The use of herbal medicine is common in the US, where the herbal market is worth about $40 billion annually, but the study is the first to report the use of herbals by participants in the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC), a program that helps low-income women and children up to age five.
The research, published in the February issue of the Journal of the American Dietetic Association (Vol. 106, pp. 227-237), surveyed 2,562 caregivers with children living in Kansas and Wisconsin. Herbals were given to a reported 1,363 kids.
"Nutrition professionals and WIC educators have hesitated to talk about herbs for children because they feared that it would encourage acceptance and, perhaps, cause people to start using them," said lead researcher Dr Barbara Lohse, from Penn State.
"Our study has shown that more WIC clients than we thought are already using them, mostly in moderate and appropriate ways. However, because some herbal use has the potential to do harm, we urge herbal education in WIC clinics," said Lohse.
The most commonly given herbs included aloe vera, chamomile, garlic, peppermint, lavender, cranberry, ginger, Echinacea and lemon. While the medicinal herbs used were of relatively low-risk, the effects of long-term use and interactions with other medications are not known.
The researchers also noted that ten herbs with known safety issues like St John's Wort were also given to children by the caregivers themselves.
Latinos ranked highest with 48 per cent giving children herbals. Over 73 per cent of the Latinos surveyed admitted that the advice and information came from family members.
The statistics were less for non-Latinos with 53 per cent obtaining information from news media, the Internet and medical doctors, opposed to 47 per cent from families. Only 31 per cent of the non-Latino clients used herbals for childhood illness.
The researchers noted that the use of herbal remedies appeared widespread during pregnancy, when breastfeeding, and for children.
These results: "illustrate the need to provide an educational venue and to conduct educational research to formalize herbal education within the WIC clinic culture," wrote Lohse.
This advice echoes that of Kathi Kemper, pediatrics professor at Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Center.
Writing in Contemporary Pediatrics (August 2005), Kemper said: "Many children and families turn to complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) and home remedies to treat GI complaints."
"Herbs such as chamomile and ginger are safe for children when used in appropriate doses, but limited data exists concerning the safety and efficacy of herbal products for children."