Tag Archives: anecdotal evidence

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.

The journey begins…

The spur to start more formally chronicling my scientific take on parenting came from my agreeing to do a report for the excellent Pod Delusion podcast. The report centred on the unsolicited and unsubstantiated advice my partner and I encountered during her pregnancy.

It was a pretty awesome experience becoming a dad for the first time:

Jerry Coyne – evolutionary geneticist and author of ‘Why Evolution Is True’ – wrote recently on his blog about experiences akin to those attributed to a higher power, in which the sheer awesomeness of an event can bring about a sense of transcendence but separate from anything supernatural or religious, and this was definitely one of those for me.

As someone with a scientific background, I have always been driven to take a rational, critical look at claims. But now with a child to look after, things seem more weighty:

I could trust that millions of years of evolution has provided me with a paternal instinct that will kick in as and when needed, thereby ensuring that the fitness of my offspring will be increased. However, with such responsibility, ‘winging it’ is a little scary [and …] I would like to know the decisions I make as a parent have the backing of more than a ‘gut feeling’ or the instruction of age-old religious doctrine.

I felt as though of lot of the unsolicited advice I had received was supported by mysticism, hearsay or anecdotal evidence. I could also see some biases creeping in:

Many of these intuitions get perpetuated by a massive confirmation bias – all the people who guessed a boy said “I told you so, I just knew it, the way you were carrying that bump it must have been a boy”, whilst the other remaining half, who had predicted a girl, remained strangely silent and seemed to forget their prediction altogether.

I mentioned this because it is apparent when it comes to psychoanalysis:

there’s a wealth of cod psychological theories to explain someone’s personality with proponents retrofitting individuals who conform to these ideas to support their claim, whilst ignoring all other individuals who don’t.

I could also see some beautiful examples of some common logical fallacies: correlation does not mean causation, sample sizes and statistical power, absolute risk vs. relative risk, and reporting and recall biases. Listen to the report for more details.

My science-trained mind would almost always lead me to query claims, as any critical thinker should:

Whenever I tried to enquire about the evidence or statistics behind a particular claim or point to evidence that – say – there is scant evidence that more births occur during a full moon†, that familiar glazed expression would appear and a cursory muttering of “trust the scientist” might be offered.

†[Interestingly, it seems as though progression through the menstrual cycles leads to variations in the sex ratio, but this of course is unconnected to lunar cycles].

But I realise that it gets very difficult when one is actually placed in the situation of caring for child:

People often want a cast-iron guaranteed to-do list of what to do and what not to do, but scientific guidance rarely works like that. One can make a recommendation on the best available evidence, but those recommendations are liable to change and attitudes and practices need to be flexible enough to shift too. My mum, for instance, listening to the pervading advice at the time, slept me on my front to reduce the chances of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome through choking, but evidence since then has accumulated that shows an increased risk of cot death with front-sleeping and now babies overwhelmingly are slept on their backs.

And I do definitely value experiential advice, but I also appreciate that what works for one baby does not necessarily work for another. I guess that that was my motivation to look towards empirically validated advice to guide us during our rollercoaster, and so I concluded a few things I have picked up already:

  1. Be wary of any sentence that starts, “They say that…”*
  2. Do as I do, not as I say. There is a wealth of evidence that children who witness their parents carry out a particular behaviour – such as smoking, violence, even academic work – are more likely to behave in that way as adults.
  3. Open and honest attitude towards sex. Despite what Nadine Dorries may perpetuate, evidence suggests that when parents take a more positive attitude towards sexuality it can be beneficial for a child’s comfort with their own sexuality. And religiosity appears to have little impact on sexual risk-taking – the bigger influence is parental affection.
  4. Strike a balance. Musical training can be beneficial in attention, cognition, and language development. Early take-up, higher parental support, practice, and friendly rather than technically able music teachers all help, but there is evidence that successful childhood musicians need teachers who are ‘not too relaxed’ but ‘not too pushy’.
  5. And don’t read Mumsnet.**

*[I didn’t elaborate in the recorded report, but normally “they say that…” is followed by something that one person once said, that was based on a sort of hunch which may or may not be generalisable].

**[a cornucopia of anecdotes, ‘just-so’ stories and madly evangelical parents].

So that was my first formal attempt at verbalising some of the thoughts and ideas that came to me during a fairly tumultuous time. I wrote and recorded it during the first couple of weeks of our child’s life, so any glaring errors I will blame on sleep deprivation. More shall come as I look ahead to rearing this bundle of squidge.

[Note: more links to original studies will be added].