Natural remedies can be a parent’s best friend when it comes to treating children’s ailments and upsets. In fact, herbs can be particularly safe and effective for children because herbs tend to be so much gentler than pharmaceutical alternatives. It’s best to use natural medicines with the supervision of a qualified practitioner, but mild herbs, such as chamomile, lemon balm and fennel, have been safely used by children for centuries.
Herbalist, educator and activist Rosemary Gladstar says children’s bodies are particularly sensitive and respond quickly to the healing properties of herbs. She feels that, armed with some basic knowledge of mild, easy-to-use herbs, parents needn’t fear giving herbs to their children.
“Herbalism was once considered the simplest medicine, and was accessible to everyone,” Gladstar says. “The only reason it seems complex is because we’ve been separated from our herbal traditions.” This separation has led to modern concerns about the safety of herbal medicine, Gladstar adds, but this concern may stem from lack of familiarity. “Administered wisely,” Gladstar says, “herbs do not upset the delicate ecological balance of children’s small bodies as does much of modern medicine, but rather work in harmony with the young child’s system.” Herbs can be used for ailments such as colds, flus, colic and teething, as well as common childhood illnesses, such as measles and chicken pox. They can be used to calm irritability or to encourage sleep.
The most important thing to remember is to give children appropriate dosages. Keep in mind that most product labels recommend dosages for 150-pound adults, so adjust according to your child’s weight. Herbalist and midwife Aviva Romm recommends that if a remedy seems ineffective, you may need to adjust the dose. However, don’t give more of an herb just to achieve faster results — herbs don’t work on a “more is better” principle.
Provide a Gentle Touch with Homeopathy
Homeopathy is another approach that can be used to treat common childhood ailments. It is safe, does not cause side effects, and the approach to treatment is the same for children and adults; it involves determining constitution and administering doses of a remedy derived from plant, mineral, animal or chemical substances.
Dana Ullman, a homeopath and director of Homeopathic Educational Services in Berkeley, California (www.homeopathic.com), says that parents can use various remedies for children at home with success. For more serious problems or recurring symptoms, it’s best to visit a licensed homeopath.
Ullman notes that giving a homeopathic remedy to infants or young children can be tricky because they may not swallow it. However, a remedy takes effect as soon as it contacts the inner surfaces of the mouth, so swallowing isn’t necessary. If the medicine is in liquid form, a small drop is enough for each dose. Or pour a few tiny pellets onto a child’s tongue — they will stick and dissolve quickly. If a remedy comes in a pill or tablet, crush it into a powder between two pieces of clean paper using a heavy object or dissolve them in a spoonful of water and give the child a small drop.
Ullman suggests the following homeopathic remedies for home use with children:
• Chamomilla is used for hyperactive infants and young children who are restless and irritable. It also helps babies suffering from teething pain or colic. Use it when an infant cries incessantly except when being carried or when a child is hyperirritable and has tantrums.
• Belladonna is helpful for fevers, when a child has a flushed face, throbbing headache, drowsiness but difficulty falling asleep and swollen glands and radiating heat. It is used for measles, when there is a sudden onset of high fever, with a flushed face and reddened lips.
• Apis is one of the key remedies for sore throat when the tonsils are puffy and red, when it hurts to eat or drink anything warm, and when relief comes from sucking an ice cube. It is a leading remedy for hives when the skin is swollen, red and sensitive to heat, often from an allergic response.
• Bryonia is the leading remedy for coughs, especially dry coughs aggravated by motion.
When to Call the Doctor
Contact your child’s pediatrician immediately if your sick child:
• Is younger than 2 months old.
• Is younger than 3 months old and has a fever.
• Has a fever higher than 104 degrees, at any age.
• Acts extremely irritable; can’t be comforted.
• Seems lethargic.
• Becomes confused, delirious or loses consciousness.
• Has a convulsion.
• Complains of stiff neck or headache and/or cannot touch chin to chest.
• Complains of severe pain in any part of the body.
• Has difficulty breathing.
• Has problems with balance or coordination.
• Becomes dehydrated.
• Develops a rash that looks like tiny bruises.
• May have ingested poison.
Source: White, Linda, and Sunny Mavor. Kids, Herbs, & Health. Loveland, Colorado: Interweave, 1998.
Best Herbal Options for Common Complaints
• Echinacea (Echinacea spp.) is an immune-enhancing herb considered a “mother’s helper” by herbalists, Gladstar says. It can be used in tea or tincture form to fend off illness when there are a lot of colds or flus going around or when the first symptoms appear.
• Chamomile (Matricaria recutita) is one of the best all-around children’s herbs. It contains anti-inflammatory essential oils, and its flowers make a soothing tea that settles the nervous system. It promotes digestion and is good for colicky babies. Cham-omile tea can calm a stressed or nervous child. A massage oil with added chamomile essential oil can be used to calm a child or to soothe sore, achy muscles. A few drops of tincture before feeding time aids digestion.
• Catnip (Nepeta cataria) is an herbal relaxant that can soothe an agitated nervous system. Helpful in treating teething or colic and the onset of colds, it can serve as a digestive aid. A few drops of tincture before bedtime will calm fussy children, and a couple of drops before meals can serve as a digestive aid.
• Mullein flower (Verbascum spp.), in the form of warmed oil, is helpful for treating bronchial congestion or simple ear infections associated with colds and flus. Gladstar says she has seen mullein and/or garlic work in 95 percent of cases of her own children and others’, unless there is a long history of infection or the case is quite serious.
• Fennel (Foeniculum vulgare) is an antacid that neutralizes excess acids in the stomach and intestines and stimulates digestion. Fennel tea tastes good and is used to treat colic, improve digestion and expel gas.
• Licorice (Glycyrrhiza glabra) is used for bronchial congestion, sore throat, coughs and inflammation of the digestive tract. Use it in syrups and teas, or give children licorice sticks to chew.
• Slippery elm (Ulmus rubra) soothes inflammation. It is useful for treating burns, sore throats and digestive problems, including diarrhea and constipation. To use as a cough medicine, mix 1 tablespoon slippery elm, 1 teaspoon cinnamon, 1 cup warm water and 1 tablespoon honey. To make a tea, simmer 1 teaspoon of slippery elm in 1 cup of hot water.
• Lemon balm (Melissa officinalis) is calming, antiviral and antiseptic. It can be used as a mild sedative. Lemon balm makes a delicious tea that can be served with lemon and honey throughout the day to alleviate stress and anxiety. Blend equal parts lemon balm, oats and chamomile and steep as a tea for a nervous system tonic.
• Nettle (Urtica dioica) is high in vitamins and minerals, especially iron and calcium. It is a remedy for allergies and hay fever and helps alleviate growing pains in young children.
For Further Reading
Everybody’s Guide to Homeopathic Medicines by Stephen Cummings and Dana Ullman (Tarcher, 1997)
Homeopathic Medicine for Children and Infants by Dana Ullman (Tarcher, 1992)
Kids, Herbs, & Health by Linda B. White, M.D. and Sunny Mavor (Interweave, 1998)
Naturally Healthy Babies and Children by Aviva Jill Romm (Celestial Arts, 2003)
Rosemary Gladstar’s Family Herbal: A Guide to Living Life with Energy, Health, and Vitality by Rosemary Gladstar (Storey Books, 2001)
Rosemary Gladstar’s Herbal Remedies for Children’s Health by Rosemary Gladstar (Storey Books, 1999)
Herbs for Kids
Nature’s Answer for Kids
Help the (Herbal) Medicine Go Down
For infants, it’s best to administer herbs in mild tea form. For older children, tinctures may be used. Tinctures are made with alcohol or glycerin, an alcohol byproduct. If parents give tinctures to children, they should dilute the tincture with water, tea or juice, Gladstar says. She notes that glycerin is not as good a solvent as alcohol, but the glycerin tinctures taste sweet, and children may respond better to them.
Another option is to use powdered herbs and make herbal candy balls. To do this, combine the desired herbs with honey (do not use honey for children younger than 1) or maple syrup, nut butter (if your child is older than 2 and not allergic to nuts) and shredded coconut. Roll into balls and store in the refrigerator.
Parents also may want to nurture children’s relationship with herbs, involving them with growing and harvesting them, as well as making teas. Using herbal medicine in the home is a way of life, says Gladstar. “It involves a relationship with the earth,” she says. “When we teach children about plants as medicine, it helps them develop a soulful, deep relationship with them.” It also can lead to a continuing practice of nurturing their health with the aid of natural remedies.