National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM)

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Children and Complementary Health Approaches

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Introduction

According to a national survey, a wide range of complementary health approaches, including herbs and dietary supplements, spinal manipulation, and yoga, are used by or given to children. This fact sheet offers information for parents who may be thinking about or are already using a complementary health approach for their child.

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Key Points

  • Nearly 12 percent of American children (younger than age 18) have used or been given a complementary health product or practice.
  • Few studies have examined the effects of complementary health approaches on children.
  • Tell all your child’s health care providers about any complementary health approaches your child uses or is given. Give them a full picture of what you do to manage your child’s health. This will help ensure coordinated and safe care.

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Patterns on the Use of Complementary Health Approaches in Children

According to the 2007 National Health Interview Survey, which included a comprehensive survey on the use of complementary health approaches by Americans, nearly 12 percent of the more than 9,000 children included in the survey had used or been given some form of complementary health product or practice during the past year.

The most frequently used complementary health approaches for children were natural products such as herbs/botanicals (vitamins and minerals were not included in the survey) and chiropractic or osteopathic manipulation.

For children, complementary health approaches were most often used for back or neck pain, head or chest colds, anxiety or stress, other musculoskeletal problems, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and insomnia.

10 Most Common Therapies Among Children-2007: follow link for full description

Diseases/Conditions for Which CAM Is Most Frequently Used Among Children-2007: follow link for full description

Children who use or are given complementary health products or practices vary in age and health status. For example, other studies on use show that:

  • Up to 10 percent of infants are given teas or botanical supplements, usually for fussiness or stomach problems.
  • Between 21 and 42 percent of children take multivitamins, according to a 2012 study. Children aged 2 to 8 were the most likely to take vitamins. However, they were also the only age group who had nutritionally adequate diets whether they took multivitamins or not.
  • Teens are particularly likely to use products that claim to enhance sports performance, energy levels, or weight loss.
  • More than half of children with chronic medical conditions use some form of complementary health approach, usually along with conventional care.

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Safety of Childhood Complementary and Alternative Medicine Use

Many complementary health products and practices are not tested for safety or effectiveness in children. It is important to note that children may react differently than adults do to these approaches. Also, Federal regulations for dietary supplements are less strict than those for prescription and over-the-counter drugs. Some dietary supplements may be of poor quality or contain contaminants, including drugs, chemicals, or metals.

For more information, see safety tips on complementary health approaches for children and teens on the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine’s (NCCAM) Web site at 5 Things To Know About Safety of Dietary Supplements for Children and Teens and 5 Tips on Safety of Mind and Body Practices for Children and Teens.

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A nurse talks to an African American mother, who holds her little girl in her lap.

Courtesy of NCI

If You Are Considering a Complementary Health Approach for Your Child

  • Make sure that your child has received an accurate diagnosis from a licensed health care provider.
  • Educate yourself about the potential risks and benefits of complementary health approaches.
    • Ask your child’s health care provider about the effectiveness and possible risks of approaches you are considering or already using for your child.
    • Visit the resources included in the “For More Information” section below.
  • Remind your teenagers to discuss with their health care providers any complementary health approaches they may use.
  • Do not use any health product or practice that has not been proven safe and effective to replace or delay conventional care or prescribed medications.
  • If a health care provider suggests a complementary health approach, do not increase the dose or duration of the treatment beyond what is recommended (more is not necessarily better).
  • If you have any concerns about the effects of a complementary approach, contact your child’s health care provider.
  • As with all medications, store herbal and other dietary supplements out of the sight and reach of children.
  • Tell all your child’s health care providers about any complementary health approaches your child uses. Give them a full picture of what you do to manage your child’s health. This will help ensure coordinated and safe care. For tips about talking with your child’s health care provider about complementary health approaches, see NCCAM’s Time to Talk campaign.

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Selecting a Complementary Health Practitioner

  • If you are looking for a complementary health practitioner for your child, be as careful and thorough in your search as you are when looking for conventional care. Be sure to ask about the practitioner’s:
    • Experience in coordinating care with conventional health care providers
    • Experience in delivering care to children
    • Education, training, and license. Some states have licensing requirements for certain complementary health practitioners, such as chiropractors, naturopathic doctors, massage therapists, and acupuncturists.

For more information, see Selecting a Complementary and Alternative Medicine Practitioner.

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For More Information

NCCAM Clearinghouse

The NCCAM Clearinghouse provides information on NCCAM and complementary health approaches, including publications and searches of Federal databases of scientific and medical literature. The Clearinghouse does not provide medical advice, treatment recommendations, or referrals to practitioners.

Toll-free in the U.S.: 
1-888-644-6226
TTY (for deaf and hard-of-hearing callers): 
1-866-464-3615
E-mail: 

PubMed®

A service of the National Library of Medicine (NLM), PubMed® contains publication information and (in most cases) brief summaries of articles from scientific and medical journals.

NIH Clinical Research Trials and You

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) has created a Web site, NIH Clinical Research Trials and You, to help people learn about clinical trials, why they matter, and how to participate. The site includes questions and answers about clinical trials, guidance on how to find clinical trials through ClinicalTrials.gov and other resources, and stories about the personal experiences of clinical trial participants. Clinical trials are necessary to find better ways to prevent, diagnose, and treat diseases.

The Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews

The Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews is a collection of evidence-based reviews produced by the Cochrane Library, an international nonprofit organization. The reviews summarize the results of clinical trials on health care interventions. Summaries are free; full-text reviews are by subscription only.

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Key References

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This publication is not copyrighted and is in the public domain. Duplication is encouraged.

NCCAM has provided this material for your information. It is not intended to substitute for the medical expertise and advice of your primary health care provider. We encourage you to discuss any decisions about treatment or care with your health care provider. The mention of any product, service, or therapy is not an endorsement by NCCAM.

* Note: PDF files require a viewer such as the free Adobe Reader.

NCCAM Pub No.: 
D383
Date Created: 
May 2007
Last Updated: 
March 2013