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Gentle Warriors

Gentle Warriors

Growing the Dao: Building Health in Early Childhood

To get to the richness of practice
To get to the richness of practice
Just look at the blushing baby.
Such weak bones and tender muscles
And yet, what a firm grasp.
Unaware of sexuality and yet so fully aroused.
Such is his utmost Essence.
Crying all day and yet never getting hoarse.
Such is her utmost Harmony.
— Lao Zi 55.

The Digestive System Rules

For infants and young children, the digestive system rules, and good food is essential to healthy growth. According to Chinese tradition, the Middle Burner governs the activities of the Stomach and Spleen, dominating physiological and psychological processes during infancy and early childhood.1 Relative to their size, children consume large quantities of food and fluids in order to generate an abundance of Nutritive (Ying) and Defensive (Wei) Qi and Blood (Xue). They also eliminate substantial waste. Children are active metabolically, yet limited by their immature respiratory, digestive, nervous and immune systems. Infants and young children are at the height of their adaptive capacities, yet they are vulnerable because the Middle Burner is challenged by the need to keep up with rapid growth.

Because of their voracious appetites and easily overburdened eliminative functions, children can develop accumulations of food, fluids and Qi, which in turn may evolve into patterns of Qi Stasis, Food Stagnation, Dampness, Phlegm, Damp Heat, Heat and Internal Wind. Common manifestations of this disequilibrium of Qi might include occasional upsets in the stomach, occasional surplus mucus in the nose, ears, throat and sinuses, occasional irregular bowels, occasional sleep disturbances, restlessness or irritability.

Vulnerable and responsive to fluctuating internal and external influences, children can have dramatic responses. So it is important to pay attention to the timing and dosage of immunizations, antibiotics, decongestants and antihistamines as well as to their exposure to new foods and environments. Some common circumstances that put children at risk for imbalances include absent or early termination of breast-feeding and the abrupt introduction of cow’s milk, soy-based infant formula or solid foods before the child can adequately digest them. Even a breast-fed infant can react adversely to foods in the mother’s diet that pass into her milk. Food intolerance can disrupt the fragile ecology of the gut, as can antibiotics or immunizations, spawning tribulations of different sorts. Following are a few simple and supportive measures that can be employed to help prevent physical vulnerabilities and developmental problems from occurring:

1. Ideally, babies should breastfeed. The combination of friendly bacteria in the intestines with the antibodies present in breast milk builds resistance until the child’s own immune system becomes fully competent. Do not hurry to substitute cow, goat, sheep or soy for breast milk, as these can induce allergic reactions and immunological changes in the small and large intestine, and have profound nutritional consequences unless supplemented with other foods. Experiment with naturally fermented products such as yogurt, but be alert to any signs of intolerance such as mucus congestion, skin irritation, indigestion, diarrhea, irritability or sleep disturbance. Contrary to conventional wisdom, it is not essential for children to continue drinking milk after the cessation of breastfeeding in order to maintain adequate calcium levels for proper growth. Sufficient calcium is available in other foods, including leafy green vegetables such as kale and collard greens, sprouted barley and quinoa, black and pinto beans, almonds and hazelnuts, sunflower and sesame seeds, sardines or other small fish in which the bones can be consumed with the meat.2 Also, soup cooked with marrow bones and a little vinegar is an excellent source of calcium, phosphorous and essential amino acids.

2. Adherence to a rigid feeding schedule can be problematic, as can overfeeding. Introduce new foods slowly, one at a time, when the child’s appetite indicates a need and taste for them. One indicator of the right moment may be the emergence of the two upper and lower teeth. Emphasize simple, easy to digest, non-allergenic foods: soupy porridge made from non-glutinous white rice, cooked and pureed carrots, yams, spinach, apples, pears or bananas; diluted, unsweetened fruit juices; vegetable or meat broth. Finally, it is good to avoid the early or excessive feeding of sugar, honey, fruit juice, grains, starchy foods (bread, crackers, pasta), raw fruits and vegetables.

3. Avoid giving infants or toddlers iced or refrigerated liquids or foods - the cold causes Stomach Qi to stagnate, inhibiting the capacity to digest, assimilate and eliminate. Liquids and soft cooked foods served warm or at room temperature are the most desirable and beneficial, especially when children are sick.

4. Since it is better for children to develop senses of taste and smell at their own pace, avoid adding flavorings or condiments to food, including salt, soy sauce, pepper, garlic, ginger, sugar, oil or vinegar unless it is for specific reasons.

5. Chinese traditional thinking warns against overly enthusiastic or frenetic activities that cause excessive physical, mental and emotional stimulation. Over-excitement of the mind and senses can agitate infants and toddlers, creating a dissonance between psyche and soma (Shen-Jing). Resist exposing young children to prolonged or over-excited conversation, intense visual and auditory experiences like television, movies, loud music, fireworks and other events that may be too intellectually demanding or overwhelming to their sensitive nervous systems. This is particularly true for eating while watching television, which has been linked to long-term obesity and Attention Deficit Disorder.SUP>3, 4, 5 For proper restorative sleep, conditions that are not too noisy, bright, hot, cold or too isolated are optimal.

6. Immunizations for some infants and toddlers can be challenging. To optimize conditions for immunizations, it is best to avoid the administration of multiple vaccinations simultaneously at one visit. Just as it is rare that one be exposed to multiple diseases simultaneously, receiving multiple immunizations puts an undue burden on an already delicately balanced organism. It is also important to postpone immunizations with a live vaccine (such as measles, mumps, rubella or chicken pox) for one month following an acute febrile illness such as a cold, flu or gastroenteritis, in order to give the immune system time to recover.

7. Since antibiotics and immunizations can have a powerful impact on the immature intestinal tract and easily upset the child’s immunological equilibrium, digestive capacity, cognitive competence and mental tranquility, supplement these treatments with ample doses of beneficial intestinal bacteria (bifidus, sporogenes and saccharomyces in the case of yeast overgrowth) and warm fluids. In the case of immunizations, acupuncture and herbal formulas such as Grow and Thrive and Windbreaker can offer overall support prior to and following vaccinations. Some children with weak digestion, poor appetite and slow growth can also benefit from digestive enzymes (vegetable or animal source) that include protease (for proteins), amylase (for starches), lipase (for fats), and lactase (for the milk sugar lactose).

1. The functions of the Upper Burner (Lung: respiratory system; and Heart: cortical functions of the central nervous system) and the Lower Burner (Liver: sensory, motor, nervous system; and Kidney: reproductive, developmental, urogenital system) are active, but not as robust as that of the Middle Burner (Spleen: digestive system).
2. Pitchford, Paul, "Healing With Whole Foods", North Atlantic Books, Berkeley, CA, 1993, pp. 177-187.
3. Crespo, Carlos, Dr.P.H., et al., "Television Watching, Energy Intake, and Obesity in US Children," Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine, March 2001, Vol. 155, No. 3, pp. 360-365.
4. "Polluting their minds", Mental Health Today, June 22-5, 2005.
5. Obesity and ADHD may represent different manifestations of a common environmental over-sampling syndrome: a model for revealing mechanistic overlap among cognitive, metabolic, and inflammatory disorders. Med Hypotheses, May 16, 2005 .

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