Walk into any grocery or convenience store, and dozens of health and wellness products – from capsules to gummies – promise shoppers a good night’s sleep or a cure for seasonal allergies. And for parents who want the best for their kids, a supplement that claims to fuel growth or boost a child’s immune system can be tempting to throw in the cart.
But do products like melatonin, multivitamins and elderberry syrup live up to the hype? And more importantly, will they actually help your child?
Those are common questions from parents, said Dr. Michelle Linkous, a pediatrician at Novant Health Pediatrics King in King, North Carolina. Above all, she emphasized the importance of educating patients.
“The goal of a pediatrician is to come alongside parents in their journey of parenting – helping them navigate the hard, wonderful gift that parenting is,” Linkous said.
A largely unregulated industry
Since supplements are considered food products, they are minimally regulated by the Food and Drug Administration and can contain contaminants. For this reason, Linkous said it’s always important to consult with a health care professional before taking one.
“Right now, you'll hear about elderberry syrup for everything from helping your baby eat or sleep better to overcoming a cold faster,” Linkous said. “While the science doesn’t back these claims, elderberry syrup likely won’t harm the baby, but I always ask parents, ‘Where did you get it?’ Because if they’re getting it at a roadside stand, there could be a contaminant in it.”
While she informs her patients that studies don’t support the claimed benefits of most of these supplements, Linkous believes her most important role is to educate patients and their parents to ensure there is no harm done.
One example is the use of infant gas drops, marketed as a way to relieve stomach pain from excess gas.
“In studies, these drops help only a small percentage of babies," Linkous said. "Since they are not harmful and may help some, I don’t mind parents trying to see if they help. I always recommend a short trial period and discontinuing medication that's not helpful."
Find a pediatrician in seconds.
Choose a reputable company
Consumers should be mindful of where they buy dietary supplements. Linkous suggests only purchasing from a trusted company with a good reputation. And while there’s a lot to love about the convenience of websites like Amazon or eBay, be leery of purchasing supplements on websites where third-party vendors are the sellers.
“In the past, supplements purchased from Amazon have been found to contain lead or other contaminants. There’s no guarantee the product is what you think it is, but buying from the actual manufacturer is safer,” Linkous said.
As they age, children may also be tempted to purchase supplements online or from a friend, so it’s important to talk openly with them.
“With adolescents, everyone in their gym may be taking a protein supplement, and it’s offered for sale,” Linkous said. “Those haven’t been shown to be incredibly effective, and some of them have been found to contain stimulants.”
Dietary supplements can also interact with some medicines, another reason to consult with a physician before trying something new.
Labels are important (but not always accurate)
Be aware that some dietary supplements may still contain ingredients that are not listed on the label, Linkous said.
Years ago, there was a North Carolina student athlete who was taking a product similar to 5-hour ENERGY. Unbeknownst to the high schooler, the product contained ephedrine, a central nervous system stimulant used to treat breathing problems. This ingredient was not on the label
“That child had a heart issue on the field and didn't survive. Even if you check the label, you may not know what you’re getting,” Linkous said.
Dietary supplements containing ephedrine are illegal in the United States because of its link to many fatal cases like the student athlete.
Linkous said multivitamins aren’t necessary for most healthy children who are growing normally. Even cereal products are fortified with vitamins like iron and vitamin D, so food is considered the best source of nutrients.
“Strangely enough, even kids who eat at McDonald's are probably getting enough protein, vitamin D and calcium. And while we may argue with the nutritional value, most American children who have access to food don’t need to worry about vitamins,” she said.
Dark chocolate and honey
Studies show dark chocolate can be effective in soothing cough. Honey is also effective in warding off coughs, but science doesn’t back the claim that it can help with allergies. And be warned Honey is not recommended for children under age 1.
One thing Linkous does not recommend for children is zinc. While rare, she said zinc can cause insomnia, a permanent loss of smell and even acute kidney failure in some children.
Melatonin for sleep has been researched and shown to be effective. Studies show melatonin is very effective if someone’s circadian rhythm is off, which can be caused by jet lag, or an irregular sleep schedule.
“In children, evidence has shown that there can be some benefit with initiation of sleep. I also have a lot of attention deficit kids who I suggest take melatonin. Sometimes, their thoughts are in hyperactivity mode, so that can help,” Linkous said.
Melatonin should be given 1 to 2 hours before bedtime, she added, saying “I recommend parents do not use more than 1 to 3 mg at a time and limit use if possible.”