A Holistic Approach to Child Health Care

The health of your child comes down to a million little moments. (Fruit for lunch? A long nap? Stress over a math test?) A holistic approach considers them all.

Photo by Gemma Correll

Sometimes a kid’s health comes down to a simple formula: Fever? Pass the ibuprofen. But when matters are more complicated—for instance, when there’s a chronic condition, like asthma, or a stress-related ailment, like migraines—popping a pill may not be enough. According to the holistic approach to pediatrics, the best way to get a kid healthy, and keep him that way, is to consider every aspect of his lifestyle—his diet, his environment, his way of handling stress. Jack Maypole, the director of pediatrics at the South End Community Health Center, in Boston, and an assistant professor at the Boston University School of Medicine, is one of a growing number of doctors who are integrating holistic methods into their mainstream practices. Real Simple asked him to explain the “whole kid” philosophy and describe how it can complement traditional medical care—without replacing it.

How is a holistic approach different from the usual trip to the doctor’s office?

It’s not just about medicating symptoms, which is what medical schools have traditionally taught doctors to do. We’ve come to think of illness as a catalog of problems to be solved. This can be cool and makes for great TV—shout-out to Dr. House here. But we tend not to think enough about wellness. In many cases, you have to take a 360-degree look at a patient to get to the root cause of an issue. That’s what a holistic approach really is—it’s not necessarily whale songs and scented candles. (Not that there’s anything wrong with whale songs and scented candles.)

What is an example of holistic medicine at work?

Consider one of my patients, Rolland (this name has been changed to protect the patient’s privacy)—he’s 12. He had been having severe asthma attacks and was taking more and more medication, but he was still wheezing all the time. He was also gaining weight. So I asked him and his mom some questions to get the bigger picture. Rolland said his wheezing was worse at home, and as it turned out, his house had some mold issues. He had been inside a lot because his mom was understandably concerned that running around outside would make his wheezing worse. He got bored and anxious, so he ate more. Weight gain makes it harder to treat asthma. Vicious-circle city! We all agreed it was time for a shift. His family addressed the mold issues. His mom, quietly and heroically, began transforming her grocery-shopping habits—no more junk food. Rolland started a martial-arts class, which helped him head off the anxiety that had once made him wheeze. One change built upon another. Now Rolland is at a healthier weight, he’s at the park again playing hoops, and we’ve been able to reduce some of his medications.