*Hiccup.* I remember the moment like it was yesterday. My mom reached inside the seam of her shirt to find a piece of loose thread, quickly tugged to rip it off, balled it up, put it into her mouth, and then proceeded to “glue” it to my friend’s baby’s forehead. I was mortified. In the age of military-grade sanitation, this baby was now sporting saliva from a virtual stranger.
As I shrugged my shoulders and tried to laugh off this popular ritual from Brazil, to our surprise, the baby stopped hiccuping! We’ll obviously never know whether it worked or was a lucky coincidence, but it’s not the first apparent success story involving a tactic handed down by an adoring grandma. In every country around the globe, grandmothers have old-school remedies for colic, sleeplessness, teething and so much more.
Which raises the question: Is there anything to it?
"I always tell my patients I am half doctor, half grandma," Dr. Harvey Karp, author of best-selling book “Happiest Baby on the Block,” told TODAY Parents. “Much of what I teach is ancient grandmothering tips about baby care, including the five S’s — the oldest ideas of swaddling, shushing, and swinging."
Some grandma remedies work better than others — and some are downright dangerous! Before you listen to grandma, listen to your gut. If you're worried about your child's health, call your pediatrician.
Many parents find themselves applying modern takes on grandmas’ tactics. Take, for instance, how integral sound and motion are in triggering a baby's calming reflex. Our rattles, white-noise machines, vibrating rockers and late-night drives around the neighborhood are simply modern-day applications of tricks that have been used all over the planet for centuries. The same holds true for many home remedies.
“A lot of the home remedies our grandmas used — chicken noodle soup, warm steamy showers and the like — are just as good as fancy or more expensive options for treating common childhood illnesses,” said Dr. Whitney Casares, author of “The Newborn Baby Blueprint” and founder of Modern Mommy Doc.
Here are 10 grandmother-approved home remedies from all over the globe. Always consult with your doctor before trying any of these — unless, of course, your grandma is visiting!
When Lee Nel was younger, she suffered from severe ear infections. Her father's mother, her “ouma,” would fill up an old, used sock with uncooked dry rice that was warmed on the stovetop. "She'd have me lay down and would then rest the sock on my infected ear for 20 minutes," she explained, noting that the procedure always worked.
"I thought this was a bizarre thing my ouma just did because she’s old-school, but upon a quick Google search, I see this is actually a verified hack, and we did not have the internet back then,” said Nel, 36, of Jersey City, New Jersey. “My hero: my ouma!”
Indeed, this at-home remedy acts as a natural heating pad to help ease pain associated with infection. Nowadays parents can pull this off a bit quicker, and in a more sanitary manner, with a tied burp cloth or washcloth. Just make sure to test the temperature on your own ear before placing it on the child's ear. You also can lay the homemade heating pad on your chest and have the child lean onto it from a sitting position.
We all know constipation in babies is common; the way grandmothers from Southern Italy advise their daughters and granddaughters to manage it is with a parsley stem and good 'ol EVOO.
"You simply soak the stem in olive oil until it becomes soft," Maria-Laura Blefari, 37, of Boston, said of this remedy that's been passed down for generations. "Then you insert it into the baby’s bum and turn it clockwise and counterclockwise for a couple of seconds."
These days, doctors like Karp advise using a sterile lubricant on a sterile, covered thermometer when things start to back up, literally.
Cristina Leyva, a grandmother of two in New Milford, New Jersey, has passed down this Romanian home remedy to bring down a fever.
"What we do is get the baby completely naked and then grab a sheet from the bed," she said. Leyva said it's crucial that the sheet is on the thinner side.
Next, she dunks the sheet into a basin filled with about 95 percent water and 5 percent vinegar as if washing it to get it completely soaked. Then wring it gently, "wrap the baby like a mummy, leaving the head out but covering the rest of the body, and then you leave the kid there for a bit," she explained. Soon the sheet will be dry because of the baby’s warmer body temperature. She sometimes repeats this process two to three times until the fever breaks.
Casares of Modern Mommy Doc recommended another method to help feverish infants avoid shivering too much: a nice lukewarm bath.
Well, this is one way to get kids to sleep!
"I used to boil lettuce leaves in water, strain it, add a bit of sugar, let it cool and give it to the kids to settle them into sleep," explained Luz Rodriguez, 72, a grandmother of eight from Fairless Hills, Pennsylvania.
This home remedy, with roots in Puerto Rico, actually has a tiny bit of scientific basis. Lettuce contains a phytonutrient called lactucarium, which is said to induce sleep.
Lili Khabie, and many other grandmothers from Beirut, rely on lukewarm olive oil for mild ear infections.
Grandmas warm it up on a spoon by holding it over the flame on the stovetop, moving it away every so often so it doesn’t get it too hot. For each ear, they take a cotton ball, soak up the olive oil that was on the spoon and gently place it in the baby's ear. They leave it in until it basically falls out.
Casares warns against this method. “If (an ear) infection causes the membrane to rupture, any substance you place in the ear canal can drip into the inner ear, potentially causing damage.”
"When you got sunburned badly, grandma would always put 'smetana,' or sour cream, all over your back," recalled Mike Reider, 38, of Fort Lee, New Jersey. "The smell was horrendous and there was probably no actual medical use except to give the appearance of doing something to help with the pain."
In reality, though, Reider's grandmother was right in dousing kids' skin with a dollop of Daisy. The pH, fat and protein in cold dairy products can feel soothing and help reduce swelling. Go, granny!
"When I was growing up, every time I had a cold my grandma would prepare a homemade cough syrup: a boiled blend of onion, garlic and honey which served as a cough suppressant, throat soother, decongestant and, yes, very stinky breath," recalled Ory Diaz, 34, of Clifton, New Jersey. "The prescription was one teaspoon a day 'until all the germs were out.'"
Diaz said this concoction came from humble beginnings in the Dominican Republic where access to medical care and medicine was limited and costly. Grandmas would look for foods and herbs in their own gardens and pantries that contained healing properties to fight off illnesses.
“The honey is the most effective part of this remedy,” Casares noted. “It coats the throat and is proven to be a helpful cough suppressant in children over 1 year old.” (Note: Do not give honey to a baby under the age of 1.)
In Pakistan, grandmothers boil up their own Pedialyte! "If baby is throwing up, my mom and grandmother would bring fennel and cardamom to a boil, allow it to steep for an additional 15 to 20 minutes, let it cool, then strain it," explained Aamna Janjua Kelly, 38, of Hoboken, New Jersey. A couple of spoonfuls would be served every hour or so. Grandmothers swear it helps with dehydration and stomach upset, especially if kids are throwing up when drinking milk.
Casares agreed that warm tea can be useful for toddlers and older children, but noted that “fluids with electrolytes and glucose (sugar) are the most important for preventing dehydration.”
Grannies from Paraguay have an easy trick to help cure clogged tear ducts: chamomile tea, or manzanilla in Spanish. "My mother-in-law, Marta, told us to prepare chamomile tea and allow it to cool so it's only slightly warm," explained Meredith Lovera, 34, of New Providence, New Jersey. "Then, dunk a cotton ball in it and massage it into the baby's inner eye where it's clogged."
Casares said an even safer and more effective way to help with this condition is to use a warm, wet compress to massage the area right next to the tear duct. “Your pediatrician can show you how to do this,” she said.
A staple that defies cultural barriers
Finally, no home remedy list could be complete without the mention of aromatic menthol balms known the globe over for their seemingly magical curative properties.
Take Vicks VapoRub, the analgesic ointment that lives on in pop culture for its ability to cure ailments big and small, be it the common cold, a bruised ankle or a romantic breakup.
Many other countries have their own similar camphor one-tin-fixes-all versions, too; "zvezdochka'' is an ointment that’s popular in Vietnam and Russia, and China's tiger balm has achieved meme status for its many applications, including soothing mosquito bites, relieving diarrhea and even removing paint from skin.