I am often asked if Chinese medicine can be used to treat children. The answer is–yes, of course, and very effectively. I actually treat many children in my practice, and I often see all the children in a family at one time or another. I don’t limit Chinese medicine to just treatment of acute and chronic illness. The core principles of Chinese medicine and nutrition are actually about creating and maintaining wellness throughout all life stages, however it is most important during the growing and transitional years of childhood.
The good news is that children’s systems respond quickly to Chinese medicine and nutritional shifts; they are clearer and less congested than those of us who have had years to get stuck.
How Chinese medicine addresses children:
First is the education in the principles of preventive and holistic health of the parents. Long ago, in far away China, you didn’t pay your doctor to heal you when you were unwell. You paid your doctor when you were well. This is ideal if your belief is that the creation and maintenance of health is easier and more desirable than having to manage a health crisis. Holistic practitioners of any modality should know this and have the proper education of what health really is. This includes understanding the changes and needs of the body at any stage of growth and development.
When children are born, their systems are immature, both physically and energetically. The meridians (channels) of Qi aren’t fully developed. Traditionally, we say their digestion and immune systems are fully mature at about 8-9 years of age. This isn’t a bad thing…it just is; they are budding and growing. It’s what the parents do during these developmental years that is important. In this culture, we are seeing the decline of good, nourishing food and health habits. So much so, that the current generation of children has a shorter life expectancy than their parents—which is the shame of our culture. However, there is always hope, and there are always ways to improve.
Stages of growth and development according to Chinese medicine:
Conception– The strength of the mother and father’s Jing (essence that is housed in the kidneys) at the moment of conception is the blueprint for their child. This is the child’s DNA. Chinese medicine places heavy emphasis on making sure that both the mother and father are strong and well before they conceive, to provide as much opportunity for successful conception, a healthy pregnancy and the overall health and longevity to the baby as possible. Kidney Jing deficiency patterns in children are the patterns that appear as slow growth, slow bone development and birth defects.
Pregnancy and Birth– We work to support the mother’s Qi, blood, Yin and fluids, and to keep her kidneys strong. She needs all these resources in abundance to ensure a healthy, strong pregnancy and to give her the strength to go through labor, then turn around and nurse a newborn while recovering. Too many pregnancies, births or miscarriages deplete a woman’s kidneys and vital essences, leaving her weaker. This is why many practitioners will recommend that a woman who has recently miscarried wait several months, depending on what they see in her tongue and pulse, before trying to get pregnant again. And given the right conditions and support, a woman’s health can be increased.
Infants– Babies are fragile, yet strong. Their systems are amazing. Focus is placed on building the immunity and the digestive organs. Much of this is done by treating the mother during the nursing stages, and through baby’s first foods, like pumpkin, broths and whole grain porridge. Focus is also placed on treating disharmonies as soon as they appear, like colds or sleep disturbances.
Toddlers– We continue supporting the digestive and immune systems, which aren’t considered fully developed until about 8 years of age. Phlegm and weak immunity are common patterns, often amplified by an overly rich, sugar-filled diet. Children’s personalities start to come to the forefront, and treatments can be used to help the emotional and spiritual constitution of the child. 5 Element treatments can be most beneficial in dealing with the growing pains of personalities, from aggression to timidity to fear or lack of appropriate fear. Herbs, treatment and nutrition are also geared to help treat common ‘ups and downs’, like teething pain or bowel and digestive issues.
Ages 6-12– These are fun times! Parents and practitioners get to see how flexible they and their children are in dealing with adapting to social situations, sudden growth spurts, breaks and bruises and colds and flu. The more prepared you are, the better off you and your child will be.
Teens– The teenage years are about expanding independence, changing hormones and drama. Along with the physical changes come the mental and emotional changes (hopefully toward growth). The teen, no longer a child, and not quite an adult, is working on further refining his/her identity, hopes, dreams and ambitions–hopefully in meaningful and healthy ways. The nutritional needs of a teen varies from an infant or child, and in the teenage years, they can also vary between girls and boys, and athletic vs. non-athletic. Chinese medicine is absolutely beautiful in dealing with conditions like acne, PMS, anemia, and hormonal imbalances.
Know the child
Knowing patterns of disharmony or genetic weakness means that we can work to strengthen and build. A child born with diabetes will have different needs from a completely healthy child or a child with genetic bone weakness. Lifestyle habits, nutrition and therapies should be focused, to bring about the best possible health conditions. There is always room for improvement for any age and any person.
Act fast when disease enters
Your child will become ill at some point. If you or your child starts to ‘fight’ something off…don’t linger and see if it they get it. Take action now. We aren’t talking about pumping them full of medicine. It’s the subtle things–bad sinus congestion is made worse by drinking orange juice, which creates phlegm, whereas drinking peppermint tea will help drain the phlegm. Learn preventative measures and teach them to your children. For example, keep some ginger in your child’s backpack. Ginger warms, and will be a welcome blessing when he gets a cold from riding his bike or being out in the chilly weather. Find out more about treating colds.
“To treat the child, you must treat the parent.”
This saying sums it up. Through all the different stages of childhood, from conception through puberty, children have needs that will change. Does this mean that the parents need to receive herbal therapy or Acupuncture themselves? Not necessarily. (With nursing mothers, it is very beneficial. By aiding mother’s digestive vitality, boosting her immunity and her Qi, her baby will be stronger.) With older children, it is important to have the parent’s active engagement and support during treatment, dietary changes and life-habit changes.
Children often respond quickly to treatments and the subtlest of shifts in energy and lifestyle changes. Their bodies haven’t had as much time to become deeply entrenched in patterns. In some cases, 2 or 3 treatments are enough to see a marked shift in the child’s condition. Successful treatment always depends on the correct assessment and treatment plan, depth of disharmony, and client engagement in therapy. In the case of children, the parent’s attitude and willingness to engage may be the deciding factor in the success of treatment.