In a 2002 study of 142 families at Emory University School of Medicine, 80 percent of parents who used alternative therapies for their kids relied on friends or relatives for information. Fewer than half discussed the treatments with their doctor.
In the U.S., complementary and alternative medicine for children is growing (estimates of CAM use are as high as 30 percent), but studies on safety and effectiveness are few; most have been done on adults. And because the FDA doesn't evaluate herbal remedies before they hit the market, pediatricians are wary of suggesting them for the fragile, developing brains and bodies of kids. "I'm a fan of a natural approach where appropriate, but I'm still very cautious about recommending supplements for children," says Russell Greenfield, MD, medical director of Carolinas Integrative Health, in Charlotte, North Carolina, and a coauthor of Healthy Child, Whole Child.
Still, there are some things Greenfield and other experts can recommend or advise against, and they've filled us in on the most promising treatments. Of course, you should consult your pediatrician before trying any method for the first time. Remember, just because something is "natural" doesn't mean it's safe. (When purchasing herbal remedies, it's a good idea to check the brands and their safety ratings at ConsumerLab.com, which offers limited information for free and full-study results for a $24 annual fee.)
Boosting Their Immune System
Most parents have the healthy child basics covered: a daily multivitamin; a balanced, nutritious diet (OK, the vegetables are tough); and making sure their kids get adequate sleep and exercise. All the doctors we spoke with about fish oils and probiotics, however, recommended these supplements for overall health.
Remember the daily spoonful of cod liver oil your mother (or grandmother) was given as a child, based on the notion that it was good for growing kids? Well, now we know there's real science behind the practice. Fish oils are rich in essential fatty acids, including omega-3s, so they provide a powerful immune boost, explains Sezelle Gereau Haddon, MD, an ear, nose, and throat specialist based at the Center for Health and Healing in New York City. Studies have shown that taking fish oil can stave off colds and ear infections in children. "Doctors are now recommending it for depression, heart disease, ADHD, asthma..." she says. "I honestly think everybody should be taking it." Make sure to buy a product that indicates it's mercury-free on the label. (Also look for the words "pharmaceutical grade" and "distilled," which mean that the product does not contain mercury or other metals, PCBs, dioxins, or other impurities.)