Children and Herbs: Safety and Inspiring Future Generations
For many new to it, herbal medicine can feel like an intimidating subject, and rightfully so, for without proper respect, knowledge, experience and technique, one can wrought much damage. But when it comes to our beloved little people, you shouldn’t scare yourself off, because while bodies of children are sensitive, their systems respond wonderfully to plant medicines. The key is to be informed, be safe, start slow, and trust in the intrinsic wisdom of mother earth and her many gifts.
Where modern allopathic medicine can be narrow minded at times, herbal medicine can provide gentle options in place of prescription medications. Most prescription meds are very strong and fast acting, but are often very harsh, and can cause many negative side effects in the tiny sensitive bodies of children. My son Rowan (3 years old at the time of publishing this article), as a baby, suffered from colic, rashes, cradle cap, and a variety of cuts and scrapes as he grew older. For these sorts of discomforts and complaints, it’s often better to choose a natural and more gentle approach than to throw harsh chemicals at it.
My little boy would cry and cry for hours, even though his belly was full, diaper fresh and dry, and had plenty of sleep and mommy’s affection. Colic made him a difficult baby to make happy, but it was herbs like chamomile, lavender and lemon balm that performed wonders for him. We evolved the tea as we came to understand what was bothering him, and in this case we made a gripe water recipe, which consisted of ginger root (2 parts), clove bud (1 part), Ceylon cinnamon bark (1 part), German chamomile (2 parts), and French lavender (2 parts), and we would make a small pitcher of the tea blend, and keep it in the fridge and for the first year of Rowan’s life, we would put drops on his tongue until he was soothed. Another challenging time was when he was going through the rollercoaster of his first teeth coming in, we would let him gnaw on an infant towel soaked in chamomile tea that was chilled in the fridge, which soothed his pain and took down the inflammation in his gums.
Rowan also had trouble with the material of certain diapers, and diaper rash was the result. Nothing over the counter would help and more often than not it made the condition become more aggravated. I created him a baby balm recipe to moisturize and heal, and an all natural baby powder remedy to dry out and soothe his sensitive skin. My baby balm recipe consisted of lavender and calendula infused in olive oil, then I melted in cocoa butter and beeswax before finishing with a light blend of essential oils of lavender, blue German chamomile and Roman chamomile. Baby balm has become a staple in our house and he doesn’t travel anywhere without it, because any sort of rash, irritation, or minor scrape, we use it on him and it clears up just about everything he’s ever experienced. My baby powder recipe was made up of finely ground organic arrowroot (6 parts), kaolin clay (3 parts), chamomile (1 part), lavender (1 part), and calendula (1 part).
Every family has creative treatments for their children, like second generation mama Barb used to lick peppermint candy and touch it to Jenni’s lips as a baby to quell her belly aches. Her mamaw Toni rubbed mint oil on her belly to ease nausea and help along her recovery when she had a cold. Leah’s mom Dawn used jewelweed salve for stinging nettles. Leah’s grandfather Richard would give her spearmint candy to soothe her stomach upset. My aunt would bathe her kids in an oatmeal bath when they had chickenpox. Our artisan Angela infused garlic in olive oil for her little’s ear aches, and added a touch of cinnamon powder to their applesauce for tummy aches. For her autistic child, Angela gave her child turmeric for pain flares and to reduce inflammation, and employed an essential oil roller of lavender to calm anxiety before school. It’s worthwhile to ask your family members of natural ways they employed to help their own kids.
There’s countless ways you can use herbalism to better a child’s life and improve their general health. But how can you know when to seek medical attention. My general rule of thumb is as follows… When to use herbs: with simple ailments such as I mentioned before like rashes, colic, teething and minor scrapes and bruises. You can also use herbal remedies for colds and flu, ear infections, stomach complaints, chicken pox, and to supplement allopathic care when dealing with more complicated health problems. For my family, we turn first to the plants, then if we don’t see results, we consider modern medical treatments.
When dealing with emergency or crisis situations, allopathic medicine is the best system to intervene in moments that are serious and life threatening. Let me be clear that just because I am speaking on behalf of herbal medicine, I do see a place for both approaches, and think they compliment each other more than they contrast. If you’re going to use both herbalism and allopathic medicine, make sure your doctor is familiar with both systems, because there are many scenarios where you will not want to treat the same condition with both kinds of medicines. There are many times you can handle an ailment with herbal medicines first, or perhaps certain plants may prevent a certain discomfort or disease, and then there’s situations when you need to seek medical attention immediately.
Seek medical attention when the child is not responding to herbal remedies and the ailment persists, or when there are signs of serious illness, lethargy, high fever or low persistent fever, dehydration, intense dizziness, recurring ear infection, unconsciousness or unresponsiveness, severe abdominal pain, difficulty breathing, hemorrhaging, or delirium. Severe burns can usually require immediate medical attention. Infections of the skin can appear as streaks from the point of infection, and can indicate poisoning of the blood. There was a stint when Rowan had a fever reaching 105, and while we could bring it down each instance for a time, he was not getting over the virus his immune system was fighting, and so in this case, we decided to have the doctor intervene.
Other times when I would skip the traditional herbal approach and move straight to emergency care is if the child is complaining of a stiff neck and headache, and is unable to touch their chin to their chest, or if a baby’s soft spot is showing a bulge, as these are early signs of meningitis, which requires immediately medical attention. If child shows signs of an allergic reaction, like after ingesting something new or following a bug bite or bee sting, then you will want to watch for difficulty breathing or swallowing, nausea or vomiting, flushing red in face or swelling of the tongue, stomach pain, heart palpitations, excessive anxiety or other unusual behavior. This is by no means a comprehensive list, but use common sense and keep in contact with your pediatrician in case of concerns.
Almost any herb that’s safe for adults is safe for children, but it comes down to proper dosage and how it’s administered. I always look for gentler herbs for children, especially when it comes to treating kids under the age of eight. Now, when considering potency and strength of medicinal plants, gentle does not mean a lesser effect. With children, you will always want to start with gentle herbs first then you can make adjustments to your recipes as you see how they respond. When formulating blends consisting of stronger herbs, use a smaller dosage of those herbs and join them with a base of gentler herbs.
The way we approach child safety is that most herbs are safe in moderation. Some herbs can taste bitter and children may not want to try them, so administering herbs to children can range. Teas, herb candies, syrups, baths, herb powders, tinctures, and mother’s milk are a few options. When determining how to proceed with herbs, consider the size and weight of the child, their general constitution, the effects and nature of the illness, and the herbs being used. Generally, I consider the dosage for a child based on body weight versus an adult. So if an adult can safely drink one cup of tea, a seven year old that weighs around 50 lbs. can have 1/3 of the tea, so water it down.
For topicals like a salve, be sure to perform a spot check, where you ensure there will be no adverse reactions. Place a small amount on the inner arm and wait a few hours before continuing use. You don’t want to go wild and cover their body in something that might cause a reaction. Extracts and tinctures can be used in very small amounts, diluted in a beverage. For example, a calming tincture may be used for a seven year old, but one single drop diluted would be our recommended starting place. We never suggest use of potent extracts or essential oils on children under three, and we only use gentle herbs and simple recipes on babies as they are so small and fragile.
Something else to think about is the gift you can inspire by involving children with herbs. When you invite them into your garden or with your cooking, or simply let them touch and smell and taste these medicinal plants, you are planting seeds of knowledge that will carryon through generations. Starting kids early with herbal education is a great way to carry on the art and knowledge of herbalism. It’s an opportune time, because they learn quicker than adults and what they learn tends to stay with them. Pass little seeds of knowledge on to the littles of our world, for like the plants, they will grow and one day blossom.
“To all of earth’s children, small and large, young and old, may we steward the plants and the earth they grow upon in such a way that they remain in sweet abundance for future generations of plant lovers, so that when you walk upon the land with your grandchild’s hand in yours, you can show them the same sweet medicines of the earth.” –Rosemary Gladstar.