A new baby's arrival is as warm and rejuvenating as the first day of spring. Parents and grandparents revel in the child’s beauty, adjust to make loving room for the newest family member, and dream of the happiest and best of futures.
This idyllic picture fades, however, when the infant acquires an unsightly rash, cries continuously at a high pitch, or runs a fever. Parents wonder whether something is seriously wrong with the baby, with them, or even with the whole idea of being parents.
To see a baby suffer is distressing, to say the least, yet it may reassure parents to learn that most of a newborn’s problems are not serious and are not a result of poor parenting. Some can be treated with herbal preparations. Below are a few common hurdles new parents may encounter, with suggestions for possible herbal approaches to treatment.
As parents, you are the primary providers of your child’s health care. Herbal remedies can safely be one part of a holistic approach to caring for your new baby, but like pharmaceutical drugs, they should be used cautiously and wisely. Never assume that a product is safe to use without restraint just because it is “natural”.
Currently, herbal products are not regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in the same way as pharmaceutical drugs, so standardization and quality control vary. The herbs mentioned in this article are generally regarded as safe for children at the recommended dosages.
Ken Johnson sounded distraught on the phone. Arriving home from work at 6:00, he had found his wife, Erica, trying simultaneously to cook dinner and pacify six-week-old Nancy, who was crying nonstop and squirming and kicking in her mother’s arms. Ken took Nancy and tried feeding her, rocking her, singing to her, carrying her, and bouncing her. Nothing seemed to work for more than a minute before she started crying again. Erica said that Nancy’s fussiness hadn’t started until shortly before he came home. After several hours of misery for all, Nancy decided she was hungry, nursed, and fell asleep, but her parents were exhausted. Both wondered whether they had done something to cause the crying or whether something was physically wrong with Nancy.
Nancy’s parents were experiencing a first bout with colic (sharp pains in the intestine), a common cause of crying in babies. I told Ken that while a normal six-week-old may cry as much as two-and-a-half hours a day, a baby with colic cries more than three hours a day for three or more days a week.
Colic is not a sign of serious illness, bad temperament, or inadequate parenting. No one knows what causes it, although many possible causes have been suggested—the baby’s developmental stage, emotions, and food intolerance among them. All babies outgrow colic without sustaining any long-term or serious damage, but it is distressing for both the baby and the baby’s family.
About 15 to 20 percent of all babies develop colic; it is more common in firstborns. Babies with colic may appear miserable, but they are generally healthy in every other respect. They eat well and gain weight; they don’t have fevers or diarrhea or any other symptoms. If your baby develops colic before two weeks of age, has colic beyond three months of age, or has diarrhea or fever, consult a health-care professional.
The colic cry sounds like a cry of pain and is intense, high-pitched, and continuous. Colic is usually worse in the evening when parents are getting home, trying to fix dinner, and unwind. It usually peaks when the baby is about six weeks old and is almost always over by three months. The screaming and crying may be accompanied by vigorous kicking, and the baby is difficult to console. While crying, babies with colic often pull up their legs, make tight fists, have a swollen abdomen, and burp or pass gas.
Herbal remedy: A 1993 study showed that 3 to 4 ounces a day of an herbal tea containing chamomile, fennel, vervain, licorice, and lemon balm was significantly more effective than water containing sugar and flavoring in relieving infant colic. Which herb or herbs in the tea might be responsible for this result is unknown, however. Although none of the babies in this study experienced any adverse effects from the herbal tea, some babies may be allergic to one or more of the ingredients. See page 31 for allergy symptoms to watch for. If you’re fearful that your baby might be allergy-prone, one approach, recommended by pediatricians when introducing new foods to babies, is to try only one herb at a time, administered in very, very small doses.
Nine-month-old Philip Koshi’s cold was accompanied by a cough that sounded like a rattle. The cough became worse at night. His worried parents wrapped him up and set off for the emergency room, but in the car, Philip’s coughing subsided. His parents, not wanting to be thought worrywarts for bringing the baby in for just a cold, sheepishly returned home.
Coughing is the body’s normal way of clearing the airway. Anything that irritates or blocks the air passages stimulates a cough reflex. Generally, a cough happens for a good reason, so it shouldn’t be suppressed. Most coughs in children are due to colds and tend to get better over the course of a few days, but some illnesses, including whooping cough and flu, are accompanied by coughs that may last for weeks or even months.
Dry coughs are usually due to irritants, allergies, a foreign body, or asthma. Rattlelike coughs stem from phlegm in the back of the nose or throat and are usually due to colds.
Treatment should always aim to heal the underlying illness rather than just suppressing the cough. Seek professional advice immediately if your child coughs persistently for more than a week despite home therapies, has difficulty breathing, coughs up blood, wheezes, breathes very rapidly, turns blue in the lips or fingernails, appears lethargic, or has a fever greater than 103.9°F.
Herbal remedies: No studies have evaluated the effectiveness of various herbs used traditionally to treat childhood coughs. However, recent research shows that some of these herbs can fight infection, promote the expulsion of phlegm, soothe an irritated throat, or warm and stimulate a child who is fatigued and chilled. Choose appropriate herbs for your child’s condition from the list below; consider a combination of herbs from more than one category. Make a tea according to the instructions on page 31 and administer it as described. The heat from hot liquid increases circulation to the throat, thus hastening healing.
Herbs to fight infection: echinacea, eucalyptus, garlic, hyssop, plantain, thyme
Herbs to stimulate the immune system: dandelion root, echinacea, garlic, marigold, nettles
Herbs to loosen phlegm so that it is easier to cough up: angelica root, aniseed, elecampane, fennel, horehound, hyssop, mullein, plantain, sage, thyme
Herbs to soothe a dry cough: anise, elecampane, horehound, licorice, marshmallow root, mugwort, mullein, slippery elm bark, wild cherry bark
If your child’s cold has settled into his or her chest, a time-honored treatment for chest colds is a poultice, which increases circulation to the chest and creates a soothing warmth (see the box at right). Keep a cloth between the herb and your child’s skin to prevent possible contact dermatitis.
When Joan Andrews brought her two-month-old son, Jeremy, in for a routine checkup, she was frantic at his appearance: he had a thick, greasy-looking yellow rash on his scalp that had developed in the past week. Although Jeremy seemed oblivious to it, his mother was very concerned and said that daily shampooing just seemed to be making the rash worse.
I told Joan that Jeremy had a classic case of cradle cap, or infantile seborrheic dermatitis, a mild skin disorder caused by overactive sebaceous glands or in some cases by the yeast Pityrosporum ovale; it is not caused by poor hygiene or poor parenting, nor by vitamin deficiencies. Some babies also may have reddened, flaking skin on the forehead, behind the ears, under the armpits, and/or in the groin. Even though the skin may look irritated, cradle cap is neither itchy nor painful. It usually bothers parents much more than it bothers the baby.
Cradle cap usually starts when the baby is two weeks to three months old and can last into the toddler years. Washing more often or with harsh soaps can make the problem worse, as Joan discovered. Cradle cap nearly always goes away in time as sebum production becomes better regulated with maturation of the glands.
Herbal remedies: Some herbalists recommend washing the baby’s scalp with a tepid tea made from burdock, chamomile, meadowsweet, or slippery elm bark. Others advise putting goldenseal tincture directly on the rash. Cocoa butter is another old-fashioned home remedy. Rubbed into the scalp, it softens the crusts so that they are easier to remove. No studies, however, have evaluated the effectiveness of any herbal remedies. If you wish to try them, go ahead, but if the irritation increases, stop using the remedy immediately and see your health-care professional.
Greg Edgecomb called me one evening because his three-week-old daughter, Nicole, had developed a fever of 102°F and was not interested in nursing. She also seemed sleepier than usual. I asked Greg to bring Nicole to the emergency room so I could check whether she had a serious infection or just the beginning of a cold.
Although a child’s fever can be frightening, a fever is the body’s way of raising its temperature to fight off an infection. In other words, a fever is not a disease but a symptom of many common childhood illnesses.
A baby’s body temperature normally varies as much as 1° over the course of a day, with lower readings in the morning and higher ones in the afternoon. Children tend to run slightly higher temperatures than adults, normally from 97.1° to 99.5°F when measured orally or in the ear. A temperature above 99.5°F is considered a fever.
Infections including colds and flu are the most common causes of fever, but overbundling (too many clothes or covers) also can cause fevers in babies. A fever raises the heart and breathing rate and increases fluid loss.
Herbal remedies: Children’s Tylenol (acetaminophen) is more effective than any herb and is very safe when used as recommended. But for those who prefer the herbal approach, bitters, such as Angostura bitters or gentian, have long been recommended by herbalists to reduce fever, as has catnip tea, which is traditionally recommended to treat low-grade fevers, help a child relax, and induce sweating. Scientific studies have shown that echinacea directly inhibits the growth of some bacteria and stimulates the immune system, and it is often used to treat infectious illnesses characterized by fever. Elder-flower tea is sometimes used in combination with catnip or peppermint and yarrow to treat fevers, and licorice root, which has antibacterial and anti-inflammatory properties, is used to treat fevers accompanying inflammation. Modern herbalists recommend a tea from yarrow flowers to reduce fever and as a general tonic. Any of these herbal remedies may be given as a tea. If a child is less than one month old or has a temperature greater than 103°F, see your health-care professional.
At her son’s four-month check up, a tired Suzanne asked when Nathan would outgrow his need for middle-of-the-night feedings and whether giving him rice cereal at bedtime would help him sleep better.
One of the most common and frustrating problems parents face is getting their children to sleep through the night. Most infants awaken every few hours to nurse until they are three to four months old. By the age of six months, more than 80 percent sleep at least five hours at a time. Illness, pain, or allergies can interfere with babies’ sleeping patterns, as can a change of routine, getting overtired, taking medications, or eating foods that contain caffeine. The best way to treat sleep problems is to prevent them in the first place or treat the underlying problem if there is one.
Herbal remedies: Traditional folk medicine has long relied on herbal teas as sleep aids. In Europe and increasingly in North America, sleep pillows filled with a combination of dried sedative herbs are being tucked into the sleepless child’s bottom sheet. Alternatively, sedative herbs can be added to the evening bath to help the child relax and feel drowsy.
Herbs traditionally used to treat insomnia include lemon balm and catnip, which are believed to be soothing and sedating; chamomile flowers, which are among the safest and most widely used herbal remedies for children; hops, proven sedatives that are traditional ingredients of European sleep pillows and may also be added to bathwater; lavender flowers, which possess a very pleasant, soothing scent; and, sweetened with honey, valerian, which has been shown to hasten sleep in adults without causing the morning-after feeling common with many sleep medications.
Your new baby is living during a wonderful age as far as health care is concerned. Contemporary mainstream medicine recognizes the value of complementary therapies in the treatment and prevention of illness, giving you a host of options to choose from when caring for your child. Herbal remedies, used for thousands of years by some cultures, are relatively new to many Westerners, but with a reasoned, cautious approach, you may find that they help your newest family member in gentle, soothing ways.
Kathi Kemper, M.D., is a pediatrician practicing in Seattle, Washington, where she is on the staff of Swedish Medical Center.
This article is adapted from The Holistic Pediatrician, copyright © by Kathi J. Kemper, M.D. Reprinted by arrangement with HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.
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