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.
Tea: Infusions and decoctions are easy and fast to make, and if you make it tasty, often easy enough to get in to a thirsty child. If they’re used to drinking tea it’s especially comforting; my family loves tea through a bombilla (mate straw), so this usually works unless they’re so sick they won’t drink. Recipe!
Tincture/Glycerite: Tinctures are extremely easy to give in that the dose is usually several drops, but mostly they don’t taste good. A few drops added to honey or yogurt is an easy way to give it. Many people add tinctures to tea to evaporate off the bulk of the alcohol, but then the child needs to get all the water down to get the dose. Some people are concerned about the alcohol content; however, the actual alcohol in 5-10 drops of tincture is minuscule, certainly far less than children in Europe are getting in their watered wine, and certainly nothing a liver can’t handle. Glycerine tinctures are a nice alternative, but they extract less medicinal constituents and only have a shelf life of about a year (compared to up to 8 years for alcohol tinctures). Recipe!
Honey/Syrup/Elixir: Honey medicines are the gold standard for toddlers and young children. They are delicious and synergistic, medicinal in their own right. They can be made in advance and stored for a long time, and can include both water- and alcohol-soluble constituents if you include tincture in your syrup. Recipe!
Oxymel/Vinegar: Vinegar medicines are phenomenal at extracting minerals and provide a good digestive aid. These medicines are delicious and synergistic, and can be made far in advance. Recipe!
Ice Pop/Ice Cube/Yogurt: Turn infusions and decoctions into delicious, fun remedies that go down easy, just by freezing them into popsicle or ice cube trays (pop them into bags for easier storage). If dehydration is a concern, combine an infusion with honey-sweetened lemonade before freezing for a tasty, electrolyte-rich remedy. Infusions can also be blended with yogurt for flavored frozen yogurts, especially nice for kids prone to tummy trouble, and those who stop eating when things go awry. Recipe! And Another!
Oil: Infused oils can be gently warmed and used for massage, added to bath water, or several drops added to humidifier. Consider an oil rub on the chest for bad chest colds. Oils only last about a year in a cool place, less if they are heated during the infusion process. Note: I’m talking about infused oils, not essential oils. I no longer use essential oils due to their negative environmental impact. Recipe!
Steam: Add fresh or dried herbs or tincture to a bowl of boiling water, and cuddle your child in an enclosed space as close to the bowl as is safe. A fort under the kitchen table, a closet, or a shower stall all work. Strained infusions can be added to humidifiers, just be sure to clean it after. Older children and adults can breath steam through a paper bag or with a towel over their head, but this is not safe for this age group.
Bath: Add a very strong infusion or decoction to the bath, or use an infused oil. The added benefit of the steam helps them bring the medicine in through the lungs and sinuses, as well as soaking through the skin. A recognizable routine like bath time is helpful in soothing fraught moments.
Wash: A wash can be great if it needs to be done throughout the day, or an issue only affects a specific area (i.e. poison ivy). Strong infusions/decoctions or tinctures diluted in warm water are useful. Recipe!
Compress: soak thick washcloths (or cloth prefold diapers) in a strong wash, or make a slurry of herbs with a little water or oil, then apply and cover with a dry cloth. If possible, wrap with an ace bandage or similar. If applying to the chest of a congested child, leave off the dry cloth so the steam and volatile oils rise. Compresses are genuinely hard to keep on a young child, so plan to only use it for a few minutes; often a bath is more effective.
Nursing: If a toddler is still nursing, a safe and effective means of delivering herbs is by taking them yourself and letting your milk filter out most potentially harmful things. Caveat: fat-soluble molecules tend to concentrate in breast milk, so some compounds are actually stronger in breastmilk than they would otherwise be (for instance, THC) so have an awareness of that.
Therapeutic Touch Remedies
The skin is like a sponge, but we often don’t think of applying topical remedies with the same frequency as internal ones. Toddlers and young children love to snuggle, especially if they don’t feel well, and therapeutic touch can be used to deliver comfort and love as well as an herbal remedy. An all-over massage can be nice, but also consider targeting areas that strongly affect other parts of the body. In particular, the temples, ears, neck, chest, hands, and feet are extremely effective. Use an infused oil or a strong wash as you massage. If you can do it in close proximity to a steam bowl, even better. A quiet room and your undivided attention add to the remedy.
Alternative Alternative Medicine
Some of our most interesting home remedies come to us from the old wives’ tales of kitchen witching, and should not be ignored. Half a burnt onion on an ear to draw out an ear infection really does equalize the pressure; grated raw potato is amazing for mastitis; a cabbage leaf in a bra decreases milk supply; warm garlic oil on the soles of the feet helps break a fever. Let us not discard our less sciency preparations simply on the basis of weirdness, as they really can work. Rosemary Gladstar’s collection of works are rich in these types of remedies, as she has spent much of her illustrious career reclaiming disappearing kitchen healing traditions.