. A distraction.
And that’s when I got it. As a magician, I rely on misdirection to cheat my audience. If they’re watching my right hand, they don’t notice what why left hand is doing.
And that’s what Gripe Water is. It’s not meant to stop babies crying, it’s meant to stop parents worrying. While we’re online researching treatments, harassing maternal nurses and getting kicked out of Chemist Warehouse for ‘causing a scene’ we’re distracted from that little voice that tells us that if we can’t help out babies, we are histories greatest monster.
Like Voltaire said, “the art of medicine consists in amusing the patient while nature cures the disease.”
Nicholas J. Johnson is a magician, author and expert on deception.