They're the healthy bacteria, such as acidophilus and lactobacillus, found in yogurt. "A balance of bacteria is normally present in our intestines," Greenfield says, "but that milieu can change for all sorts of reasons—stress, inadequate diet, and the use of antibiotics. By taking a daily probiotics supplement, we're reintroducing healthful bacteria." Studies have shown that probiotics can prevent or lessen the severity of gastrointestinal viruses (particularly those that cause diarrhea), eczema, food allergies, and asthma; there is even evidence that they may help prevent tooth decay. Both fish oil and probiotics are sold in forms for kids ages six months and older and come with instructions on dosages.
Keeping Colds and Flu at Bay
Colds are usually passed from person to person by touching contaminated objects, including doorknobs or toys. So basic measures, such as making sure your kids wash their hands often, can go far toward lessening the number of sick days at your house. Could an herbal supplement help too?
Many people swear by this homeopathic preparation when they feel the flu coming on. Homeopathy is safe, say all the doctors we spoke to. But whether it works—and how—are other questions. "Homeopathy has been found to be effective for some medical conditions in well-designed studies," says Timothy Culbert, MD, medical director of Integrative Medicine and Cultural Care at Children's Hospitals and Clinics in Minneapolis and Saint Paul. "But we are not completely certain as to how it works. And that makes doctors nervous."
Homeopathic medicine is based on the idea that "like cures like." So if your symptom is vomiting, you take a preparation that causes vomiting—but the medicine is diluted in water to the power of a billion or more. "The very concept that a remedy so dilute could have a therapeutic effect goes against modern science," Greenfield says. Bottom line: It's safe to try oscillococcinum, but there are no guarantees it will work.
Quieting a Cough
The traditional remedy is cough syrup, but many kids hate the taste. Doctors also have reservations. "If a cough isn't causing your child to lose sleep or appetite, current research suggests that leaving it alone is the best medicine," says Lawrence Rosen, MD, director of Integrative Pediatric Services at Maria Fareri Children's Hospital in Valhalla, New York. Cough medicines can have quite a few side effects, he adds, including hyperactivity and heart palpitations. So what else is helpful?
As a good alternative for children older than six months, Paula Gardiner, MD, a research fellow in Complementary and Integrative Medical Therapies at Harvard Medical School, recommends essential oils or teas made from dried herbs. Choose expectorant herbs, such as thyme, eucalyptus, mint, pine, licorice, and anise, for a cough that's productive (bringing up mucus). To soothe a nonproductive cough, also try thyme, as well as slippery elm, peppermint, or lemon balm. To make a tea, put a teaspoon of an herb in a cup of boiling water; for ice pops, let the tea cool, mix 12 cup with a little juice, then freeze in ice pop molds. You can add a drop or two of an essential oil to 12 cup of massage oil, and gently rub the mixture into your child's chest and back. Cough drops with slippery elm or licorice will also give some relief.