I spent much of my early career working in stores that sold natural health products, including supplements and medicinal herbs. Among our top-selling products were always homeopathic remedies, and none were sold at a higher volume than teething tablets for cranky babies. Hyland’s Teething Tablets, in particular, seemed to be the favorite of every exhausted parent. They would grab a bottle and, rubbing their eyes, proclaim, “I don’t know how they work, but they do.”
I never told any of these customers that they were essentially paying big bucks for a placebo. Study after study after study has confirmed that homeopathic remedies (which should not be confused with herbal supplements) are no more effective than a placebo for treating any disease or condition. These little concoctions, which are sold in the form of lactose or sucrose “sugar pills,” admittedly contain no active ingredients, just the metaphysical “essence” of natural compounds. It is biologically and physically impossible for a homeopathic remedy like teething tablets to work more effectively than a placebo.
Of course, there’s no way to convince parents of that, when they’ve witnessed firsthand how quickly homeopathic teething tablets work for their children. Many a parent has given a homeopathic teething tablet to a colicky or teething baby and immediately seen the baby stop crying and fall peacefully asleep. It’s no secret that a three-month-old baby knows nothing about medicine and has no expectations, so of course we can’t attribute the apparent success to the placebo effect. So just how do homeopathic teething tablets work?
The secret, in this case, is in the placebo itself. Homeopathic teething tablets are made in a sweet-tasting base of lactose or sucrose, which makes them palatable and also enables them to dissolve instantly on contact with a baby’s saliva. In general, we consider placebos, and “sugar pills” in particular, to be completely inert, but sugar is actually a very powerful medicine for little babies.
Sugar is one of the most potent pain relievers for babies under one year of age, especially in the sensitive newborn stage. Many hospitals use sugar, with strong evidence that it works, to help ease the pain of circumcision, newborn injections, injuries, and other discomforts experienced by babies in hospital settings. You may have heard your own parents or grandparents recommend honey (which is off-limits because of botulism!) or even soda as a home remedy for colic or teething. Babies given sugar quickly feel calmed and experience much less pain than they feel without it.
So, ultimately, homeopathic teething tablets do work, but they don’t work in the way that many parents assume. They work to the same degree that a tiny amount of sugar would work, by using sweetness to help a baby feel calm and at ease. They don’t contain any medicinally active compounds that could work in any way beyond sugary tablets themselves.
Save yourself the money (and avoid falling for a scam) by using tiny amounts of sugar-water in lieu of homeopathic teething tablets as your own home remedy for colic or teething pain. Although it’s not a good idea to give your baby sugar, especially in large amounts, there’s no harm in giving tiny, occasional dose of safe, sterilized sugar with your doctor’s approval, when all medicine-free and sugar-free treatments have failed. Of course, always check with your baby’s pediatrician before using any home remedy to treat colic or teething. A little expert advice can go a very long way and might help you get a good night’s sleep without needing to resort to sweet flavors.