Fennel and Honey for Colicky Babies
Answered by: Conrad Richter
Question from: Alice
Posted on: February 2, 1999

I was browsing your website and came upon your Q&A – I think it is great. However, in your medicinal Q&A area, in answer to a question about a baby’s colic you responded with fennel seed which I too have often read about. What surprised me was that you mentioned to flavour/sweeten this tea with honey and feed to the baby, I want to point out (as a mother of two and avid child care book reader) that it is not recomended to feed a baby under one year of age honey as it will cause botulism. Botulism and colic? Not a good thing! I hope you will change this so as to not cause any child any harm. I realise you have a disclaimer, but there are those who do not heed.

As a father with an 18 month old child and an 11 day old baby, I am surprised to hear of any problem with honey for infants. Honey is an old remedy for colic that has been used in many cultures. When my older child experienced a brief bout with colic, my wife consulted her herbalist father in Ghana, in West Africa, and was advised to give our child honey. In Africa, as in Europe and elsewhere, honey is commonly given to infants for this purpose. We gave our child the fennel seed-honey mixture as well as honey alone, with apparent good result, as the colic did not last long.

I decided to check one of the popular infant books to read up on the botulism concern you raise. According to Arlene Eisenberg, Heidi E. Murkoss, and Sandee E. Hathaway in their book, "What to Expect in First Year" (Workman Publications, 1989), honey does indeed present a risk of botulism for infants. Honey can contain the spores of Clospridium which can cause fatal illness, or lead to pneumonia and dehydration, while in older children and adults it is harmless. Some doctors say that honey is okay after 8 months, while others advise to wait a year.

I thank you for bringing this to my attention, and I stand corrected on the advisability of administering honey to infants.

I must confess that I have some difficulty reconciling how a traditional medicine used by many cultures, one that has helped babies for centuries, could be so dangerous. I happen to subscribe to the theory that traditional remedies that have persisted in human culture for hundreds or thousands of years are likely to have a rational basis for their claimed effects. Similarly, if a medicine does present a significant danger, then over time it should disappear from folkloric usage. Why honey is still recommended in many parts of the world is an interesting question that will require further research to answer.

Further Comment from Janice Walters

I must agree with the woman about the honey for colic in babies. When my daughter was 10 days old I wanted to give her some water. She would not drink plain water, so I put a little honey in it. Two hours later she developed a serious cough, tried to vomit and stopped breathing. When I called her doctor, he told me honey for infants is a definite no-no: under one year of age it can cause serious problems, as I experienced. My daughter did live, by the grace of God! Please, honey for infants can be fatal to infants.

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