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.
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.
The era of toddlers and young children is a uniquely transformative time for both the child and family as a whole. It is important to support the incredible growth of their physical, emotional, and spiritual lives as they constantly build and adapt to the world around them.
Supporting the family constellation is key. The sleepless teething baby’s parents need nervines just as the baby does, and limbic resonance and a calm, patient presence go a long way toward soothing both! Immune support, nervines, aches and pains: do not forget the rest of the constellation when working with the most demanding star.
Little Bodies, Big Differences
When working with toddlers and young children, we are well-served to pay close attention to the confluence of physical and emotional states, as that is where they live. Because young children’s normal state is one of constant growth and change, things that we see in adults as disparate symptoms, or related by stress or inflammation or whatever, are often directly or causally linked in this age group as their complex systems develop. Illness, trouble sleeping, digestive upset and more can be manifestations of emotional or spiritual disruption. Temper tantrums might signal a headache or ear infection, as well as obvious stress or exhaustion. Stress in the overall environment, disruptions to routine, the overall family emotional state: these can tie closely with a bout of constipation or headache or trouble sleeping.
Additionally, physical systems function differently as they develop from how they will at maturity, so the common assumption that young children can be treated like tiny adults is inappropriate. As young children progressively develop their active immunity by encountering the world, their digestive tracts play an essential role in their immune system. The developing immune system relies on gut acidity and the microbiome to help defend a child from infection, so ensuring a healthy flora is essential to preventing sickness and developing allergies. It is also absolutely key to understand that the digestive tract is where we often see the first signs of illness, stress, anxiety, or other types of distress manifested, so looking solely at digestive herbs for digestive issues in toddlers is not enough: consider what else is at play.
There is an incredible plethora of safe, effective herbs for common problems with this age group. The following are a few of the herbs that I turn to over and over again, filtered specifically for broadest use and ease of growing: these grow easily across the country and are freely or cheaply accessible to most families.
Catnip, Nepeta cataria
I use the cool, dry above ground parts of catnip as a nervine, antispasmodic, carminative, analgesic and febrifuge. One of the most useful things about catnip is the broadness of its use with this age group, when seemingly disparate symptoms occur together as manifestations of the same issue (i.e. tummy ache and nightmares from interrupted-routine stress).
For stress, anxiety, trouble sleeping (especially with nightmares), and pain, catnip is useful internally, or as a massage, bath, or pillow stuffing, alone or combined with lavender or chamomile.
For tummy aches or gas, catnip is especially useful internally or as a belly massage with fennel, chamomile, or ginger (depending if the balance point is cooler or warmer). It is doubly, especially, particularly indicated when indigestion or gas is accompanied by stress or pain.
Catnip helps break a fever by inducing sweating without increasing hypothalamic-regulated body temperature, which is key in the toddler set, as they are prone to runaway fevers. It is especially useful when fevers are accompanied by headache or other pain. It is ideally used internally and externally at the same time, as a bath and tea. For this application it combines well with chamomile and thyme, plus immune herbs like elderberry and echinacea internally if an infection or sickness is at work.
Elderberry, Sambucus canadensis
The fruit of this safe, effective, versatile immune stimulant and febrifuge is absolutely indispensable in the home apothecary. Older toddlers and young children can help harvest berries and make honey or syrup once they get into pouring as a hobby, which engenders a sense of pride and self-efficacy. Elderberry is used in small doses on a daily basis to help prevent seasonal illness. It is wonderful as a syrup with cinnamon, ginger, and garlic (what my daughter wants when she asks for “medicine”), or just on its own as a simple infused honey.
Elderberry is used in slightly larger doses when a child is actually sick, internally with other safe immune stimulants and herbs for specific symptoms. I make a very strong infusion of thyme, hyssop, and bee balm in late summer, sweeten it with elderberry honey, and add some echinacea tincture, then freeze the whole thing into mini-popsicles for when a child is sick: they think they’re getting a treat, you think they’re getting hydration and medicine, so everybody wins. For my clinical practice, I often just do a syrup with these or similar herbs, depending on what is called for, as popsicles don’t travel well, but I can’t speak highly enough of them in the home setting.
Fennel, Foeniculum vulgare
Fennel seed is already in many parents’ home apothecary, as it is one of our favorite herbs for increasing breast milk supply, and especially useful when nursing colicy babies. As our children grow it continues to be a favorite, as it is perennially useful as a warming, stimulating carminative and aromatic bitter, dispersing upper GI grumpiness and getting the lower GI motor started for bloating and mild constipation. When parents bring me infant clients after being encouraged to start pharmaceutical reflux medication, fennel is often a central herb, as it can help disperse that hot digestive irritability, especially with catnip.
Fennel is a versatile digestive herb that works for many different kinds of digestive upset. It eases tummy aches that rumble and shudder without going anywhere, with chamomile to soothe and cool. It also works just as well for stuck, bloated balloon bellies with thyme and catnip. It is extremely helpful for stress constipation with catnip or chamomile. Fennel is wonderful as a tea or honey, and also very useful as a wash or gentle tummy and lower back massage for tummy aches and constipation.
Fennel’s astringency makes it useful in formulas as a child’s astringent in general, perhaps with marshmallow leaf, violet, or mullein for dry, irritated mucous membranes, to help hold the moisture in parched tissues.
Thyme, Thymus vulgaris
The enticingly aromatic above ground parts of thyme are useful as a warming, antimicrobial, decongestant and immune stimulant, as well as a warming, stimulating digestive aid. I use it internally and externally for respiratory infections, ear infections, sinus congestion, and any infection that is causing congestion. It is wonderful as a steam, chest rub, or in the bath with other aromatic herbs like eucalyptus and hyssop. Thyme is truly glorious fresh in honey or syrup with other immune herbs, like echinacea and bee balm. If it is too warming, or there is an irritated cough along with the congestion, mullein leaf tea can provide a nice soothing balance, or marshmallow leaf and flower honey.
Thyme is extremely useful as a digestive aid for stuck, cold tummy aches, bloating, and mild constipation, which makes a honey preparation double useful for the probiotic content. It is nice in this context with fennel, or catnip if there is a stress component.
Bumps and Boo-boos
Having a nice salve or cream on hand for bumps and boo-boos is key. As toddlers learn about their bodies and the world through direct experience, they tend to hurl themselves into the path of danger on a moment-to-moment basis, heedless of the heart attack they’re giving you, and minor wounds are the result, as are gross motor skills, self-efficacy, and problem-solving abilities.
A perfect salve for bumps and boo-boos is balanced between moistening and drying herbs, as you cannot predict what fresh hell is around the next bend and should be prepared for bee stings as well as scrapes. Combining an astringent like witch hazel with a demulcent like violet or marshmallow leaf provides balance and helps the skin retain moisture, they work better together to decrease inflammation and provide a soothing, moist healing environment.
Several vulnerary herbs are usually a good idea, as they bring different benefits in addition to their wound-healing properties. I like calendula and yarrow for their extra antimicrobial and anti-inflammatory awesomeness, plus plantain for how it draws things out of wounds (dirt, thorns, bee stingers), and chamomile for soothing pain relief. There are many other fantastic vulnerary herbs, simply choose 2 or 3 that grow near you, and make sure you’ve got an astringent and a demulcent involved (either one of the vulneraries, or in addition), and make a salve in advance so you have it on hand. Often the ritual of a kiss and a little boo-boo cream takes away most of the emotional crisis.
Families with young children are well-served to identify 5 to 10 herbs that they find particularly helpful for a wide variety of conditions, and keep them on hand in useful preparations.
Toddlers and young children cherish routines and rituals, looking to stability in times of disruption. Young families benefit from working normal routines into a hard day, as well as creating their own healing rituals for times of need. Holding a calm, focused presence, maintaining quiet space, and giving a young child your undivided attention are all essential remedies in their own right—although this can feel impossible with limited sleep and plenty of stress, which is why it is so important to support the family as a whole. Preparing remedies in advance and treating the family as a constellation really help maintain harmony on difficult days.
Remember: you already nailed it the moment you looked your child in the eyes and acknowledged their feelings; everything else is a bonus.
You’re doing awesome at creating a person.