Caring for our own children is the entry point into herbalism for many of us, inspired by the awe of a new life to look for safe, natural, inexpensive means of nurture.
Home herbalism is who we are and how our families work, healing practiced around the kitchen table around the world and across the centuries. Thank the Good Green Earth that home herbalism happens as a reflex, intuition built on a foundation of herbal fluency that allows us to live as herbalists in every moment.
Many herbal references either start with older children, glossing over the unique needs of the preschool and younger crowd entirely, or try to cover all children as a monolith. This ignores the incredible spiritual and transformative power of littles’ lives, both in their daily personal growth and change, and in their powerful role within a family and community. Children this age often need our support as they explore the world and how their body relates to it, engage with other beings, and discover their own perceptions. Families of young children likewise need community support to flourish during a time that is simultaneously joyful and challenging, infuriating and enlightening, frustrating and transformative.
Herb Choice: Look Ye To The Olde Wyves
In any given moment of using herbs, we consider Materia Medica, that lovely organizational system of the vast repository of herbal knowledge. What herbs are useful for a dry, hacking cough, or a stuck, wet cough, or a cough with back pain or a sinus headache or postnasal drip? Of the many herbs for cough, which is the perfect herb or combination for this unique cough?
When we work with toddlers and young children, there are extra considerations, given that they are fierce but tiny, and in a more-or-less constant state of anabolism and mental and physical development.
The first question to consider when choosing an herb or creating a formula for the daycare and preschool set is this:
Is this herb traditionally used in young children?
It may sound obvious, but we live in a culture where the new thing is often confused with the best thing. It can be easy to forget amid the hullabaloo of the next incredible panacea from across the globe featured in glossy magazines and the nightly news, but the Olde Wyves knew what they were about. We do not want to be experimenting on our littles, we want to reach for the right herb the first time.
When searching for the right herb for a child, the best place to look is tradition: what have people always used for this issue in a person this age? What did our ancestors use, in our current region or elsewhere? What do the native people in our area traditionally use? In using traditional remedies we turn to thousands of years of healing tradition for guidance, and stand together with those who came before in practicing the healing arts. There is power, honor, and love in upholding good traditions (and in revamping bad ones: I’m looking at you, system of Eurocentric heteronormative racist misogynistic oppression). There is also safety: allow those who have come before to teach you their accomplishments, instead of reinventing the wheel at your kitchen table.
The second question to consider for herb choice is:
How welcoming is this herb?
Some herbs are so safe to consume that they’re food ingredients or spices, like burdock, nettles, peppermint, and fennel. Other herbs are not food but still extremely benign, like catnip, lavender, and anise-hyssop. Then there are herbs that are benign but definitively medicinal, like skullcap, passionflower, and bee balm. Beyond that there is a whole range of herbs, up to dose-dependent medicinals that make you sick (or worse) in doses beyond a few drops of tincture.
I think of this as how welcoming an herb is, as to a disorderly houseguest: peppermint and burdock will let me stumble around in muddy boots and leave dishes in the sink without reprimand, but the lovely lobelia demands a hostess gift and a deep bow to get through the door.
For young children, the best herbs are food herbs, herbs that are not food but almost food (you could make an argument for lavender cookies), and benign medicinals. These herbs tend to be very safe and gentle.
The third question to consider for herb choice is:
Is this the gentlest herb you can think of?
Young children tend to be very sensitive: to medicines, to energetics, to spiritual awareness, to interpersonal dynamics, unhealthy relationships, unspoken nuance, and the vast mysteries of the universe. We always start with a small amount of the gentlest herbs we can find in the hopes of bolstering their innate vitality and helping maintain balance in their little bodies, not overbalancing them or spinning them way out on an energetic limb.
The last question to consider for herb choice is:
How safe is this herb?
Part of critical thinking is a formal check-back: you think you have your herb, now check back intentionally to be sure that you couldn’t possibly harm anyone. What other actions does the herb have? Are there any known contraindications? If the child in questions is on pharmaceuticals, extreme caution is required to avoid any potential interactions; depending on the situation, a professional clinical herbalist with pediatric experience may be your best bet for medically fragile children (who are usually tough as nails, “fragile” is a hell of a misnomer). Avoid dose dependent herbs, and anything potentially dangerous or toxic.
So, does the Materia Medica reflect an appropriate herb choice? Is this herb traditionally used in young children? Is it a food herb, completely benign, or very benign medicinally? Is this the gentlest herb you can find for this issue in this person? Is it undoubtedly safe? A series of resounding yes’s means you’re on the track of the right herb/formula for toddlers and young children.
Formula Construction: Stay Centered
Often, toddlers and young children do very well when given a simple (just one herb). Since they’re so sensitive to both nuance and intervention, we can often do a lot with a very small dose of the one right herb delivered in just the right way.
That said, sometimes they benefit from formulas. In these cases, it is essential to remember that this age group is both very receptive and in a constant state of growth and change, physically, mentally, and spiritually.
Balance is at the heart of all schools of holistic medicine. It is a focus on nurturing our existing strengths and restoring areas that have eroded. We use herbs to maintain balance, or to return a system to balance when things get wonky, without overcompensating in the other direction.
Toddlers and young children are more sensitive and receptive than older children, teens, and adults, so it is extremely important to keep the principle of balance at the center of your mind when formulating for this age group. Choose gentle herbs with balanced or gentle energetics (more about this in a minute), and formulate with balance as a central focus.
The principle of synergy states that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. This is pivotal in formulation, when we combine plants and ask them to work together for greater healing. For toddlers and young children, looking at traditional formulas for enlightenment as to ideal combinations is a good place to start. Trust your intuition about which herbs seem to magnify each other: hawthorn and rose, hyssop and bee balm, witch hazel and marshmallow—which combinations do you find the most powerful?
Remember that synergy can be enhanced by the route of administration, so consider how you will deliver your remedy. Will this be most powerful as a syrup, the soothing slide of honey accentuating the magic of elecampane? Or maybe a steam, taking advantage of thyme’s volatile oils as they evaporate into the ether? Not all things must be tea.
Electuaries are herbs that make a formula taste good, such as lavender, rose, licorice, elderberry, peppermint, etc. They drastically increase the efficacy of formulas for toddlers and young children, as demon-possessed orangutans thankfully haven’t lost their sweet tooth (and if your child is perfectly well-behaved when they don’t feel good, just keep that to yourself, thank you). Obviously, if the remedy tastes good, they’re more likely to take it.
Consider synergy: what flavors enhance each other? Is that a sign that perhaps the herbs are boosting each other in other ways too?
A sweet taste is very appropriate for young children, as it appeals to their active anabolic nature, providing grounding nourishment to send medicine deep, along with a replenishing energy boost. They crave it for a reason, after all; all that growth and change requires a lot of input, and the brain lives on glucose.
Young children’s energetics are noticeably different from their older counterparts. They are more delicate and sensitive as a baseline. How they manifest illness and imbalance varies by the individual of course, but the incredible anabolism and transformation of this age tends itself toward a balanced state that is more toward the warm and moist part of the circle, with plenty of movement and little stagnation or constriction (we grow into that, lucky things).
Regardless of which philosophy of energetics you’re using, remember to focus on gently restoring balance. Children this age are extremely sensitive and it is very easy to overbalance them in the other direction if we intervene too significantly. Nudging them gently in the right direction is usually enough. Many of the herbs we use have stronger and milder parts; for instance, I find marshmallow leaves to be more than sufficient in this age group, and see no need to use the far more intense root.
When making a formula in advance, I often make it relatively neutral energetically, and then add to it in the moment based on what is actually going on, by adding infused ice cubes, tinctures, honeys, etc. This has the advantage of being versatile enough to meet the needs of numerous people at once, important in my busy family and my life ruled by the seasons—I make cough syrup in September when the garden gives, not in January when everyone around me is at various stages of hack-hack-hacking.
Developing a sense of self and autonomy are major developmental tasks for this age group. We strive to raise our children with a deeply rooted sense of self-empowerment and consent, and that starts young. Asking if a tummy ache is stuck or moving invites the child to consider their body autonomously, especially if we then reflect back their feelings to reinforce the idea that they are in charge of their own body and we are here to assist. It seems like a silly little thing, but remember that they are actively constructing how they fit in the world (“no! mine!”), so treating that journey with respect teaches them that they deserve respect. As they get older, deferring to their assessment of their bodies can help teach about self-empowerment and increase engagement, but in order to self-empower they must first develop a self (and honestly, my 2-year-old’s idea of self-empowerment involves climbing the bookshelf, so less of that, please). The same is true when remedies taste good: if they like taking them, they consent and we can honor their consent instead of forcing them to take some disgusting mess we’ve concocted—and they learn lessons about bodily autonomy and mutual respect.
Pinpointing which herb is the most appropriate in a given situation is one of the main hurdles we must leap as we develop our skills as home herbalists. These decisions are especially fraught when we’re working with limited supplies, limited experience, and a furious toddler, perhaps on limited sleep. As you tailor your home apothecary to your family’s unique needs, I hope these tips are helpful for choosing appropriate herbs.
But if you only take two pieces of advice from me today, let them be these:
1. Make it in advance: unless it is truly impossible, spare yourself the misery of infusing honey with a child screaming “uppy uppy uppy” amid bouts of coughing.
2. Treat the parents and siblings too: if Baby gets a nervine, so does Mama/Daddy/GNC Parent! We need all the patience and grace we can muster to support littles when they’re not at their best. You are also a person, if no one has reminded you of that today.