Are pearl powder, ginseng and bird's nest safe for your baby?
When I was younger I remember my mum holding a small white vial and feeding some of its contents to my baby brother who had a fever. Curious to know what it was, I asked my mum. And she told me that the tiny bottle held crushed pearl powder for baby to eat. As I grew older, I learned that pearl powder not only helped with fevers, it had many other uses as well, such as beautifying the skin and cooling the body down.
Just like any typical Chinese family, we grew up following traditions passed down from generations before us. We rarely asked questions, and when we did ask, the answer was always the same: because it is supposed to be good for you.
But is pearl powder for baby actually safe? What about other traditional remedies like bird’s nest soup or ginseng?
Actually, the answer is NO and here’s why:
Pearl Powder for Baby
You shouldn’t use pearl powder for baby, even though some people believe it can make the skin fairer. This is because pearl powder may contain mercury, which is harmful if ingested.
“It’s a mineral that can be difficult for a baby’s digestive system to absorb,” explains senior physician Zhou Yan from Eu Yan Sang.
According to Zhou Yan, pearl powder for baby should only be used under the advice of a physician. Even then, it is only used in serious cases — for example, when dealing with spasms or very high fevers. She also warns that pearl powder for baby is not safe for those with G6PD deficiency.
What about bird’s nest then? Should parents introduce bird’s nest to babies?
Woven by swiftlets from their saliva, bird’s nest is one of the most popular tonics in Traditional Chinese Medicine.
Known to increase immunity and to maintain overall health, bird’s nest is actually an allergenic food that can cause symptoms such as vomiting, swelling in the lips or eyes, hives and throat tightness, difficulty in breathing or even fainting.
Bird’s nest allergies were once the most common cause of food-induced anaphylaxis in Singaporean children in the 1980s and 1990s, said Dr Elizabeth Tham, an associate consultant at the division of paediatric allergy, immunology and rheumatology at the National University Hospital.
Although this is no longer the case now, cases of people with bird’s nest allergy are still seen by doctors regularly. Suffice it to say, it would be wise to avoid giving bird’s nest to babies.
If you must (or when mother-in-law insists), you can introduce a small amount of this Chinese delicacy after your children turn one, says Charlotte Lin, a dietician at National University Hospital. The problem with allergies is that we never truly know the severity of it until it happens. So start slow and watch out for symptoms of allergies.
Despite being great for treating kids with flu and cold symptoms, ginseng is not an appropriate herb for children or infants unless prescribed by a licensed herbalist or TCM practitioner. So, I’m sorry for all your hard work, grandma. Your grandchildren will not be enjoying your double boiled ginseng soup.
According to Charlotte, panax ginseng is unsafe for kids and can cause infant death as a result of intoxication. There is also the question of the right dose. Taking ginseng incorrectly or excessively is a very real possibility.
Zhou Yan explains that long-term consumption is not recommended. Some physicians may advise against eating particular types of ginseng when the baby suffers from qi deficiency.
You Should Always Clear Herbal Remedies with a Doctor
Do note that most eastern and traditional medicines have not been thoroughly tested. Only a few studies have been conducted on the safety of herbal remedies. Hence we don’t know for certain whether or not they are safe for babies and children. This is why most doctors would advise against using them or any other unnecessary medication.
There’s always the common misconception that “natural” means “safe” but please remember that this is not always the case. Always proceed with caution, and when in doubt always check with your doctor before introducing bird’s nest, ginseng, pearl powder and other traditional food and remedies for baby.