To help her 2 1/2-year-old son Zachary recover from a cough that lasted a month, Cheryl Tan, 32, decided to let him try traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) after he had almost finished the medication prescribed by a paediatrician.
“TCM helped me when I had a bad cough some time back, so I thought why not let my son try it too?” said Tan, a HR business partner. After a consultation, Zachary was prescribed a herbal medication in powder form which Tan mixed into his milk.
“I was surprised when Zachary’s coughing stopped after three doses of the herbal medications prescribed by the physician,” she said.
TCM for children and babies
In recent years, TCM practitioners said they are seeing more young children like Zachary, and even babies under the age of 1: The youngest patient seen at Raffles Chinese Medicine was an 8-month-old baby, said the clinic’s TCM physician Poh Yu Min.
She estimated that the clinic has seen a 30-per-cent increase in the number of patients below the age of 12 in the last five years.
In the past year, Eu Yan Sang Integrative Health (EYSIH) TCM practitioners treated more than 13,000 children aged 12 years and below. This age group, which forms 15 per cent of EYSIH’s patients, has increased by more than 40 per cent over the last four years, said Caryn Peh, managing director of Clinic Services at EYSIH.
The practitioners noted that the majority of their patients’ parents are young adults in their 20s and 30. They see TCM as a “natural solution or to complement the Western medicine” that their children are already taking, said Peh.
According to TCM physician He Yu Ying from Eu Yan Sang TCM Clinic at Simei and Tampines, over 80 per cent of the young patients seen at its child-friendly clinics are being treated for respiratory and gastrointestinal issues, including diarrhoea, poor appetite, gastroenteritis, common flu, chronic cough and allergic rhinitis.
However, TCM is not suitable in all instances, such as appendicitis and fractures, said Raffles’ Poh. In such emergencies, the child should be referred to Western medical treatment first. Eu Yan Sang’s He also recommended seeking Western medical treatment first for acute conditions such as high fever, vomiting, and convulsions as TCM takes a longer time to take effect.
Treating symptoms and boosting immunity
Local TCM practitioners are generally cautious about using acupuncture on young children and would typically not recommend it as children are fearful of needles and cannot stay still throughout the session, said Poh.
However, paediatric tui na or massage therapy is sometimes used to supplement TCM treatments for children. According to Poh, TCM paediatric tui na, which is very different from the adult version, can be done on children as young as six months old.
“This technique enhances a child’s energy flow by massaging various acupoints that are specific and beneficial to children. The massage is soothing and relaxing for the child, and does not cause pain or discomfort.”
Practitioners said TCM treatment can also help to strengthen children’s immunity. According to TCM principles, the body’s various systems — including the kidney, liver, spleen, lungs and heart systems — are viewed as an entity, said Eu Yan Sang’s He. It is believed that illness occurs when any of the internal systems is out of balance. “Conversely, if these systems are in balance, the person will not fall sick so easily,” she said.
What a paediatrician says
Paediatrician Dr Janice Wong from Thomson Paediatric Centre said it is “normal and acceptable” for children to fall ill up to eight times a year “because their immune system is still developing”. “If the child’s symptoms are mild, it is best for the parents to let the child ride out the illness,” she said.
Dr Wong advised parents to proceed with “great caution” when feeding their children TCM herbs. Parents should not simply go to any medicinal hall to get herbs for their children, she warned.
“TCM herbs do not undergo evidence-based testing, and their side effects may be dangerous for children whose kidney and liver are not fully developed. If parents wish to seek TCM treatment, I’d advise them to see a paediatric-trained TCM practitioner and stick to massage, topical ointments and lifestyle changes to complement Western medication,” said Dr Wong.
Those seeking TCM treatment should choose a certified TCM practitioner from the Traditional Chinese Medicine Practitioners Board website, added Raffles’ Poh. According to the Ministry of Health website, all TCM practitioners in Singapore must be registered with the TCM Practitioners Board and hold a valid practising certificate issued by the Board.