Is Herbal Tea Safe for Children?

"Natural" is not a synonym for "safe." Yet, much like their parents, an increasing number of children and teens are tapping into complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) therapies such as "natural" herbal teas and medicines. Many parents pair CAM therapies with traditional medicine to self-treat children. The safety and efficacy of CAM therapies such as home-remedy herbal teas therefore must be addressed across a spectrum of variables, such as the patient's age, overall health or disease state, frequency of treatment and CAM treatment interaction with traditional medicine.

The American Academy of Pediatrics has gauged CAM use in healthy children at approximately 20 to 40 percent as of the early part of the 21st century. For children with chronic or incurable conditions such as asthma or autism, that number rockets to more than 50 percent. The increasing reliance upon CAM therapies notwithstanding, many pediatricians and child health organizations sound a clarion call to view these therapies with skepticism. For instance, Dr. Ruth Lawrence, a pediatrician, noted that while many "have abandoned coffee because they know something about the problems with caffeine," they have unwittingly "gone to herbal teas, the constituents of which they know nothing." Two types of tea exist: herbal and nonherbal, with the latter consisting of green, black and oolong.

Prenatal Herbal Tea Use

Dr. Alan Greene, pediatrician and author of "Feeding Baby Green," has weighed in on caffeine consumption, as seen chiefly through coffee, carbonated beverages and tea drinking during pregnancy 2. Although true herbal teas likely carry little to no caffeine risk, it is worth noting that "Caffeine easily passes through the placenta ... and on to the developing baby -- who will have higher and more sustained caffeine levels than Mom. ..." Because of the potential for ill effects, Dr. Lawrence advises pregnant and lactating women against using fenugreek, fennel, comfrey leaf, borage and anything other than modest amounts of sage in herbal tea. The American Pregnancy Association, in a review of the paid-subscription Natural Medicines Database, notes insufficient data on dandelion, rose hips and German chamomile herbal teas while deeming stinging nettles as "likely unsafe" and yellow dock and alfalfa as "possibly unsafe." Ginger root teas, a common remedy for morning sickness, are only "possibly safe."

Herbal Tea Use During Lactation

Unlike conventional medicine, herbal remedies have not been reviewed by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Thus, "the excretion of herbs into breast milk is a concern. ... There has been little scientific study of this issue. ... Variable and unpredictable concentrations, ingredients, and contaminants are of concern, especially when such products are used in children."

Herbal Tea Use in Children & Adolescents

The March of Dimes, whose goal it is to eradicate birth defects, states: "[we do] not support the use of herbal or dietary supplements by women who can become pregnant, by pregnant women, or by children, without approval by a health care provider." In the cases of children or adolescents currently undergoing conventional therapy for disease, a pediatrician must always be consulted before using any herbal remedy, whether it be oil, tea or a supplement. Toxicity, reproductive and otherwise, potential cancer-causing effects and mutagenicity -- that is, creating gene mutations -- are just some of the concerns to be explored when considering herbal and other CAM therapies for children, in consultation with a pediatrician.