MONDAY, May 2, 2011 (HealthDay News) -- The use of botanical supplements and teas for infants is a surprisingly common practice, new research finds, but experts warn that such products might not be safe for babies.
The study, conducted by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, found that nearly 10 percent of babies are given botanical supplements or teas during their first year of life. The researchers found that even babies as young as 1 month old were given these products.
"Our study is the first to examine the prevalence of dietary botanical supplement and tea use among a sample of U.S. infants," wrote the study's authors. "The wide variety of dietary botanical supplements and teas given to infants increases the likelihood that some are unsafe."
Results of the study are published online May 2 in Pediatrics. The report is scheduled to appear in the June print version of the journal.
Dietary botanical supplements and herbal teas don't receive the same scrutiny that pharmaceutical products do, according to background information in the study. Use of such products can cause adverse reactions with other medications, and these products may be inherently unsafe themselves.
Some supplements may contain heavy metals or other contaminants, and infants are more susceptible to such toxins, according to the study. In addition, some dietary supplements have caused seizures and even death in previously healthy infants. One dietary supplement was recalled in 2007 because of microbiological contamination.
During the first four to six months of life, child health experts recommend that babies only be fed human breast milk or infant formula, according to the study.
Reviewing information from the Infant Feeding Practices Study that was conducted from 2005 to 2007, the researchers found data from 2,653 mothers.
Almost 6 percent said they had given their infant a botanical supplement or tea once during the first 12 months of the baby's life. Another 3.6 percent said they'd given their infant these products more than once during the baby's first year.
Women were more likely to give their babies these products if they reported using botanical supplements or teas themselves. Women who were older, had more than one child and had a higher education or income were also more likely to give their infants such products. Mothers who breast-fed longer were more apt to try giving a botanical supplement or tea to their baby. Hispanic mothers were more likely than white or black mothers to give their babies dietary botanical supplements or teas.
The most commonly used products were gripe water, chamomile, teething tablets and unspecified tea, according to the study. The most common reasons for giving these products were fussiness, digestion problems, colic and relaxation.
When asked whom they talked to for information about such products, only 27 percent said they talked to a health-care professional. Almost 28 percent got their information from the media, and 30 percent talked to friends and family about botanical supplements and teas for their babies.
Dr. Louisdon Pierre, director of pediatric critical care at the Brooklyn Hospital Center in New York City, said that parents have to be extremely cautious when giving their baby any type of supplement or tea, especially when the baby is younger than 4 months old.
"The baby's brain is growing and developing, and the immune system isn't yet mature, so babies just can't fight things off like adults can," he said. "Even things that look benign can be dangerous for babies. Anise is an herbal product that people make tea with. In adults, there may be no reaction, but in babies, anise can cause jitteriness and seizures. The young brain is really susceptible."
Dr. Mark Diamond, a pediatrician with Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh and Children's Community Pediatrics, agreed, adding, "Just because it's natural doesn't mean it's safe. People assume that something's safe if mom or grandma used it, but it might not be."
Diamond said he was also disappointed to see that only about one in four people felt comfortable enough to speak with their physicians about using these products. "That's bothersome to me. Are they afraid to communicate with me about these products? There may be safety issues with some of these products and I want parents to communicate with me."
The most important question parents need to ask of any product is, "Is it safe?" said Diamond. "And that holds true [with] a medicine that I prescribe as much as for an herbal cure," he noted.
Learn about other ways to cope with a fussy, colicky baby from the Nemours Foundation KidsHealth.