Almost one in 10 infants are given herbal teas and supplements to ease digestion or fussiness, a practice that is potentially harmful because of unknown drug interactions or contaminants in the products, researchers said.
Gripe water, a formula containing ginger and fennel used for colic and gas, chamomile, an herb used in tea, and teething tablets, which may also contain botanical ingredients, were the most commonly used supplements, according to researchers from the Food and Drug Administration. The study, the first to estimate the prevalence of tea and supplement use in infants, is published in the journal Pediatrics.
Botanical preparations and herbal teas are not regulated by the FDA in the same way as drugs and may pose health risks because their ingredients aren’t scrutinized for safety, the study’s authors said. Some products may contain metals or contaminants that are harmful to infants, they said.
“Parents of infants and young children should understand that dietary supplements have not been evaluated by FDA to treat, cure or prevent any disease and that using them as such may not be appropriate,” said Sara Fein, a study author and a consumer science specialist at the FDA’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition in College Park, Md., in an April 29 email. “Health-care providers should recognize that infants under their care may have been given one or more of a wide variety of different dietary botanical supplements and teas.”
Those most likely to give their babies supplements or teas also used them themselves, the study said. Parents need to talk to their doctors before using these products, Fein said.
The research included about 2,600 mothers who were given questionnaires once before their babies were born and 10 times during the first year after birth. About 9 percent of mothers surveyed reported using dietary supplements or teas in their children younger than 1 year old, usually for a short period of time.
The study didn’t evaluate whether any of the infants experienced side effects from the supplements or teas, because it was only designed to find out how many infants are being given the products, Fein said.
Other supplements and teas used by mothers included mint, anise, Echinacea, chrysanthemum tea, clove oil, flax seed oil, garlic oil, goldenseal extract and lemon tea, Fein said.
Mothers most often got their information about supplements from friends and relatives, followed by media and health-care professionals, according to the study.
U.S. consumer sales of supplements were $26.9 billion in 2009, up 6 percent from 2008, according to the Nutrition Business Journal, a Boulder, Colo.-based publication that monitors botanical-product sales. The journal doesn’t break down sales by users’ ages.
Mark Blumenthal, founder and executive director of the American Botanical Council, a nonprofit organization based in Austin, Texas, said nobody would recommend the teas and supplements for babies if they didn’t work or if there were side effects.
“Many of the herbs that they surveyed reflect the use of these herbs by hundreds of years by mothers for colic and upset stomach,” he said in an April 29 telephone interview. “The majority of these products and ingredients seem to be relatively safe and mild especially when given appropriately.”
Blumenthal said parents should consult with midwives, pediatricians, other health-care practitioners and family members to educate themselves before administering anything other than breast milk or formula to their infants.
Roya Samuels, a pediatric attending physician at Cohen Children’s Medical Center in New Hyde Park, New York, said infants need to get most of their calories from breast milk or formula. Giving tea to infants could reduce the amount of milk they drink, affecting their nutrition, she said. Samuels wasn’t an author on today’s paper.
“There is a tendency to think that things marketed as all natural or holistic would be safer for children,” she said in an April 29 telephone interview.
Fein said the FDA is planning to survey the same mothers from today’s study when their children are about 6 years old to again ask about their use of botanical supplements.