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.
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.
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.
Lynda McCullough is a freelance writer and yoga teacher living in Loveland, Colorado.