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Part of the daily infant care in some countries, rubbing sweet flag paste on your baby's body and placing it on their tongue may seem like a wonderful, natural, way to help your baby stay healthy. Is it really, or could Acorus calamus be dangerous?

New parenthood can be as scary as it is hope-filled and exciting. In our quest to find the very best way to help our babies grow as healthily as possible, we modern parents often turn to two things — natural medicine, and the internet. If you're a Google-happy mother or father, it may only be a matter of time before you come across a plant called sweet flag, Acorus calamus, bach, or Vacha, among other things, that's said to do a lot of great things. It sounds tempting at first sight, but sweet flag deserves further inspection. 

Sweet Flag For Babies: The Claims

Widespread in all of India's traditional medicine disciplines — as well as in many other counties, from ancient Rome to modern-day Italy and Bulgaria — Acorus calamus has been used for thousands of years [1]. The many uses of Acorus calamus (sweet flag) include pain relief, anti-inflammatory action, appetite stimulation, and promotion of cognitive function. 

And when it comes to infants? Well, the internet features many people from traditions in which sweet flag is used who describe it as a miracle herb for babies. 

"In Tamil it’s called Vasambu or 'Pillai valarpan' which means you can grow your baby with this herb," says one blogger, who adds that her aunt used to "force" her to use sweet flag on her child. Acorus calamus' many reported benefits for your baby include:

  • Colic treatment and prevention
  • Treatment of vomiting
  • A natural bug repellant
  • "Building the child's intellect"
  • Aiding digestion

Some families use sweet flag when their child is struggling with an ailment the plant is reported to help with, while its use is simply part of the daily routine for others.

Though sweet flag's rhizome extract and essential oil are available over the counter in Ayurvedic shops in many countries, Indian families who use it describe a process in which they burn the rootstock and mix it into a paste with water themselves. The paste is then applied to the baby's forehead and cheeks, and sometimes to the soles of their feet and to their belly buttons. A small amount is also commonly placed on the baby's tongue in order to benefit the digestive system. Finally, the rootstock is tied around the baby's wrist, so that the baby can smell it any time they bring their hands up to their mouths. 

Dream vs Reality: Is Sweet Flag Safe For Babies?

As a health website, we're not here to poo on your cultural traditions — and if you are part of a culture in which sweet flag is a commonly accepted part of routine infant care, we aren't really talking to you. If you're from a tradition where Acorus calamus isn't used but you read about it on the internet and now think it may be an all-round miracle cure, however, we are indeed talking to you.

Rather than simply accepting claims that Acorus calamus is a wonderful nursemaid and friend to your child's overall development, we'd urge you to consider the possible risks of adopting the practice of placing the plant on and in your baby's body. 

Why?

Well, start by considering that Acorus calamus has outright been banned in the United States of America [2] because the same active component that gives sweet flag its indeed scientifically proven medicinal benefits — something called beta-asarone — is also carcinogenic [3]. Oh, did we mention that sweet flag is hallucinogenic, to boot? [4] Given the claim that sweet flag might be given to babies who are vomiting, I'll also add that Acorus calamus has actually been found to have the ability to induce violent vomiting, rather than curing it. [5]

The European Medicines Agency came to a less condemning conclusion, deciding that the concentration of beta-asarone in medicinal products should be kept to a minimum, and adding that a dosage of "about 2 µg/kg bw/day could be accepted temporarily until a full benefit/risk assessment has been carried out" [6]. 

Neither the FDA nor the European Medicines Agency are talking about banning or limiting the use of sweet flag just in infants, I might add — everything they have to say about beta-asarone applies across the board, to everyone. As parents, we want to keep our babies as safe as possible. As a society, I think we generally accept that any products meant for babies deserve even closer scrutiny than anything we use ourselves. 

Acorus calamus doesn't live up to that scrutiny, at least not currently. We would, therefore, advise any naturally-minded, cross-cultural, parent who is considering adopting the tradition of using sweet flag daily to, well, not do that. Sweet flag may be more trouble than it's worth, and it is a risk you do not need to take.