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Complementary therapy for kids

8-minute read

Key facts

  • Complementary therapies may be used alongside conventional medical treatment that is recommended by your doctor.
  • Alternative therapies are used instead of conventional medical treatments.
  • Some parents use complementary therapies for their children to help manage pain, anxiety, side effects from treatments, prevent illness or alongside palliative care.
  • Some complementary therapy practitioners are registered through AHPRA and are required to meet national standards of care.
  • Talk to your child's doctor about complementary therapies to make sure they are safe and beneficial for them.

What are complementary therapies?

Complementary therapies are used alongside conventional medicine your doctor may recommend. These therapies might not be part of the usual care a medical doctor would prescribe. They may include:

Research supports the use of some complementary therapies to help relieve certain symptoms. Some therapies have not been proven to be safe or effective. Your child's doctor is the best person to advise you on which complementary therapies are most safe and effective.

Integrative medicine is the combination of conventional medicine with evidence-based complementary therapies.

Alternative therapies are used instead of conventional medicine and many have not been proven to be effective. Complementary therapy is not the same as alternative therapy. If alternative therapies replace or delay necessary medical treatments, your child's health may suffer. Always check with your child's doctor before starting an alternative therapy.

Why do parents seek complementary therapies?

Parents or caregivers may consider complementary therapies for their child for many reasons. These include:

  • to prevent illness
  • to improve symptoms and reduce pain
  • to reduce side effects from medical treatments
  • to provide comfort and wellbeing during palliative care

Safety and regulation

The Australian Government manages the supply of complementary medicines through the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) and its Complementary Medicines Branch. This includes medicine products that contain:

The Australian Register of Therapeutic Goods (ARTG) is a public database of therapeutic goods allowed for sale in Australia.

The Australian Health Practitioner Regular Agency (AHPRA) is responsible for the registration and licensing of health professionals. This includes some complementary therapy practitioners including:

To be registered with AHPRA, practitioners must meet certain care and quality standards. Many types of complementary therapy practitioners are not listed with AHPRA.

Be cautious of complementary and alternative medicines sold on the internet. These products may be out-of-date, poor quality, fake or dangerous. If you buy from overseas, there is no protection under Australian law.

It is vital that you completely understand the conventional medical treatment recommended for your child before you consider other treatments. If you aren't sure why your child's doctor has recommended a particular treatment, or are worried about side effects or risks, ask them to explain.

If you are interested in adding complementary therapy into your child's treatment plan, it's a good idea to speak to your child's doctor. Ask them about the potential risks and benefits of the treatment for your child's overall health and wellbeing.

Your child's doctor can also advise about any concerns with combining a particular complementary therapy with conventional medical treatments. For example, some herbal medicines and chemotherapy can interact. It's important that the doctor knows if your child is already using complementary therapies, or if you are planning to start them.

Be especially wary of therapies and practitioners that advise to stop other treatments or claim they are the only ones that will work. Ask your child's doctor or nurse for recommendations of complementary health practitioners.

What questions should I ask complementary health practitioners?

When looking for complementary health practitioners for your child, you should ask them the following questions:

  • What are your qualifications? How long have you been practising?
  • How does this treatment work? Is there evidence this treatment is effective?
  • How can this treatment help my child?
  • What risks or side effects are involved? Is there evidence it is safe for children?
  • How long should this treatment be used for? How will we know if it's working?
  • What are the costs of the treatment? Can I claim the cost on Medicare or from my private health insurance?

ASK YOUR DOCTOR — Preparing for an appointment? Use the Question Builder for general tips on what to ask your GP or specialist.

What are types of complementary therapies?

There are many types of complementary therapies, including:

Acupuncture

  • Acupuncture involves placing fine sterile needles into certain areas of the body to 'improve energy flow'.
  • There is evidence it can be effective in some conditions such as:
  • Acupuncture is considered safe for children when performed by a trained acupuncturist.

Chiropractic therapy

  • Chiropractors usually treat musculoskeletal conditions.
  • Chiropractic treatments can be risky, especially in young children, or in babies with colic, where treatment is controversial.
  • There is no current clinical guideline or peer-reviewed publication to guide chiropractors in the care of infants and young children (particularly in the use of spinal manipulation).
  • The Chiropractic Board of Australia advises against using spinal manipulation to treat children under 2 years, until there is a proper review of the evidence regarding safety and effectiveness.

Herbs

  • Many complementary medicine practitioners use herbs. Some herbs help, whilst others may interact with other medicines or even be harmful.
  • It is always important to tell your doctor what you plan to give your child. 'Natural' doesn't always mean safe.

Massage therapy

  • There are some proven benefits to massage therapy. Here are some examples:
  • Massage therapy promotes weight gain, growth, development and a shorter hospital stay in neonatal intensive care units (NICUs).
  • Massage has a positive impact on bilirubin levels, colic and pain in hospitalised children.
  • Massage also shows a positive effect on Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and depression.

Naturopathy

Naturopathy is based on the belief of nature's healing power. There is little evidence to support the use of naturopathy in children.

Art therapy and music therapy

These therapies are 'mind-body techniques'. This means that they are based on the belief that what we think or feel can affect our physical health.

Music therapy can help:

  • babies and children cope if they are scared or worried when in hospital
  • parents feel more connected to their child
  • children relax, sleep better and reduce pain and anxiety
  • boost physical rehabilitation and development
  • improve quality of life

Art therapy:

  • supports emotional wellbeing and mental health by letting people express emotions and understand themselves better
  • provides an opportunity to recognise and express fears, trauma and learn about yourself
  • reduces fatigue

Some complementary therapies are no longer claimable on private health. This means you would have to pay the full fee for these treatments. These treatments include:

  • Alexander technique, Feldenkrais, kinesiology
  • aromatherapy
  • Bowen therapy, reflexology, shiatsu
  • Buteyko
  • western herbalism, homeopathy, naturopathy
  • iridology
  • Pilates, Tai Chi, yoga

Resources and support

Speak to a maternal child health nurse

Call Pregnancy, Birth and Baby to speak to a maternal child health nurse on 1800 882 436 or video call. Available 7am to midnight (AET), 7 days a week.

Learn more here about the development and quality assurance of healthdirect content.

Last reviewed: November 2023


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