Healing the Whole Child
Holistic Pediatricians Go Beyond Meds
by Ronica O’Hara
When Jackie Jones’ 4-year-old daughter had a persistent runny nose and cough, three visits to the pediatrician proved fruitless. “He would see us for two minutes, listen to her chest, saying she had ‘a cold’, and yet still prescribe an antibiotic and steroid that would just trash her immune system,” the Atlanta mom says. “She ended up developing pneumonia in both lungs that landed her in the hospital.”
This propelled Jones to switch her children’s care to a holistic pediatrician. “He actually listens to me and takes time with his patients, and recommends vitamins and supplements to keep them healthy, in comparison to just handing out antibiotics,” she says. On the first visit, he queried Jones about family use of shampoos, soaps and cleaning products that might contain chemicals. “Definitely not a conversation I had with my old pediatrician!” she related.
Jones, who dispenses pregnancy advice at PisforPregnant.com, benefitted from a growing trend among pediatricians. The number of doctors that self-identify as holistic by joining the integrative medicine section of the American Academy of Pediatrics has grown from a dozen in the early 1990s to more than 400 today, says Kathi Kemper, M.D., an Ohio State University pediatrics professor who founded the section and authored The Holistic Pediatrician.
“Holistic pediatricians are interested in helping children and families meet their health goals, not just diagnosing and dispensing drugs,” she says. “We use an evidence-informed approach, including all appropriate therapies and therapists, with a strong emphasis on healthy lifestyle behaviors such as diet, exercise, sleep, stress management, social and emotional skills, spirituality and a healthy environment.”
Many pediatricians report they want to know more about integrative approaches because of their frustration in treating the chronic conditions in one-quarter to one-half of the children they see, as well as to answer questions posed by Google-savvy parents. Yet most pediatricians have limited training in natural health and are wary to suggest such approaches, and parents are often reluctant to disclose their use of natural methods.
Holistic pediatricians, on the other hand, typically get additional training in healing modalities that allows them to integrate natural options into mainstream methods. Unlike many pediatricians in busy clinics that can see a child only briefly, holistic pediatricians typically take longer. “It’s not a one-size-fits-all conventional approach,” says holistic pediatrician Elisa Song, of Belmont, California, who blogs at HealthyKidsHappyKids.com.
For a child with asthma, for example, Song checks for environmental, dietary or social triggers, including mold, food allergies or sensitivities and stress. She looks for underlying biomedical imbalances such as nutritional deficiencies, abnormal gut microbes and signs of a leaky gut. “Based upon clinical and laboratory findings, an initial treatment plan may include elimination of food sensitivities, supplementation with a 3-6-9 fish oil and magnesium, and mindfulness exercises that incorporate diaphragmatic breathing,” she says.
Pediatric naturopaths are another option for parents. These doctors typically start from a natural medicine perspective, are trained in herbs and nutrition, and collaborate with bodyworkers, physical therapists and counselors. “Really, anything that helps a child thrive,” says pediatric naturopath Kathryn Purvis, of Tempe, Arizona. “We use treatments that are gentle and safe, but are also trained to use conventional treatments if necessary.”
Naturopaths undergo a four-year post-graduate medical education like pediatricians, but do not complete an additional three years of pediatric residency, although they can do internships and take courses for certification. In 26 states, they can prescribe pharmaceuticals and administer vaccines.
Purvis is the primary care provider for about 75 percent of the children she sees and provides adjunctive care for specific conditions with the rest. For example, one child with chronic ear infections was facing ear tube surgery on the advice of a pediatrician; after his parents followed her advice to take him off dairy and give him certain supplements and a homeopathic remedy, the condition cleared up.
Chiropractors that specialize in pediatrics, although not usually a child’s primary doctor, correct misalignments of the cranium, spine and pelvis using extra-low force, “like checking the ripeness of a tomato,” says pediatric chiropractor Kaleb Scroggin, of Savannah, author of the children’s book C is for Chiropractor. For example, treating a constipated, breast-fed baby usually produces immediate results, he says, adding that adjustments can also help infants with latching issues, painful gas, reflux and general irritability. “My goal is to see how healthy I can help your child become,” he advises.
Ronica O’Hara is a Denver-based health writer. Connect at OHaraRonica@gmail.com.
Questions for Pediatricians
When seeking a pediatrician, integrative or not, holistic pediatrician Natalie W. Geary, of Miami, founder of vedaHEALTH (VedaHealth.com), says, “My best advice is to look for a pediatrician that has open communication skills, that listens well and that has the confidence to engage in a Q&A without getting defensive and ruffled. There are several questions to ask that will help guide you.”
In addition, she provides tips on what to look for in the answers.
1. Will you be talking to us about our baby’s nutrition in detail?
Pediatricians trained in integrative medicine recognize that children’s health is fundamentally grounded in what they eat. They need to recognize the impact of poor nutrition on a baby’s growing and developing brain, especially in the first three years of life, and be patient in helping parents navigate food intolerances—not just food allergies—as well as developmental stages and feeding behavior.
2. How do you feel about adjunct therapies such as craniosacral massage, acupuncture and Ayurveda?
The important thing here is not that they necessarily offer these things, but that they are informed about their benefits and are not dismissive or judgmental, and that they are open to working with the other healers and practitioners involved.
3. What are your thoughts on antibiotics?
Some pediatricians may be defensive about this, but it’s worth asking politely to see if they are open to a conversation about when alternatives might be useful, especially for things like ear infections.