May 2, 2011 -- The first study to look at the use of herbal supplements or medicinal teas in babies finds that about 9% of moms report using these remedies in infants under a year old.
The study, which is based on a nationwide survey of new mothers conducted by the CDC and the FDA, found that moms who used herbal supplements themselves were nearly four times more likely to give them to their babies than moms who didn’t use them previously.
Hispanic women were more likely than African-Americans or whites to give herbal supplements to their babies.
Study researchers think the connection to breastfeeding may offer a window into beliefs about these kinds of preparations.
“It may be because many people think of herbal supplements as more natural, and breastfeeding may be something people think of as more natural, so they kind of go together for that reason,” says Sara B. Fein, PhD, a consumer science specialist with the FDA.
The jury is still out, however, on whether the use of herbal supplements in infants is a cause for concern.
Guidelines recommend that babies get nothing but breast milk or formula for at least the first six months of life, with vitamins and medicines as needed.
Experts point out that there are few studies on the safety or effectiveness of dietary supplements in children, and even fewer in infants.
“Infants are not just small adults,” says Fein. “They have a different metabolism. They have organs that are growing rapidly, and there are special concerns with almost anything with infants.”
Supplements and teas are less stringently regulated by the FDA than drugs. They have been found in some cases to have been contaminated with heavy metals, bacteria, or other pathogens.
But, says pediatrician Kathi J. Kemper, MD, “We don’t see babies flooding emergency rooms because they’ve gotten toxic amounts of some herbal tea.” Kemper is a chair of the Center for Integrative Medicine at the Wake Forest University School of Medicine.
Overall, Kemper thinks the study is significant simply because it takes stock of how often and for what ailments people use herbals in babies.
“I think it’s a really important contribution because it tells us a lot more than we knew before about the prevalence of using herbals and teas in babies,” says Kemper, who was not involved in the study.
Tracking Herbal Supplement Use in Infants
For the study, researchers surveyed around 3,000 pregnant women before their babies were born and then at regular intervals during the baby’s first year.
All the women were at least 18 years old. The study over-represented women who were older, white, middle-class, and well educated.
The mothers were asked if their babies were given any herbal or botanical preparation or tea within the last two weeks. Moms were instructed not to count skin creams or any kind of supplement they were taking that might have been passed through breast milk.
Moms were also asked about their own herbal supplement use, as well as socioeconomic and lifestyle factors.
Overall, one out of 11 moms reported giving supplements and teas to their infants. Compared to women who didn’t use herbs, mothers were more likely to turn to botanicals if they only had one child, were older, had more education, higher incomes, or were married.
The most frequently used preparations were gripe water (which may contain ginger and fennel), teething tablets, chamomile, and unspecified teas.
Less commonly, but significantly, Fein says, were the wide variety of supplements reported in the “other” category: chrysanthemum tea, clove oil, astragalus, comfrey, elderberry tea, flaxseed oil, garlic oil, goldenseal extract, grape extract, horehound tea, lemon tea, orange oil, orange tea, red raspberry tea, rosemary leaf tea, sambucol, slippery elm, and white oak bark.
“There’s just this huge variety of things that were being given to infants,” Fein says. “This is one reason that we recommend that pediatricians be aware that possibly a larger percentage of their patients than they might think might be receiving these substances.”
“They might interact with medicines or have an effect on the body,” she says.
The study is published in Pediatrics.