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Giving babies herbal drinks to relieve intestinal gas and aid digestion is a long-standing tradition in Egypt, and in addition to an abundance of herb stores, there are several pre-packaged products on the market today. However, while herbal drinks have no immediate side effects, health practitioners point out that they must be used with care.
Anise (yansuun), chamomile (sheeh), fennel (shamar), caraway (karawya) and peppermint (na’a na’a) are the most popular herbs brewed for infants, either in various combinations or singularly. In addition to effectively reducing stomach pain and treating diarrhea, some mothers report that herbal drinks help their babies sleep more soundly. On the other hand, according to nutritionist Sue Gilbert, a consultant on the web site www.parentsplace.com, while 'herbal brews such as chamomile may be benign as an addition to a baby's diet of breast milk or formula, there is no proven health benefit.' Internationally, the Food Standards Agency of the UK, which was established in the year 2000 as a consumer advocate organization, advises parents to avoid herbal drinks entirely. The World Health Organization (WHO) goes even further recommending that all babies be exclusively breastfed for the first six months of life, not to be given pacifiers, bottles or any supplemental drinks, including water.
Dr. Mohamed Omar, a consultant pediatrician at Cairo University, sometimes advises mothers to 'try herbal drinks for specific conditions such as colic or when a [baby] is having difficulty sleeping, but [never] to use them on a routine basis.' Colic occurs in 20% of babies between birth and three months of age according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. 'Before [herbal drinks] are used, the mother’s diet should be reviewed,' explains Dr. Omar, '[because] a diet high in dairy products, garlic and fried foods can be problematic. Babies’ feeding schedules should also be organized [and] soothing maneuvers such as putting the baby on his stomach and raising his legs over his chest should be tried.'
But if they are natural and have no side effects, why not offer them to babies continuously?
Firstly, because babies may drink less milk if they are satiated with herbal drinks, and this can lead to weight loss for formula fed babies and to decreased milk supply for breastfeeding mothers. Secondly, pre-packaged products are often made up of 96% sugar, which harms the little teeth present below the gums from birth. In fact, most likely due to a German lawsuit against a major European manufacturer in the mid-1990s, herbal drink packages now often carry warnings that the drinks should be given by a caretaker from a cup, not a bottle, and that the baby’s teeth should be brushed immediately after drinking them to prevent tooth decay. Dr. Omar recommends that 'when commercial herbal drinks are used, mothers should make sure that they are sugar and preservative-free. Otherwise, it is better to brew their own as extra sugar can be harmful for the baby.' Extra sugar can mean that your pleasantly plump baby may turn into an overweight adult. 'There are two times in life when a person adds fat cells to their body: in the first two years of life, and at adolescence,' explains Dr. Omar. 'Whether we gain or lose fat at other times in life is just a matter of how much this fixed number of fat cells swell. So it is important not to give extra sugar to babies under two, or you could set them up to become fat adults by giving them a taste for sweets and by causing them to have extra fat cells.' When preparing your home-made brew, add the herbs to mineral water and heat them until warm (about one minute), but do not boil because boiling causes water to evaporate, thus increasing the concentration of salt and minerals.
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