Coughs and Runny Noses

runny noses solutions“Here. Blow.” Another mother gives my son a kleenex and makes a motion to her own nose which she hopes will facilitate the exchange. My son looks up at her blankly. “Blow,” she says again. “Its not good for them to have so much mucous in their nose.” The people-pleaser/health worker in me agrees instantly, and probably with more fervor than I actually feel to save some face. The truth is, I didn’t even notice that his nose needed blowing (there wasn’t any thick oozing gunk halfway down to his lip, and isn’t that the universal time for a tissue?).

“Have you tried a coat?” This comment is not as catty as it sounds, merely inquisitive and helpful, if not painfully obvious. I look down then at my son and realize, while I am wearing knee-high boots, heavy pants, a wool sweater, a scarf and a leather jacket, he is wearing a collared tee-shirt and a light sweater. No coat, no scarf. Thank god I remembered his socks.

I’ve been thinking about the runny nose and cough that I see most frequently at this time of year in my clinic, and now wonder if the first words of wisdom I should give my clients are, “have you tried a coat?”

But since coughs and runny nose come at many times of year (even to coat-wearing children), here are some other favorite remedies:

Easiest Solutions

  • Start with a warm bath. The warmth of the bath can relax breathing, and loosen mucus. In children over age two, consider adding, eucalyptus, wintergreen and/or lavender essential oil, 2-3 drops by themselves, or 1-2 drops of each in any combination.
  • After bath, bundle up your child warmly, and encourage warm liquids and broth (for tea suggestions, see SIMPLE KITCHEN REMEDIES.)
  • Most of all, encourage rest. Rest is the best way I know to encourage the body to repair itself, for both children and adults.

Acupressure Points

  • On the forearm, starting with the palm side up, trace a line from the base of the thumb a little more than 1/2 way between the wrist and the elbow. Apply some firm pressure in this area and when you get an “owww!” you’ve found it. When you hold this point, known as Lung 6, you may even feel a little bump. You can both massage and place a magnet on this point. Encourage the child to press it when they feel a cough coming on.
  • You can also massage or place magnets on the thumb side of the forearm in what may feel like an indentation almost directly underneath the protruding styloid process bone below the thumb, and another directly below the protruding bone on the inside of the ankle on the opposite side. (If your child has a runny nose, but no cough, use the first point only, rather than as a pair). With these points, keep the magnets on for the duration of your massage then take them off. With other magnets, you can leave them on and press on them periodically for a few hours, up to a few days, or until they fall off, whichever comes first. On these two points, I usually like to leave them on no longer than 15 minutes. If your child feels dizzy or faint, remove them immediately and press underneath the ball of your child’s feet. These can be very strong, very effective points.
  • Have your child turn onto their belly and place your hands on either side of the spine level with where the neck joins the body. Begin pressing down both sides of the spine until you reach the level of the scapula 50-100 times. You may notice quite a bit of redness after doing this technique and this is actually a good sign. This area relates to the lungs and the tissue there can get congested when there is a cough or allergies.
  • As you look at the back you will see one prominent bony vertebrae near where the neck and the shoulders meet. On either side of the spine at this level and slightly above it is the point called “ding chuan”. Press firmly on either side of this point to help with any wheezing or cough. Magnets are extremely useful here too.

Safe Kitchen Recipes

  • If your child shows first signs of a cough, get your kitchen ready with slippery elm bark powder. Slippery elm bark is the inner bark of the tree, that forms a gelatinous fiber when added to liquid. It has been used for centuries by Native Americans for cough, and is considered quite safe, even for young children. It tastes sweet, and can be placed in warm water or apple juice – usually 1 teaspoon is sufficient for a cough, or even sprinkled onto oatmeal or other foods. Aviva Jill Romm, in her book on Naturally Healthy Babies and Children, outlines a great recipe for slippery bark cough lozenges, made from two tablespoons of slippery elm powder, and enough honey to give it the consistency of dough. Then roll the dough “into a long, thin snake” and cut it into bite-size pieces, about ¼ inch thick. For children under 15 months old, try using maple syrup instead of honey, and only if they’re already accustomed to solid foods.
  • Loquat syrup is a mentholated syrup that is readily accessible in Asian markets and, I’ve noticed lately, in health food stores. It tastes great – to kids that is, I think it is cloying sweet – and stops mild coughs almost instantly in many cases. This is also a very safe remedy for young children.
  • Lemons are one of nature’s treasures for antimicrobial activity (ie virus and bacteria killing). A little warm home-made lemonade, sweetened with honey – which has its own antimicrobial effects, and you’ve got an ultra-effective, safe and inexpensive cough syrup. Again, for kids under 15 months, skip the honey, and try a little maple syrup instead.
  • If your child’s cough is non-productive – in other words, they are not coughing out mucus – and it sounds raspy and dry, rather than wet and croupy, try bananas, sliced and cooked into a thick stew – this is old Chinese nutritional wisdom, as bananas have lubricating properties. If your baby is eating solid foods, this is a great solution for him or her, too.
  • Also try daikon radish, grated and steamed with a little sea salt – this is great for many coughs, especially the kind that’s dry, or that seems to be making little one cranky.
  • Finally, cooked pears are excellent at alleviating symptoms of a ‘hot’ cough – a cough accompanied by flushed face, fever, and sometimes, not always, green mucous – its also great for dry cough. As with most food remedies, this is great for babies, provided they have already begun to eat solid foods.

One thing to know about many cough remedies: Eastern medicine links the lungs to the large intestine – they’re considered a pair, which means the way one functions has effects on the other. The advent of this relationship is not particularly surprising if we consider that many naturally-occurring cough remedies are also constipation remedies. Don’t be surprised if stools get a little looser, although back off on any remedy if stools get consistently watery or contain a lot of undigested food.

The Morning After:

As a cough progresses you may notice that the cough develops a wet quality. You may also notice that with both coughs and runny nose most young children have a difficult time expelling mucus and will swallow it back down. When treating this type of condition it is important to try and keep the mucus thin. A thick mucus becomes sluggish and provides a great host for bacterial growth and possible infection. Here are some things that are helpful:

  • Feed your child lots of warm liquids.
  • Try an in-room humidifier – keeping the air moist can keep the lungs moist, and prevent thickening of mucus. Just make sure you clean the humidifier frequently to keep mold and bacteria from growing there.
  • If your child shows any signs of impacted mucus in his or her nose, use a salt-water nasal spray. You can make your own, by combining ¼-1/2 teaspoon of non-iodized salt with 8 oz of water and ½ teaspoon of baking soda (just use a couple of drops, its not necessary to use all 8 oz), or buy one over the counter, in spray or drop form. If you buy one over the counter, buy one without additives or preservatives, which can be very irritating. It’s important to keep the mucous soft and running out, so it doesn’t make a home in the sinuses or ears, as breeding grounds for bacteria.
  • Fritillaria and Pinella syrup is a staple in my medicine cabinet. This syrup helps to reduce the phlegm and tastes yummy. You’ll need to consult with a Chinese medical practitioner or look for it in an asian market in order to get it. Then keep it on hand for future use.
  • And, when a child is unable to expel the mucus they may have some upset tummy from swallowing it. In this instance Ginger tea can help settle the tummy.
  • Another remedy I have used with success is giving your child digestive enzymes. These enzymes, taken in between meals help break down the proteins in the mucus and aid the body in cutting down on the amount. If your child does not swallow capsules – often their preferred form – you can split the capsules open and mix them with just a little bit of maple syrup.
  • Traditional Chinese Medicine considers dairy a ‘mucus’-producing food group, and always recommends eliminating all dairy products for the duration of a wet type cough. Dairy products include milk, butter, cheese, and yogurt. We have also always found this temporary diet change to be beneficial.

Some times a child’s mucousy cough will turn rather dry and croupy sounding. With my own clients I have had this experience and wondered “where did all that phlegm from yesterday suddenly go”. In this situation the phlegm has become thick and the child can no longer cough it up. The nose is generally not running but they may sound congested and the cough may be worse at night. Massage is important for this type of cough.

  • Back clapping is helpful to loosen the phlegm in the lungs. With a cupped hand clap firmly on your child’s back, moving your hand as you go to work the whole back side of the lungs.

If your child’s cough persists, or recurs with frequency, check in with your primary health care provider, and take a look at the immune-building techniques in the Keeping your Child Healthy and Strong section for techniques you can use to help strengthen your child’s natural defenses. A lingering or recurrent cough can also be a sign of asthma, even if it does not sound wheezy. Please check with your physician, and check out the section on asthma and allergies in the section on Chronic Conditions.

Preventative Measures

  • When your town’s weather changes from warm to cold, keep your child’s neck warm. Chinese medicine has long held that the neck is where ‘invasions of cold’ first enter. A light scarf is great, even before its time for parkas.
  • At first signs of a runny nose, begin a regimen of digestive enzymes, with protease. Proteolytic enzymes reduce inflammation, break down mucus, and bolster digestion – which has a big role in immunity. A couple of enzymes on an empty stomach and before bed can play a great preventative role. Give them at least 1 ½ hours after your child’s last meal, and 45 minutes before the next one. In my house, I break the capsules open and put them in just a little bit of maple syrup; it started out for swallowing ease when my son was a baby and has since since turned them into a treat.
  • At the beginning of a cough or runny nose ‘season’ at home, daycare, or school, you’ll want to make sure your child is getting extra rest. If possible, that goes for you too, mama and papa.
  • If your child tends toward weak digestion, pale complexion, and or loose stools, a good thing to do at the first signs of runny nose or cough is to give your child warm or cooked foods. Cooked foods can be easier for young children and children with sensitive digestion. Basically when you cook food you utilize the energy of the stove versus using your stomach as a stove. This frees up some extra energy for you child’s immune system. Maybe this is one of the reasons grandma’s chicken soup remedies have stood the test of time.
  • Consider a vitamin C supplement (if your child is under 4 years old, get a supplement specifically formulated for children). Vitamin C is water-soluble, safe, and gives your child’s body an extra dose of antioxidants as needed. Take as directed, in up to three divided doses a day. If your child’s stools get loose, back off a little on the quantity you’re giving.

And put your kid’s coat on, honey. It’s cold out there.

Natural Colic Calming Remedies

A mama knows her kids. Or so we like to think, anyway. I, for example, knew my newest little addition in utero — I mean, we spent a lot of time together… time at the gym and prenatal yoga, time doing crosswords at 3am when i couldn’t sleep, time sharing in the trials and tribulations of everyday life — all of this before he ever saw the light of day. We were connected. And I decided, from this place of deep connection, that I could feel his personality (I still, by the way, believe this to be true.) When pregnant with my first son, I had accurately predicted him to be gentle and sweet-tempered, but shy perhaps, and stubborn as a mule. (I gleaned much of this from the way he adamantly and predictably refused to move even a millimeter when anyone would put a hand on my belly, even if he had been doing intra-uterine gymnastics before…it was as though he was saying, “mama, I’m no dancing monkey.” Lo and behold, he came out and for nearly two years was wary of strangers — and, on occasion, his poor, solicitous dad.)

Flush with the success of my predictions with Aidan, I confidently gave it another go with Ammie — ‘he’s good-natured, unusually good-natured, social, and, yes, mellow, definitely mellow’ — he moved only gently and easily day and night, and when he did kick, would happily kick away under the expectant hands of family and strangers alike. Their colors show themselves immediately, I believe, and if they don’t, I liked to believe my happy predictions anyway — because who wants to believe they are about to give birth to a little hellion?

Imagine my surprise then when, after a first few newborn weeks that neatly fit my expectations, my little Angel turned Gripe-y. I don’t mean a little gripe-y either, 5-7 witching-hour gripe-y. I mean ALL THE TIME. Nothing satisfied him. And whether imagination or intuition took over at this point, I don’t know. All I knew, beyond the shadow of a doubt, was that this was NOT his inherent nature. Maybe it never is with any baby. After an embarrassing number of sleepless nights, internet searches, and shame… I decided to go back to my roots as a pediatric expert — and go extreme.

I called my husband at work, suddenly empowered again. “I do this for a living!” I cried in revelation. “We can put all our resources to work and figure this out — he’s uncomfortable!” This was the start of the best baby-weight-loss program EVER — I cut out every food that was featured on any list ANYWHERE of gassy foods, foods to avoid, culprit foods, you name it. In other words, I cut out everything I liked.

No milk, no onions, no beans, no peanut butter, no cruciferous vegetables, no gluten, no — ah the last holdout — no chocolate. (Remember please, with pity, dear ones, that I gave birth to Ammie right before Thanksgiving and Christmas.) And, lo and behold, within a mere week, Ammie turned in to the fantastic sleeper, and good natured love that he is today — we call him “The Smile Factory.” I slowly — and one at a time, experimented with which foods I could bring back — I am breastfeeding after all, which means, I’m hungry! and ultimately narrowed it to a list that makes us all happy — no onions, no cheese, no beans (except, occasionally, lentils), no tomatoes, and, strangely, but definitely, no white rice. At lunch with my sister-in-law a couple months later, she revealed that these are the same foods that have always and still cause her trouble, down to the very last one (Genetics, that crazy thing it is.) We did some other things too, things I’d like to share with any mama or papa or beleaguered babysitting grandparent in hopes that it will help them to unearth their baby’s inner angel as well, and most importantly, bring sweet babies the comfort we desperately wish for them.

But first, the moral. More than one, in exchange for all the sleep lost.

  1. Mamas know their babies. If you think your baby is acting in a way that is inconsistent with their inherent nature, trust your deep knowledge of this little being — they probably are giving you a message the only way they know how.
  2. Everyone’s got advice – I was given everything from belly belts to colic foot cream – none of it bad, not all of it practical. In the end, it came down to trial and error – every baby is different.
  3. Well, I’d like to think there’s a third… Oh yes. “This too shall pass.” I’m sorry. And I promise.


Now here’s what has worked for me, personally and professionally:

Food Restrictions

While opinions even within the scientific community differ as to how much effect the foods mama eats while nursing has on her breastmilk or her baby, proteins from the foods you eat are absorbed through your intestines and into the bloodstream — and from here, finds its way into the milk in unknown quantities. Many babies don’t have much to any problem with this; however, if your baby is colicky, your diet is worth a second look. It is my clinical experience that many cases of colic are caused by mamas eating foods that are making the milk difficult for babies to digest. This is especially true if your baby seems to have bouts of crying followed by expulsion of gas, or if your baby has constipation, diarrhea, rashes, or congestion. I am also suspicious of food sensitivities if baby was premature, or if you or your spouse have a family history of digestive or respiratory difficulties.

When baby arrives, the lining of his or her intestines is immature, making it more difficult to digest and absorb foods for the first six months than it will be in the months that follow. This is why most pediatricians and childcare experts recommend waiting to start solids with your baby for at least six months (in some cases, I even recommend a bit longer). If your child cannot tolerate an ingredient you are ingesting, this does not mean he or she will be sensitive to it forever — but for now, avoiding it could give baby — and you! — much needed comfort.

Scientists know that flavor from foods is also transmitted to the breast milk — and may not only have a correlation to baby’s enjoyment of the milk, but may also correlate to what foods baby will like as solids (in other words, a mama who eats lots of carrots while nursing may have a baby who likes carrots as a solid — for more interesting information on this connection, check out: Here). Its not such a leap then, that the foods we eat also have an impact on the digestability of the breast milk for certain infants – a tenet of Grandma’s kitchen table wisdom in many cultures.foodstoavoid

The main culprits:

  • milk and dairy products
  • cruciferous vegetables (including broccoli, cabbage, bok choy, kale, cauliflower)
  • “gassy” vegetables (including onions, asparagus, green peppers, tomatoes)
  • spicy foods
  • wheat
  • chocolate
  • caffeine (in coffee, tea, some sodas)
  • soy
  • peanuts
  • citrus
  • shellfish
  • iron supplements (or the iron in your prenatal if you’re taking them)

These aren’t the only culprits (remember, beans and white rice really set my little guy off – although it took me a while and a good food log to believe it), but they are the most common. Which, if any, are culprits for your baby is a personal, and somewhat tedious matter to unearth. Either go extreme and eliminate the main possibilities and then add back in, or unearth likely suspects by backtracking through your worst days with a good diet log. And give this project time. It took nearly a week to notice that the colic had disappeared — which, not coincidentally, is sometimes the amount of time it takes for a food to leave your system. If you’re not sure about some of the foods on this list, experiment by adding them back into your diet after a week of eliminating them. Some of these foods are really good for you (and by this of course, I’m talking about chocolate. :))

* Lactobacillus Reuteri

A gram-positive bacterium that is found in the intestines of birds and mammals, l. reuteri falls into the category of “probiotics” (the beneficial bacteria that makes yogurt and fermented foods popular health boosters). Studies show that the effects of l. reuteri are very specifically beneficial to colicky babies (and not replicated by other probiotics, even of the infant-formulations). A study conducted in 2007, shows that after 4 weeks of taking l. reuteri drops, crying time was reduced by 74 percent.1 A 2010 study replicated these findings with similarly positive results.2 Be forewarned when you head to the local health food store or pharmacy for these — even with all the great research to support its efficacy, I had many well-meaning folks try to steer me toward other probiotics that don’t contain this strain — they’re wonderful for other things, but have not demonstrated the same effectiveness in cases of colic — in fact, they sometimes have generated the reverse.3 The l. reuteri had to be special-ordered and is not inexpensive (ringing up at somewhere around $30 for less than a week’s supply), but after weeks of crying (first Ammie, then me), I would probably have hocked my wedding ring for the possibility of sweet relief. BioGaia Protectis Baby Probiotic is what we used — a liquid formulation that you give to baby by the drop.

* Tummy Circles

One of the most effective ways to provide comfort to a colicky baby and to stimulate healthy digestive function is also one of the easiest. First lie your baby down on his back in a comfortable location. Then with the pads of your four closed fingers or the palm of your hand, gently push while rotating your hand to make medium-sized clockwise circles around your baby’s belly button. Continue in a clockwise direction 50 to 100 times, or for a few minutes. It’s unclear whether this has an effect on colic in the world of western medicine, but age old traditions of qi gong and other eastern practices place the center of much energy at this area in the body — stimulating and soothing the area around the umbilicus increases the strength of baby’s “Qi” (roughly translated as active life force). This couldn’t be bad, right? I’ve found it to be entirely therapeutic.


Here’s what others swear by:

Swaddling: From popular books like “The Happiest Baby on the Block” to Dr. Sears’ indispensable compendium, “The Baby Book” — and tracing its roots again back to Grandma (and Grandma’s Grandma), — swaddling, the technique of wrapping baby up tightly in a light blanket to simulate womb conditions (read: Tight!), and ameliorate the stresses of newly developing, not-quite-controllable limbs, is something many parents swear by to calm everything from a case of the tired fussies to downright aggravated babies. It doesn’t hit the roots of colic at it’s core — however, any safe calming techniques could only help. The larger question seems to be, does it calm? This seems to depend on the baby. Limited research has found the calming effects of swaddling to be temporary — after a few days, there seems to be no difference between the crying in swaddled and unswaddled babies.45 On the other hand, some babies are very sensitive to stimulation — and the newborn startle reflex is, well, startling. My main bias, however, is that my babies didn’t like swaddling at all. Maybe I had a small uterus and they were just relieved to finally be unrestricted. That’s my theory. My firstborn preferred to sleep with arms and legs splayed out like he was making a big snow angel. But if it works for you, by all means… (When not to swaddle: when they’re just born. Skin-to-skin contact here, with unrestricted hands and arms helps breastfeeding, calming, and bonding significantly better than any amount of swaddling.)

Baby Herbal Tummy Packs: My former neighbor, just about the nicest gal in the world, and mama to a now one-year-old, first provided cookies on the day of his birth, and then her baby herbal tummy pack, called “Happi Tummi” a few weeks later. Her daughter cried inconsolably during the first few months — a microwavable belt filled with such olfactory delights as chamomile and lavender, along with the warmth of the belt on baby’s belly was her number one aid in relieving her daughter’s misery. My Indian friend also swears by the benefits of a warm herbal pack on baby’s belly. The warm tummy pack soothes and relaxes the possibly-stressed, definitely tense intestinal muscles of an unhappy infant. You can buy the Happi Tummi version, or for DIYers, make your own by placing uncooked rice in a muslim or linen sack, adding essential oils of your choice – lavender and chamomile are best bets for babies- to the rice before placing in the sack. (Sew Mama Sew gives great instructions for DIY packs). Heat in microwave for 15 seconds and please, test on inside of wrist before placing on baby. Place it over the onesie or sleeper to avoid it getting too hot on baby’s sensitive skin (lets not add injury to insult…) Then remember this technique for when baby gets older — warm belly packs are absolutely great for stomachaches and bedwetting in older kids as well.

gripe_water* Gripe Water: Here’s another remedy folks swear by. I keep it in the diaper bag myself. Chalk full of great tummy-relieving herbs such as ginger and fennel, it performs the minor and immediate miracle of stopping my little one’s hiccups in their tracks (boy, did he hate the hiccups for a while!) There are a lot of gripe waters on the market, however, and all are not created equal. Aniseed is a common ingredient, but also a common allergen, and gripe waters that use essential oils are generally way too strong for babies (this is internal we’re talking). You want to look for natural, optimally organic ingredients, and no alcohol or simethicone. We tried a couple of different kinds and used Mommy’s Bliss with the greatest success, but there are a number of other reputable brands out there for your own trial and error research — Wellements, Colic Calm. Did any of them stop the colic? Verdict’s still out on that one for us, but certainly didn’t hurt. It’s available Here on Amazon.

colic remediesTea for Mama: fennel seed, Indian celery root? 1/2 – 1 tsp of fennel seeds steeped in hot water for 10 minutes (you can include 1-2 slices of fresh ginger while you’re at it) is a remedy that seeks to work at the level of “what mama eats, baby eats.” Hopefully it makes your milk more digestible and more palatable to your little one. Some Indian friends insisted that I should add Indian Celery root to this homebrew – and gave me some of their own that family and friends routinely bring back from India for them. It doesn’t smell the same as the celery root in my own pantry. Again, I cannot say with certainty that it helped, but just the ritual moment taken to nurture myself every evening (boiling the water, steeping the tea) was a therapeutic act.


And When is Colic no longer “Colic”? Red Flags That It’s Time to Visit or Revisit Your Pediatrician or ER:

  • if your baby’s cry becomes shrill or harsher than usual, or lasts for a longer interval than usual
  • if your baby’s poop or pee habits change dramatically or are accompanied by blood
  • if the crying always comes at feeding time and includes writhing, arching, twisting
  • if your baby’s soft spot is bulging
  • colicif your baby becomes listless or lethargic
  • if your baby’s cry is more of a weak moan
  • if crying is accompanied by a fever or temperature drop
  • if baby is vomiting repeatedly and/or with blood
  • if your intuition says it’s time for outside support, something’s just not right

And if none of this works? My favorite mantra during the crying weeks was, “I love my baby, and he is perfect for me.” Corny? Maybe. Obvious? Generally. But it helped. Blessings to all the mamas and papas out there who are in the midst of weathering the storm.


1 ^ Pelle SF, et al. Lactobacillus reuteri (American Type Culture Collection Strain 55730) versus simethicone in the treatment of infantile colic: A prospective randomized study. Pediatrics 2007:119; e124-30
2 ^ Savino, F., Cordisco, L., Tarasco, V., Palumeri, E., Calabrese, R., Oggero, R., Roos, S. and Matteuzzi, D. (2010) Lactobacillus reuteri DSM 17938 in infantile colic: a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled trial. Pediatrics, 126, e526-33
3 ^ Kukkonen K, et al. Long-Term Safety and Impact on Infection Rates of Postnatal Probiotic and Prebiotic (Synbiotic) Treatment: Randomized, Double-Blind, Placebo-Controlled Trial. Pediatrics 2008;122;8-12
4 Van Sleuwen, B. E., L’Hoir, M. P.; Engelberts, A. C.; Busschers, W. B.; Westers, P.; Blom, M. A. et al. (2006). Comparison of behavior modification with and without swaddling as interventions for excessive crying. In: Journal of Pediatrics, 149 (4), S. 512-517.
5 Long, Tony (2007). Adding swaddling to behaviour modification in infant care did not reduce excessive crying in healthy infants <13 weeks of age at randomisation. Evidence Based Nursing,10, S. 42.

Spotlight on Slippery Elm Bark

Uh-oh. I think that this whole solids thing may have gone awry. Not dreadfully, unrecoverably awry, more like, ‘let’s step back, assess and regroup’ awry. Avocado went well. No problems there. Four days of green slimy fun. Then I introduced mushed banana. I love this one because it’s gentle, easy to prepare (my older son and his friend mashed it themselves, before taking turns feeding baby), and full of potassium. It’s also the food we’d use during my days in Latin America for what my father would politely call, “Montezuma’s Revenge.” In other words, banana is good for stopping up the works. Little one hasn’t pooped in 2 days. He’s not quite ready for cooked prunes and plums… What now?

Enter slippery elm bark powder to the rescue. Slippery elm is an amazing option for baby’s constipation. It’s also amazing for my babysitter’s sore throat, and for my other babysitter’s coughing fit. (For more on our sitters‘ health plights this past week, check my recent blog on natural remedies for seasonal allergies.) WIth a pleasant, sweet, almost maple-y flavor, it’s great as a tea, mixed with fruit juice, or made into the world’s easiest lozenges. It can also be used externally to soothe skin conditions and diaper rash. Anything this multi-purpose in my world (by my unofficial count, I’ve leaned on slippery elm bark powder this week a total of 4 times) deserves a special spotlight…

A Brief Look at the History and Uses of Slippery Elm

Slippery elm bark is a large, deciduous tree that has been used for centuries by Native Americans for everything from skin conditions and gastrointestinal disorders to preventing food spoilage. Certain Native American populations would brew it as a porridge to nourish babies and the elderly during times of famine. slipperyelmtreeToday it is commonly used as a respiratory aid as well for bronchitis, coughs, and sore throat (as we’ve proven lately in our household), along with GI and skin indications.

What Makes Slippery Elm Effective?

The key to the effectiveness of slippery elm may be the mucilaginous nature of the inner bark (this is the part of the bark that is used). The inner bark contains mucilage — a substance that turns gelatinous when mixed with water or other fluid. This mucilage can create a film that soothes and eases discomfort of the respiratory passages and the digestive passages. This makes the powder a favorite of mine for coughs. It also makes the powder effective for discomforts of the digestive tract. Slippery elm bark contains antioxidants and is thought to have anti-inflammatory properties as well. The formal Western research on this is sparse, but shows promise.

Slippery Elm for Gastro-Intestinal Ailments

Because Slippery Elm is a mucilage, it creates a film over the digestive tract that soothes the pains of a vast array of GI diseases, such as ulcerative colitis, irritable bowel syndrome and Crohn’s disease. Scientists believe that mucilages stimulate the stomach’s nerve endings to produce more of its own protective mucus, and reduce excess stomach acid, making it a useful herb to soothe ulcers and prevent excessive acidity in the stomach. Its usefulness for gastrointestinal disorders may also be due to its fibrous nature — slippery elm is high in fiber, and moves through the digestive tract absorbing toxins and fluid as a bulk-forming laxative. Here’s where it comes in especially handy in my world — in addition to having analgesic properties in the face of stomachaches and other digestive concerns, it’s low toxicity makes it an excellent choice for babies’ constipation. Ironically, its tannins also make it useful for diarrhea. Talk about multi-purpose…

An adult dose is generally 2 Tablespoons administered as a tea in 2 cups of water. To use for babies or small children, take 1/2 to 1 tsp of slippery elm and mix it with warm water sweetened with a bit of maple syrup.


Alternatively you can mix the slippery elm with 1/2 cup purified water and 1/2 cup apple or pear juice, and give it to your little one either in a bottle, in a cup as tea, as a porridge, or even in a dropper. Because of it’s mucilagenic character, slippery elm turns into a goopy consistency fairly quickly, so my favorite way to give it is by the spoonful as a porridge. Or administer quickly — too long and my older son thinks it looks too much like mucus to ingest. Mercifully, my baby son doesn’t care. 🙂

Slippery Elm for Skin Conditions

Native Americans would soak the bark of the slippery elm, then let it dry over wounds as a bandage. In more recent years, famed psychic Edgar Cayce suggested the use of slippery elm bark in a recorded reading for treating psoriasis. BarkThis suggestion is currently being studied by clinical researchers at the University of Hawaii, Manoa. Even without more extensive research, however, it has been used a great deal for a variety of skin conditions, as the mucilage reduces irritation and inflammation, forming a jelly-like protective coating. It works on the level of soothing rather than curing or speeding healing.

To use it this way, take slippery elm bark powder in a small bowl or ramekin, and wet with just enough warm water that it becomes paste-like in consistency. Apply the slippery elm paste directly to the wound, or to a piece of clean gauze or cheesecloth, pressed onto the wound gently as a poultice.

Slippery Elm for Respiratory Ailments

And finally, coughs, bronchitis and sore throat pain, beware. Slippery elm soothes and moistens mucus membranes of the nose, throat and lungs, providing relief for a variety of respiratory conditions, including cough and bronchitis symptoms.

slippery-elm-bark-teaFor a pain-relieving sore throat tea for kids, use 2 teaspoons of slippery elm bark powder in 1 cup of water — steep for 3-5 minutes, then cool to a palatable temperature for your child (test on the inside of your wrist first). Sweeten with honey to taste if your child is over 15 months of age (otherwise maple syrup is a safe bet…) For adults, use 1 tablespoon in 1 cup of water. Drink throughout day or as symptoms persist.

For an easy children’s cough solution, I’ve long leaned on a wonderful recipe from Aviva Jill Romm’s book, “Naturally Healthy Babies and Children”. Mix 2 tablespoons of slippery elm bark powder with enough maple syrup or honey (in children over 15 months of age) to make a dough-like consistency. Roll into balls, or into a long snake-like piece of dough, then cut into 1/4 inch pieces. Your child can either eat as is, or you can roll the pieces in a dusting of the powder, and cook at 250 degrees until firm, allowing them to harden. Have your child eat or suck on them as often as desired. For children under 15 months old, use maple syrup instead of honey, and offer these only if they’re already accustomed to solid foods. Otherwise, you can offer them a 1/2 teaspoon of slippery elm bark powder mixed in 1 cup of warm water sweetened with maple syrup, or with 1/2 cup warm apple or pear juice, 1/2 cup purified water.

Slippery-Elm-Bark-PowderNow that you’re armed and ready with your arsenal of slippery elm bark powder, and virtually every conceivable (or should I say, reasonable:)) use for it, I hope that this blog ends up being a bit like carrying an umbrella to ensure a day without rain. But if you do encounter the occasional cough, sore throat, skin condition, constipation, stomachache in your household, consider it one-stop shopping. Slippery elm. You’re all set.


Heard more now on slippery elm now than you ever knew or cared to know about it? If not, check out these great references for more information:

Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center — for a comprehensive examination of the properties of slippery elm, and the scientific research available ( — a clear, well-researched synopsis of the benefits of slippery elm (…)
-> Get Slippery Elm Bark Capsules on Amazon
“Naturally Healthy Babies and Children: A Commonsense Guide to Herbal Remedies, Nutrition, and Health”; Aviva Jill Romm, et al.; 2003