Natural Remedies for Children with Special Needs
As both an herbalist and a mother of a special needs son, I have had many opportunities to apply the information I discuss in this article. I have had lots of occasions to try things and carefully watch outcomes. As my son has grown and changed, so have the remedies and protocols that I use. My family’s journey has been beautiful, exhausting, heart touching, filled with elation and tinged with deep pain. I would not change it for anything. We have had lots of help along the way. Offering this article and teaching similar classes is one of the ways I give back. If you have a special needs child, I hope this information is helpful for you and your loved ones. I am honored to share some of these natural and supportive tools with you.
Statistics on Special Needs Children and their Families:
- Childhood disability is on the rise. Emotional, behavioral, and neurological disabilities are now more prevalent than physical impairments.
- Approximately 10.2 million children in the US, which represents 15 percent of all US children, have special health care needs.
- More than a fifth of US households with children have at least one child with special needs.
- In 2009, it is estimated that 1,194,258 special needs children in the U.S. used at least one type of alternative health care or treatment.
For caregivers and families, the statistics are somewhat disturbing.
- 40 to 70 percent of parents and family caregivers have clinically significant symptoms of depression. About a quarter to half of these caregivers meet the diagnostic criteria for major depression.
- Caregivers who are often under extreme stress have been shown to age faster than their counterparts of the same age. This level of stress can take as much as 10 years off a family caregiver’s life.
- The divorce rate among parents of kids with ADHD or Autism is nearly twice that of couples in the general population.
- Women who are family caregivers are 2.5 times more likely than non-caregivers to live in poverty and five times more likely to receive Supplemental Security Income (SSI).
For more background about my family’s journey, this is an article I wrote about the extreme challenges, and grace, of mothering my child with special needs. This is another article about our experience with Sensory Processing Disorder.
Elaine and her son
The Connection to the Nervous System:
The nervous system is the body’s most rapid means of maintaining homeostasis. It has three main functions. The first is sensory. We sense changes in our body and the external environment. Next we interpret these changes – what do they mean? Lastly we integrate that information by responding with a muscular action or hormonal secretion.
Most special needs kids have issues with their central nervous systems. These challenges can be medical, emotional, or developmental. A few of the most common issues include ADD/ADHD, cerebral palsy, sensory processing disorder, epilepsy, Down Syndrome, autism, learning problems, loss of a sense such as hearing, sight, or language, or having a diverse movement need such as a wheelchair or braces.
Herbs for the Nervous System:
In my experience, nervines (herbs that act on the nervous system) are quirky. A single nervine can have a very different effect on two different people. Let’s use coffee (yes, it’s an herb) as an example. Some people, such as myself, drink a small amount of coffee and feel jittery for hours. Others can drink a whole pot of coffee and then go right to sleep. I think it prudent to test nervines by using a single drop of tincture or a sip of tea. See how the child reacts and then decide if this particular plant will be beneficial to them. Similar to essential oils, timing is important. Generally, use stimulating nerviness earlier in the day and relaxing nervines in the afternoon or evening.
Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis)
Stimulating Nervines for Boosting Energy:
Nervine Stimulants activate the nervous system. These herbs can be useful for those who are generally under-responsive. For certain other individuals, they can be used for an over-stimulated nervous system, much as the pharmaceutical stimulant Ritalin is used for hyperactive states. Many of these herbs contain caffeine, including coffee, guarana, kola, green and black tea, yerba mate and cocoa. Although it is tempting for people who are exhausted or burning the candle at both ends, I would caution that using caffeine will only increase fatigue and impair health in the long term. I recommend instead using adaptogens (see below). Interestingly, some herbs such as green tea, yerba mate, rosemary and cocoa are also high in antioxidants, which help stop the cascade effect of free radical damage in cells.
- Coffee (Coffea arabica): strongly stimulating to the nervous system. Many coffee beans on the grocery store shelf are rancid, so it is best to get locally roasted whole beans, store them in the freezer and grind them yourself.
- Guarana (Paullinia cupana): A powerful stimulant to the nervous system. Good for short term energy and memory.
- Kola (Cola acuminata and Cola nitida): a nervous system stimulatnt, kola nut is also a cardiac (heart) tonic.
- White, green or black tea (Camellia sinensis): white tea is the youngest leaf on the tea plant and has less caffeine. Green tea has more caffeine and fermented black teas have the highest caffeine content. Camellia is also an excellent source of antioxidants.
- Yerba mate (Ilex paraguariensis): can be highly stimulating for some people, and produce a subtle effect for others.
- Cocoa (Theobroma cacao): One of our favorite additions to sugar and milk, this bean is both stimulating and highly antioxidant.
- Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis): a good herb for memory and stimulating both to the mind and the senses, rosemary is an excellent antioxidant as well.
- Gotu kola (Centella asiatica): A rejuvenating nervine and adaptogen, gotu kola is especially good for the mind and memory. It is also good for adrenal fatigue and sluggish metabolism.
Adaptogens help the body, particularly the limbic system, adapt to stress and maintain balance. Some adaptogens are stimulating, especially if taken in excess. It is best to try an adaptogen in the morning and see how you react to it before incorporating it into a daily regime.
- American Ginseng (Panax quinquefolius): low dose and restorative providing energy and vitality.
- Eleuthro (Eleutherococcus senticosus): formerly called Siberian ginseng, eleuthero is a helpful adaptogen for overall stamina and hormone balance.
- Ashwaganda (Withania somnifera): a more relaxing herb, this is a wonderful plant for those that are over stimulated or having trouble sleeping.
- Gotu Kola (Centella asiatica): excellent for the mind and memory, this herb is useful for those that feel foggy or need extra brainpower.
- Licorice (Glycyrrhiza glabra and G. uralensis): this root is especially good for adrenal burnout. Contra-indications: high blood pressure. Using over longer periods of time (several weeks or months) can cause electrolyte imbalances. I like to use licorice in formulas with other herbs.
- Rhodiola (Rhodiola rosea): excellent for immune response and my favorite adaptogen for depression and deep fatigue.
- Holy Basil (Ocimum spp.): good for the immune system and for encouraging vital energy, holy basil decreases stress hormone levels, corticosterone in particular. It is also a powerful antioxidant and anti-inflammitory.
Holy Basil (Ocimum sanctum)
Stimulating Essential Oils:
A note on essential oils: essential oils are the scent molecules of plants. They are extremely potent and more is not better. Please research any oil before you use it, including its contra-indications. Some oils are not appropriate for children. Most oils should not be applied directly to the skin before first diluting them.
- Orange (Citrus sinensis): is refreshing, uplifting, and antidepressant. It is a wonderful, sunny fragrance that will brighten any environment.
- Atlas Cedar (Cedrus atlanticus): A circulatory stimulant, it is non-irritating and can be helpful for varicose veins. It is an excellent adrenals toner and is useful for emotional balancing and grounding.
- Peppermint (Mentha piperita): A cooling oil that is good for sluggishness, mild depression and headache, peppermint oil is also useful for the adrenal glands and digestive function.
- Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis) is helpful for mental fatigue. It is a tonic support for mind and memory. It is helpful to smell rosemary as you are learning something new and then smell it again when you want to recall that information. I often recommend this oil to students.
- Spruce (Picea mariana): Spruce helps tonify the adrenals and balance the emotions. It combines nicely with Atlas cedar and peppermint. It is expectorant and anti-bacterial for respiratory infections.
Nervine Tonics help one manage stress better by strengthening and supporting the nervous system. They combine nicely with adaptogens and relaxing nervines.
- Oat Seed, Fresh (Avena fatua and A. sativa): an incredible tonic and support for those under long-term stress.
- Lemon Balm (Melissa officinalis): a gentle and calming restorative to the nervous system, this herb makes an uplifting, nutritious and delicious tea.
- St. Johnswort (Hypericum perforatum): a deep nervous system tonic, it is useful for mild to moderate depression. St. Johnswort is calming and relaxing.
St. Johnswort (Hypericum perforatum)
Relaxing Nervines to Encourage Calmness and Reduce Stress:
As they are calming but not sedating, these herbs can be taken throughout the day instead of just at night to lower the overall stress response in the body.
- Skullcap (Scutellaria spp.): a soothing nervine for overwhelment and stress. Skullcap is one of my favorite herbs for sensory processing issues, or as I call them “Skullcap Moments”. More from the author about using skullcap for special needs children: (http://sylvanbotanical.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/07/Volume-1-Issue-2-2014-final.pdf) See page 3.
- Passionflower (Passiflora incarnata): an relaxing and calming herb, passionflower is also good for heart palpitations and easing one into a natural sleep.
- Motherwort (Leonarus cardiaca): a grounding and centering herb, this plant is useful for agitation and nervous energy. Motherwort is also one of my favorite herbs for menopausal distress and hot flashes.
- Lavender (Lavandula spp.): A gentle relaxer, this herb is an aromatic addition to a tea. It is useful for insomnia, nervous stomach, anxiety, and headache. For some people, a little can go a long way.
- Chamomile (Matricaria recutita): a gentle and soothing herb useful for both children and adults. The tea is soothing to the nerves and aids digestion. The fresh flower tincture is stronger and useful for insomnia.
- Linden flower (Tilia spp.): is an excellent remedy for calming and relaxing nervous tension and stress. A gentle antidepressant, it is an appropriate relaxing herb for both children and the elderly.
- Kava (Piper methysticum): This relaxing root is useful for stress, insomnia and pain. It is one of my favorite herbs for anxiety and panic attacks.
- Catnip (Nepeta cataria): is a very gentle relaxer appropriate for sensitive or small children and adults. It is a useful remedy for stomach upset and to aid digestion.
- Wood betony (Stachys officinalis): a good tonic for relaxation, stress and pain, including headaches.
- Oat Seed, Fresh (Avena fatua and A. sativa): an incredible tonic and support for those under long-term stress with an over-worked brain.
Valerian (Valeriana officinalis)
Relaxing Essential Oils:
- Roman Chamomile (Chamaemelum nobile): is gently relaxing and calming for nervous tension and depression. It is anti-spasmodic, anti-inflammatory, emotionally balancing and safe for use during pregnancy and with small children.
- Lavender (Lavandula spp.): has an amphoteric action, meaning it can be relaxing or stimulating based on dilution. Use a small amount for calming and a large amount for stimulation. It is a wonderful first aid oil and can be used full strength on most people’s skin for burns, infections, bug bites and skin inflammation and irritation (do a patch test first by applying a small amount to the skin and watching for redness or irritation). It is helpful for pain and headaches as well as being soothing for emotional upset.
- Marjoram (Origanum marjorama): is calming, relaxing, emotionally balancing and sedating. It is a useful anti-spasmodic for intestinal cramps, menstrual cramps or skeletal muscle cramping. It is helpful for countering long term stress.
- Mandarin (Citrus reticulate): This is an excellent oil for anxiety and hyperactivity in children or adults. It is a helpful sedative for chronic insomnia as well as being a good emotional balancer for dark moods or depression. Citrus oils may increase photo-sensitivity so be cautious applying this oil to the skin when you will be outside.
- Spikenard (Nardostachys jatamansi): smells just like valerian root and acts in a similar fashion as a strongly sedating nervine for insomnia and pain. It is also helpful for reducing anxiety.
- Ylang ylang (Cananga odorata): is antidepressant, and helpful for both stress and anxiety. It is extremely sedating.
Sedating Nervines to Encourage Sleep:
- Valerian (Valeriana spp.): is helpful for pain, tension, sleeplessness and smooth muscle cramps. For some children with ADD, hyperactivity or ADHD, it can help them with focus and attentiveness.
- Hops (Humulus lupulus): an exceptional remedy for encouraging sleep, hops is also used as a digestive bitter. Be warned: it is very bitter.
- Wild lettuce (Lactuca virosa): a helpful anodyne (pain reliever), wild lettuce has tranquilizing effect useful for insomnia and nervousness. It is sedative and antispasmodic.
- Catnip (Nepeta cataria): is a very gentle relaxer appropriate for sensitive or small children and adults. It is a useful remedy for stomach upset and to aid digestion.
- California poppy (Eschscholzia californica): an excellent herb for stress, helping to encourage sleep. California poppy is also pain relieving and soothing for agitation, nervousness or anxiety.
Arnica (Arnica cordifolia)
Flower essences are gentle, yet profound. I find them very helpful for assisting movement and aiding resolution with the emotional and spiritual aspects of healing that often accompany physical health issues. They are safe to use with prescription medications and can be used either orally or externally on the skin. A dosage is around 3 drops. Instructions on Use. (link to flower essence PDF)
- Rescue Remedy or Five Flower Formula: this formula contains five essences including Rock Rose, Impatiens, Clematis, Star of Bethlehem and Cherry Plum. It is useful for stress, anxiety, trauma and panic attacks. It is especially helpful in emergency situations.
- Chamomile (Matricaria recutita): encourages emotional balance. Chamomile is helpful for those who are moody, easily upset or irritable.
- Arnica (Arnica mollis): aids recovery from deep-seated strain, shock or scarring from past traumas. I have used it for medical trauma.
- Pretty Face (Triteleia ixioides): helps one reconnect to their body after severe neurological injury. Encourages self-acceptance in relation to one’s personal appearance.
- Cosmos (Cosmos bipinnatus): helps a child come into his/her body and out into the world. Encourages coherent speech and communication.
- Shooting Star (Dodecatheon hendersonii): useful for grounding, and helping ease feelings of profound alienation.
- Indian Paintbrush (Castilleja miniata): helps to integrate the body and the soul. Good for low vitality and exhaustion.
- Yarrow (Achillea millefolium): helpful for creating a protective shield when one feels vulnerable and easily depleted.
Roman Chamomile (Chamaemelum nobile)
I hope that parents and caregivers will use these recipes both for themselves and for their children. When taking care of a special needs child, it is extremely important to take breaks and practice self-care. Note: remember to use Freid’s Rule or Clark’s Rule when deciding the dosage for a child (see below). The tincture dosages below (and on most herbal product labels) are for adults.
An herbal tincture is a liquid extraction of an herb that you can use internally, or topically as a liniment. This internal formula can be used to stimulate and enliven the senses and the mind. Although it is designed as a tincture formula, you can also make it as a capsule or a tea. Dosage: 30-60 drops up to 3 times a day, 2 “00” capsules 3 times a day, or 3 cups of tea a day.
- 1 part Gotu Kola (Centella asiatica) tincture
- 1 part Eleuthero (Eleutherococcus senticosus) tincture
- 1 part Holy basil (Ocimum spp.) tincture
- ½ part Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis) tincture
- ½ part Peppermint (Mentha piperita) tincture
This gentle tea is appropriate for both adults and children. It can be used as a daily nourishing tea and will give the body extra nutritive support during times of physical, emotional or mental stress. It can be drunk throughout the day and may be diluted if the flavor is too strong or made into ice cubes and added to water.
Use one part of each of the following: (by weight)
- Chamomile flowers (Matricaria recutita)
- Catnip herb (Nepeta cataria)
- Peppermint herb (Mentha piperita)
- Nettles herb (Urtica spp.)
- Horsetail herb (Equisetum spp.)
Mix herbs together. Use ¼ ounce of the blend per cup of water. Boil water and pour over the tea. Let steep for 30 minutes to 2 hours, strain and enjoy!
Horsetail (Equisetum hyemale)
Stress Relief Bath Blend
After a long, difficult day, this bath is a wonderful treat to help relieve tension and encourage relaxation. If you know a caregiver of a special needs child, this bath salt makes a great gift!
- 2 cups unscented bath salts (you can use sea salt, Epsom salt, Celtic sea salts, Dead Sea salts, etc. Don’t use table salt as it has anti-caking agents that are counterproductive to the healing process.)
- 30 drops Lavender (Lavandula spp.) essential oil
- 30 drops Mandarin (Citrus reticulate) essential oil
- 30 drops Rose geranium (Pelargoneum spp.) essential oil
- 10 drops Roman chamomile (Chamaemelum nobile) essential oil
Mix bath salts and essential oils well and store in an airtight glass jar. Unplug the phone and light a candle. Put on some relaxing music. Draw a hot bath and slip into it. Add 2 tablespoons Stress Relief Bath Blend, sit back and relax!
Nervine Tonic Tincture
This formula can be used as a daily support for stress, low energy and to encourage mental acuity. Take 60-90drops 3 x a day. Measure the tinctures by volume to create the formula.
- 3 parts Eleuthero (Eleutherococcus senticosus) tincture
- 2 parts Skullcap (Scutellaria spp.) tincture
- 2 parts St. Johnswort (Hypericum perforatum) tincture
- 1 part fresh Oat Seed (Avena spp.) tincture
- 1 part Vegetable Glycerine
Sweet Dreams Spray
- 1 2/3 ounce Water
- 1/3 ounce Brandy (to preserve your mixture)
- 4 drops Hornbeam (Carpinus betula) flower essence
- 4 drops White Chestnut (Aesculus hippocastanum) flower essence
- 4 drops Oak (Quercus robur)flower essence
- 10 drops Lavender (Lavandula spp.) essential oil
- 5 drops Clary Sage (Salvia sclarea) essential oil
- 3 drops Sandalwood (Santalum Spicatum) essential oil
Shake well. Spray on face, wrists, and pillow, or add a few sprays to your evening bath. Sweet dreams!
I like tinctures for sleep issues, because they work really fast. You can use the tincture when first going to bed, or take it if you wake in the middle of the night. If you are sensitive, try these herbs individually before making them into a formula. That way, you can exclude any that don’t work. Make sure you try them on an evening when you don’t have an important event scheduled the next day.
- 1 part Skullcap (Scutellaria spp.) tincture
- 1 part Passion Flower (Passiflora incarnata) tincture
- 1/2 part Valerian (Valeriana spp.) tincture
- 1/2 part fresh Chamomile (Matricaria recutita) tincture
Add tinctures together and mix well. Take 60-90 drops before bed, or upon awakening in the middle of the night. If not asleep within 20 minutes, take another dose.
Sleep Easy Tea
This calming tea is safe for both children and adults. You can also put the tea into an evening bath for babies, small children, or those that find it hard to drink tea.
- 1 part Chamomile Flowers (Matricaria recutita)
- 1 part Skullcap Herb (Scutellaria spp.)
- 1 part Spearmint Leaves (Mentha spicata)
- 1 part Lemon Balm Leaves (Melissa officinalis)
- 1/2 part Lavender Flowers (Lavandula spp.)
Mix all herbs together and store in an airtight glass jar. For one lovely cup of tea, pour one cup of boiling over 1 tablespoon of Sleep Easy Tea and let it steep for 20–30 minutes. Strain and enjoy!
Determining Dosages for Children:
- Fried’s Rule: The dose of an herb for an infant less than 2 years old is obtained by multiplying the child’s age in months by the adult dose and then dividing the result by 150. An example would be if an adult tincture dosage is 20 drops. For an 8 month old child you would take 20 x 8 to get 160. Then divide: 160/150 = which would be approximately 1 drop of tincture.
- Clark’s Rule: for children aged 2-17. Take the child’s weight in pounds and divide by 150 pounds. Multiply the fractional result by the adult dose to find the equivalent child dosage. For example, if an adult dose of tincture calls for 30 drops and the child weighs 30 pounds, divide the child’s weight by 150 (30/150) to get 1/5. Multiply 1/5 times 30 drops to get 6 drops. This method can also be used for elders, dogs and cats.
You are also welcome to download my class resource list for special needs kids:
Resources for Special Needs Children
Elaine Sheff has been studying medicinal plants since 1987. A Clinical Herbalist, she is a graduate of both the Rocky Mountain Center for Botanical Studies and the Southwest School of Botanical Medicine. Elaine is a certified instructor of Fertility Awareness and Natural Family Planning, a safe, effective birth control method used to avoid or achieve pregnancy. She has a long-standing clinical practice providing herbal consultations for individuals with health concerns. Elaine is a bestselling author and teaches herb classes throughout the United States. She is the co-founder of Meadowsweet Herbs and the co-director of Green Path Herb School in Missoula, Montana. You can often find Elaine in her garden, spending time with her amazing family, or cooking gluten free.