When Is It OK To Give Your Infant Tylenol?

Towards the end of February, when it feels as though there are no other seasons but winter, an odd never ending cold arrives in most family households. A few weeks back, my daughter experienced it as sniffles, her father was totally stuffed up, her close friend had a cough that sounded like a painful bark, and my throat was raw. We all got better. But as I type, it's back. My daughter's nose is red and raw from constantly running, her father wakes up glued to the pillow, her friend cancels playdate after playdate, and my ears are so painful I had a dream about my friend's husband, a doctor, making a Sunday house call to our apartment. We're miserable and praying for spring.

In times like these, it's hard to lay off the pain meds, even for an organic mom. Tylenol and its compatriots take the edge off the awful discomfort, make it possible to fall asleep, or go back to sleep in the middle of the night, reduce aches and low-grade fevers, and offer general ease. But I don't dose ever without weighing the pros and the cons.

Somewhere in the haze of these sick weeks, I got the following email:

I'm wondering if you have any advice about pain medications for infants. I've been avoiding Tylenol and drugstore brands because besides acetaminophen they contain parabens and/or high fructose corn syrup and/or food colorings. I am a new mom and I'm wondering how often infants really need pain meds or fever reducers and if there are brands out there without the unpleasant additives.

Thank you and keep up the good work!

bottle of pillsAmy, your timing is impeccable. Though I personally just swallowed some extra-strength to get through the day, I didn't ever take any when I was pregnant, nor during the years I was breastfeeding. I was very dogmatic about avoiding it for my infant daughter, but have gotten less so as she grows older.

I'm sure you were sent home from your hospital or birthing center with the information on what to do with a baby with a very high fever: seek medical attention ASAP. Familiarize yourself with what level of fever is ok for your child and at what age, and go from there. With older infants, babies, and kids I like to follow Dr. Sears' advice: "Treat your child, not the fever." More on that in a minute.

My reasons for trying not to give acetaminophen to babies are just what you stated - they all contain ingredients I avoid in my food and my cosmetics, things I don't think kids should be swallowing. Even the dye-free versions contain butylparaben, carboxymethylcellulose sodium, cellulose, citric acid, flavors, glycerin, propylene glycol, propylparaben, purified water, sorbitol, sucralose, sucrose, xanthan gum. Insane. There are some liver concerns with acetaminophen as well.

There's a school of thought that says dosing fevers isn't necessary as fevers are natural and just your body working. Also from Dr. Sears:

"Many parents have a misconception that fevers are a bad thing and a sign that there is some serious underlying illness. This simply is not true. Fever is a normal and healthy response of the body to an illness. The body's immune system releases chemicals that raise the body temperature. This is part of the normal infection-fighting process."
I was very moved by this description when I was pregnant, and think it holds truth for many of the natural trials kids go through. Regular bodily functions don't require medicine across the board.

Still, I whipped out the Tylenol when my daughter was in teething agony. I had to give her something and none of the natural remedies I was trying -- from gnawing on frozen celery to homeopathic teething tablets -- was helping her out at all. Here's where treating your own child comes in -- I think a lot depends on the kid and what they react to. I have seen some friends' children find relief from the very same teething tablets, and others who didn't seem bothered by teething at all. But helping my child out of such obvious pain, and therefore enabling her to nurse and sleep, seemed very worth it. It would have felt cruel not to give it to her. And I felt ok knowing I have so minimized her exposure to things like dyes, parabens, and sucrose in every other area of her life. The times we gave it to her when she truly needed it, she crashed and fell asleep almost immediately after. Kind of creepy how well it works. But also unfathomably excellent at 3 a.m. after an un-soothable hour of crying.

This is a roundabout answer to your question. To be more direct: it depends on your child, but in my experience, infants "need" Tylenol very infrequently. I haven't found a child's liquid pain reliever/fever reducer that didn't contain a whole host of ingredients I would prefer to avoid. Someone should make one, surely there is a market. If there's an ailment, I first suggest trying natural remedies, home remedies, or even homeopathic remedies (if you know and understand what they are, and are being advised by a trustworthy person). Talk to your pediatrician about what alternative remedies might be available. Nothing works better than honey to soothe a cough, for example, but it can't be given to children under 1. With homeopathy, there are no blanket cures like Tylenol. You don't use the same remedy for all ailments, so I can't list just one suggestion here. If and when these don't work, I do go to Tylenol or Motrin. Whatever you choose to give your baby, pay very careful attention to dosage guidelines and follow them.

We held off giving Tylenol as much as possible when our daughter was very young, because when they're tiny, pound for pound they take in more of the bad stuff than bigger kids do. After teething, we went through a phase where she asked for Tylenol when she couldn't sleep even though she clearly wasn't in pain. Our saying no would frustrate her horribly. So we mixed organic molasses with water and made placebo "Tylenol" we administered with a dropper. We have used this concoction when it's clear that it's a psychological need, not a physical one. It really worked only briefly, but got her away from asking for it.

For further interesting discussions on why/when/if to give Tylenol to infants and babies, check out the parenting forums at Mothering Magazine's website. And don't forget to do everything you can to make sure your child is healthy - including washing hands often with regular old soap and water -- and therefore less likely to need medicine.
posted by Alexandra

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* The Dirty Dozen: 12 Toxic Foods to Eat Organic
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* DIY Organic Baby Food
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