Among the rites of passage parents go through, nights up soothing a child with infant colic, constipation or tummy aches is, unfortunately, par for the course. All are common symptoms of indigestion, something children are particularly prone to.
Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) practitioners believe that the spleen plays an important part in the digestion of food. “The spleen transforms the nutritive essence from food and liquids in the stomach into ‘qi’ (vital energy), blood and bodily fluids,” Eu Yan Sang TCM physician Neo Min Jun explains. Blood and ‘qi’ are the most important substances for maintaining life, so good digestion, especially in children, is vital to maintaining good health, she says.
However, the spleen is one of three organ systems – the other two being the kidneys and the lungs – that takes time to mature. It reaches maturity by the time a child reaches his or her sixth birthday, so paediatric problems related to the spleen are generally self-limiting. But until then, young children are vulnerable to illnesses and symptoms linked to it, including indigestion.
When digestive ‘qi’ is blocked – due to a relatively weaker digestion system, or factors like poor diet, overeating, or eating too quickly – undigested food is trapped in the intestine. Heat and toxins accumulate, resulting in food stagnation and symptoms that can include bloating, hiccups, abdominal pain, poor appetite, bad breath and pungent wind, among others. A child suffering from indigestion will often cry, refuse to eat, and wake up several times at night to the distress of his frazzled – and exhausted – parents.
Treatment, in the first instance, is inducing a bowel movement to push any stagnant food down and out of the digestive tract. Once that is done, the digestive system is nourished to encourage it to work optimally.
Herbs that are used to relief symptoms include high-fibre barley malt (麦芽)1, hawthorn (山楂)2, radish seed (莱菔子)3, and dried chayote (佛手瓜). Together, these relieve food stagnation and promote digestion.
Once the child is comfortable, a TCM physician is likely to prescribe herbs that nourish the spleen and stomach, Ms Neo says. These include poria (茯苓), atractylodes (白术), astragalus (黄芪), and Chinese yam (淮山).
Paediatric tui na – where a trained practitioner massages specific pressure points on the child’s body – is another often prescribed treatment. Rubbing the area around the child’s belly button clockwise with four fingers or the palm helps promote proper digestion and elimination4.
Good dietary habits
Besides traditional TCM treatments, physicians will also advise parents on diet and lifestyle changes that can help prevent indigestion, and keep the child’s digestive system functioning healthily.
Feeding or having a child eat on a regular schedule, and giving him smaller quantities of food at a time can significantly decrease colic and excess wind. Limiting sweets and dairy products, which can interfere with the optimal functioning of the spleen, are also important to maintaining a child's health, says Ms Neo.
She also recommends that a little salt be included in a child’s diet. TCM practitioners believe that this can help clear internal body heat and toxins by facilitating bowel movements, which physically push stagnant food out of the body.
TCM also recommends that children “eat healthy, whole foods, chew their food well and have regular meals,” says Ms Neo.
1 Barley Malt (Mai Ya). (2017). Retrieved from Chinese Herbs Healing Website: http://www.chineseherbshealing.com/barley-malt/
2 Hawthorn Berry (Shan Zha). (2017). Retrieved from Chinese Herbs Healing Website: http://www.chineseherbshealing.com/hawthorn-berry/
3 Radish Seeds (Lai Fu Zi). (2017). Retrieved from Chinese Herbs Healing: http://www.chineseherbshealing.com/radish-seeds/
4 Green, R. (2013, January 29). Pediatric Tuina Massage for Constipation. Retrieved from Robin Ray Green Website: http://www.robinraygreen.com/pediatric-tuina-massage-for-constipation/