Natural’s not in it: the problem with homeopathy for babies

I never thought I’d end up writing about homeopathy for babies, but some things just take you by surprise.

For those that are unaware, a homeopathic preparation starts by taking a substance, usually one that would cause an ailment, and dilute it down to such a degree that none of the original substance remains. The belief is that this dilution can then be used to treat the ailment and that the more diluted the preparation, the more effective the ‘remedy’ is. To give an idea of the level of dilution of most standard homeopathic preparations, the Merseyside Skeptics made ‘homeopathic vodka’ and tested it on a few willing volunteers.

The arguments against homeopathy have been made effectively elsewhere, so I won’t re-tread those well-articulated paths too heavily, but will sum it up briefly. To support homeopathy, proponents usually either ‘cherry-pick’ flimsy, uncorroborated evidence to try and prove efficacy, suggest that a placebo effect is still a positive effect (and so what’s the problem?), or simply argue that everyone has a choice to decide what treatments they use. The primary problem for me (for it’s a problem among many) is that patients replace or delay conventional treatment in favour of alternative treatment, often at a serious detriment to their health. This is exacerbated by the decision to make homeopathic treatments available on the NHS – justified by the Government with the patient choice argument – that lends validity to the practice in many people’s minds. The Science and Technology Committee, however, conclude unequivocally that it’s not valid.

So why do I bring this up here?

Well, we’re fairly sure that my little boy’s teething at the moment. This can often be a pretty painful process, as anyone who can remember those first adult teeth poking through or who have been unfortunate enough to gain some wisdom teeth. We would, of course, like to reduce Reuben’s discomfort as much as possible, and so it is with this in mind that my wife bought some teething granules, on the recommendation of some her friends who swear by this particular brand.

Now imagine my surprise when I whipped out the box, in anticipation of riding to my son’s rescue and alleviate his pain, only to discover that these were homeopathic teething granules. First, the surprise that these even exist; and second, the puzzlement that my wife, knowing my somewhat sceptical nature, had actually bought them for our son. On the second point, she assured me that she didn’t realise they were homeopathic (this fact is revealed only on the back of the packet) and was going only on the testimonials of her friends (common ‘evidence’ homeopaths produce). So I’ll give her the benefit of the doubt on that score.

But the first point, that homeopathic pain relief exists for babies, has been troubling me since. The preparation is a 6C dilution of Chamomilla (or camomile). This means that it has been diluted 10-12, or 0.000000000001 of the original substance. In the ‘homeopathic vodka’ preparation, this would have been reached by the 6th cup of water. So a pretty extreme dilution. Leaving aside the pro-homeopathic argument that camomile doesn’t cause teething (‘like with like’ theory), there’s no evidence of this substance’s pain relief qualities (as advertised) nor, as far as I could tell, of its often assumed calming properties (also this). So at a 10-12 dilution, it seems extraordinary that there would be enough active molecules to have an effect (unless one subscribes to the ‘weaker makes it stronger’ argument).

As soon I saw that this was a homeopathic treatment, I convinced my wife that we needed to buy a proper teething pain relief. We bought some teething gel, with some well-tested analgesic and antiseptic compounds in it. And this, to me, demonstrates the crux of the issue: if we’d persisted with the homeopathic treatment, then we would have delayed using the more reliable teething gel and could have caused our son a few nights of needlessly heightened pain.

I guess it may have also subsided independently of the homeopathic treatment and we would now be telling our friends about this wonderful, magical treatment for teething. And the bandwagon would roll on.

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12 thoughts on “Natural’s not in it: the problem with homeopathy for babies

  1. Mary

    My grandmother said to use whiskey. Why not use the stuff of our grandparents–that’s what everyone tells me we should be eating now too.

    Reply
    1. The Skeptical Dad Post author

      That’s the theme of this article: http://pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/115/3/e297.long.

      It includes:

      “Whiskey, which is used to treat teething pain, places infants and young children at risk for ethanol poisoning and hypoglycemia. Children can become intoxicated after ingesting small amounts of ethanol.”

      So I’m not sure you’d have the support of health professionals on that one!

      As a side note, the article also, rather worringly, cites a penny tied round the infant’s neck, a raw egg placed in a sock or in a drawer, and a puppy licking the child’s mouth as teething treatment. Bizarre stuff!

      Reply
    1. The Skeptical Dad Post author

      The study you cite has many flaws – see this response article: http://pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/96/5/961.short

      “The report has faults of 1) purpose, 2) method, 3) diagnosis and treatment selection, 4) results interpretation, and 5) authors’ editorial comments. The reported difference between treatment and control groups are of dubious significance.”

      Nevertheless, even if a report did show an effect of a homeopathic treatment for a certain ailment, then it wouldn’t say anything about another homeopathic preparation for a completely different ailment. Having said that, there remains no sound evidence that any homeopathic treatment provides anything other than placebo.

      Reply
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  6. youngbennett

    It’s very easy to make fun of homeopathy, but as Popper said, we should attack theories at their strongest point (if we want real falsification; Wittgenstein who apparently replied, “Why shouldn’t I attack them at their weakest points?”). Anyway — the homeopathic claim is that the content of the sugar pill is informational, not chemical; so the dilution-to-nothing argument doesn’t work. How much Roman Empire is there in the typical copy of Decline and Fall? This is not meant as a defence of homeopathy, just as an encouragement to set out the pro-argument in its strongest form. It’s just a more interesting way of being wrong. Science needs to keep its dignity, and these student skeptics ain’t helping.

    Reply

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