Treating Children with Traditional Chinese Medicine

By Pacific College - June 27, 2014

By Laura L. Ecklund

Pediatrics is one of the oldest specialties within Chinese medicine and dates from the early first millennium. Since that time, there has been continuous development in the diagnosis and treatment of children’s diseases. Past generations of Chinese doctors have discovered various characteristics that are common in all children. The various modalities (herbal medicine, acupuncture, Chinese massage and dietary therapy) of Traditional Chinese Medicine (known as TCM) have been providing children with solutions to their health problems for more than 2,000 years. This form of Asian medicine is the oldest and second largest medical system in the world today and is used by one quarter of the entire world’s population. Unlike Western medicine, this time-tested professional medicine treats and assesses each person as an individual (not based entirely on a disease or symptom). Traditional Chinese Medicine is a noninvasive healing modality that facilitates the body’s natural ability to heal itself by restoring harmony and balance to the entire individual. According to TCM, children are not just considered miniature adults. They are believed to be immature both physically and functionally; most common pediatric complaints are due to this immaturity. Chinese medicine states that because children’s bodies are immature and therefore inherently weak, they are susceptible to diseases that affect the lungs such as colds, coughs, allergies and asthma and the spleen (or digestive complaints) such as colic, vomiting, diarrhea, indigestion, and stomach aches.

Chinese medicine has been shown to offer substantial clinical benefits to patients who have been unresponsive to other forms of treatment. The treatment of these diseases using TCM have less side effects and unlike modern medicine, are curative not palliative, as they aim to eliminate the pathology of the disease instead of controlling or suppressing the symptoms. In most chronic diseases, Western medicine at best can only temporarily alleviate the symptoms of these diseases using various medications. This is because Western medicine takes a more reactive approach to medicine, in that the symptoms are treated. In addition to the lack of effectiveness of Western treatments, there are also possible side effects of repeated or long-term use of the medications. In TCM a proactive approach is taken, in that the whole body and how it functions is taken into account.

In Traditional Chinese Medicine, there are four primary methods of treating children: Dietary Therapy, Chinese Herbal Medicine, Chinese Pediatric Massage and Acupuncture.

Chinese Herbal Medicine

Chinese Herbal Medicine is one of the most sophisticated herbal medicine systems in the world. It is very important, especially in the treatment of children that herbs are prescribed only by a licensed professional. Side effects of properly prescribed herbs are uncommon, and if they do occur are quite mild.

Chinese herbs are prescribed in individualized formulas which are custom written to suit the needs of each child. These formulas typically consist of anywhere between four and fifteen herbs. Many herbs have anti-bacterial or anti-viral properties while others work to promote the body’s innate ability to heal and recuperate. Herbal formulas can be very effective in the treatment of acute illness as well as in preventing illness when there is a history of chronic infections and antibiotic use.

There are a number of ways that Chinese herbal medicine can be dispensed for children under the age of eight. There are pills, powders, and teas. Any liquid form of Chinese medicine may be effectively administered with an eye dropper.

Dietary Therapy

Digestion plays such a pivotal role in the health and well-being of infants and young children. Their diet is extremely important in preventing and treating the most commonly encountered children’s diseases. The same diet that the average parent in Western society has been led to believe to be healthy for infants and children can be problematic according to TCM. Most pediatric diseases can be either completely eliminated or markedly improved if a child’s diet is modified.

No child can eat whatever they wish and still remain entirely healthy. The majority of food a child eats should be cooked because cooked foods are easier for them to digest due to their immature digestion. Children should be fed whole foods with a high percentage of vegetables, fruits, grains and complex carbohydrates and smaller amounts of meats, eggs and dairy products.

Pediatric Massage

Pediatric massage, or Tui Na, can be highly effective for treating commonly encountered pediatric diseases such as cough, constipation, chronic abdominal pain, dermatitis and asthma. It is gentle, safe and without side effects. Chinese pediatric massage is specifically designed to prevent and treat pediatric disorders and uses specialized techniques and pressure points that are particularly beneficial for children. Chinese pediatric massage is useful for treating children up to 8 years of age. However, the younger the child is, the more effective pediatric massage can be.

There are certain combinations of specific massage techniques for the purpose of rebalancing particular patterns of disharmony within the child. Usually, a Chinese pediatric massage treatment will last 20-30 minutes and most techniques are performed while the child is clothed. The frequency of massage depends on whether the condition is chronic or acute. Pediatric Tui-na is soothing and relaxing for the child and does not cause pain or discomfort.


In general, acupuncture is not often used in the treatment of children especially under six years of age. In TCM, the primary modalities used in pediatrics by the Chinese doctor are herbal medicine and massage. However, pediatric acupuncture, called Shoni-shin, is a type of acupuncture specifically designed for the treatment of children, which does not penetrate the skin.

This treatment works wonders for common respiratory and digestive ailments. It can enhance circulation and relaxation, thereby improving health in general. Shoni-shin is a form of bodywork that makes use of small metal tools designed to bring qi to the surface, help it move by “spreading” it along the channels, and stimulate specific acupuncture points. There are about a half-dozen different tools in a shoni-shin kit, none of which penetrate the skin. A shoni-shin treatment can be performed in 10 to 20 minutes depending on the age of the child and the severity of the illness.

Other Modalities

In TCM, other modalities that are occasionally used with children include herbal washes, creams, ointments, eye, ear and nose drops, and inhalants.

Regardless of the form of treatment that is chosen, it is important to remember that children’s health can change at a faster rate than adults. Children tend to outgrow many common pediatric diseases as they mature and develop and the qi of their lung, spleen, and liver becomes stronger.

Because TCM is a holistic medicine, healing focuses on balancing the qi of the internal organs by taking into account both physical and emotional symptoms. Children are generally more susceptible to getting sick, but they are also quicker to heal. For most common pediatric complaints, complete healing can be attained through herbal medicine, dietary changes, and the use of simple massage techniques. The goal of all pediatric treatment is to restore balance and harmony to a child.

Unlike modern medicine, TCM pediatricians believe early treatment is important in all situations. Early treatment reduces the length of treatment needed and prevents any further complications. Other recommendations to prevent illness in TCM include making sure children receive adequate rest, exercise and fresh air. Ultimately, no child can flourish and be truly healthy in body and mind without a great amount of love and support.

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