Many women turn to herbal remedies during pregnancy for nausea and uterine tonics. Some herbs are major no-no's while pregnant, but many are considered safe and effective. A new study published in the journal Pediatrics recently found that more and more mothers in the United States are also turning to natural botanicals to treat their infants, and some leading integrative medicine experts believe that could pose a problem. "Many people think that anything 'natural' is by definition safe—that's not true," says herbal author Linda White, MD, visiting assistant professor in the Integrative Therapies Program at Metropolitan State College of Denver. "Some plants are poisonous. Dosage plays a role, too. And even water, taken in excess, causes intoxication. Some traditional herbs suitable for adults are not appropriate for children."
Aside from the lack of research on herbal treatment use in infants, other concerns warrant parents' attention. "The purity of the product is one issue: Is it free of pathogenic microbes, heavy metals, and other pollutants?" says Dr. White. "Newborns don't have fully mature immune systems."
Contaminated herbs, generally more of a problem with herbs grown outside of the U.S., could have strong central-nervous-system effects. "Infants' rapidly developing bodily systems, especially the nervous system, are vulnerable," Dr. White adds.
Looking at 2,650 mothers, researchers studied data relating to the tail end of a mother's pregnancy and feeding habits through her child's first year. They found that nearly 10 percent of moms administered botanicals to the baby in its first year of life, including herbal leaves or plant roots, oils, seeds, and teas. Mothers who took dietary botanical supplements themselves also were more likely to give herbal treatments to their children. Herbal ointments were not included in this study, but researchers did find that gripe water (an over-the-counter herbal tonic for cranky babies), chamomile, teething tablets, and teas were the herbs most commonly given to children, some as young as 1 month old. The study authors also point out that supplements are not strictly regulated as drugs, either.