Advice For Parents About Complementary & Alternative Medicine

Advice For Parents About Complementary & Alternative Medicine

Many parents think about using complementary or alternative medicine approaches for their children. There are some important things to think about using these approaches for your child.


When might parents consider using complementary and alternative medicine?

Many parents consider using complementary or alternative medicine (CAM) approaches for their children. You may be more likely to think about this if your child has a serious illness or long-lasting (chronic) health condition, especially if your doctors have told you there is no effective treatment. Every parent wants to do the best for their child and wants to look at all possibilities that might improve their child's future.

What do the terms complementary and alternative medicine mean?

Complementary and alternative medicine are products and practices that are not considered part of conventional medical care. Conventional medical care includes the care registered health professionals provide. Registered health professionals must meet professional standards under the Health Practitioners Competence Assurance Act 2003. They must maintain their professional competence and may not practise outside their area of expertise.

While some practitioners of complementary and alternative medicine are registered health professionals, many are not registered. Those who are not registered are not subject to the Health Practitioners Competence Assurance Act 2003.

Complementary medicine

Complementary medicine is an approach used together with conventional medical care. For example:

  • giving a child with a sprained ankle paracetamol for pain and rubbing in arnica cream before putting on a bandage
  • using acupuncture to help with side effects of cancer treatment
  • using an additive-free diet for a child with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder who is also taking medicine
  • using Māori herbal medicine and massage for a child with cerebral palsy as well as physiotherapy and medicines

Alternative medicine

Alternative medicine is used instead of conventional medical care. For example:

  • rubbing arnica cream on the arm of a child who has a fracture instead of giving pain relief
  • giving diet and herbal remedies to a child with a diagnosis of cancer instead of using recognised cancer treatments

Questions to ask before using complementary and alternative medicine

There are some important things that you should think about before you use complementary or alternative medicine approaches for your child.

Is it safe?

Is the complementary or alternative medicine approach that you are considering safe?

Could your child come to any harm as a result of the treatment?

Do you know what's in the product?

Can you be sure what the treatment contains? 

Can you be sure what the treatment contains?

This is especially important if you are, for example, buying a herbal treatment from an overseas supplier. A product advertised and sold as herbal may have had an active drug added to it.

Is it safe to use with other medicines?

Could the treatment interact with medicines prescribed by your doctor that your child is already taking?

It is very important that you tell your child's doctor about any complementary or alternative medicine treatments that you are using, including natural or herbal remedies.

Is there evidence that it works?

What is the evidence that the complementary or alternative medicine approach you are considering is effective?

Conventional medicine is based on evidence. Treatments are compared in randomised controlled trials. The medicine or treatment being tested is compared to another treatment, or to a fake version of the treatment, called a placebo. The person taking the treatment and the person looking at whether the treatment has been effective should not know which treatment the person has had. This prevents biasing the results.

Much of the evidence quoted to support complementary and alternative medicine is not based on this rigorous standard and information on the internet is often based on individual stories (anecdotes).

How much does it cost?

What is the cost of the treatment?

Can you afford it?

While most complementary or alternative medicine practitioners are people who genuinely and strongly believe that what they are offering you is effective, and will help you and your child, there are a few individuals who use the distress of others to make money.

Ask yourself whether what you are being charged seems reasonable. Think about the impact on other members of your family as a result of the demands on your time or the family budget.

Does the explanation make sense?

Does the explanation about why the treatment will be effective for your child make sense? 

Would you want to have this treatment yourself?

How does your child feel?

Most important of all, how does your child feel about this treatment?

What are you hoping from the treatment?

If you do decide to use complementary or alternative medicine for your child, have clear goals for what you expect from the treatment.

Review whether these goals are being met at regular intervals throughout the treatment.

Special considerations for expectant mothers and very young children

If you are pregnant and considering using any alternative or complementary therapy, remember that some alternative treatments can be particularly toxic (poisonous) to unborn or newborn babies – and to children.

Unborn babies can be harmed by blood concentrations of some plant chemicals which don't bother the mother. This is because a large number of chemicals can freely cross the placental barrier during pregnancy.

Babies can also be exposed to plant chemicals through breast milk. The livers of newborns and young children can't rid the body of toxins (poisons) as well as those of adults. So they are more likely to be harmed by the toxic effects of herbal treatments.

This page last reviewed 15 March 2021.

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