If you have kids, you've probably suffered through at least a couple (if not many) rounds of tears and sleepless nights because of ear infections. An estimated 10 million children in the United States come down with ear infections every year, so they must be an unavoidable part of growing up — right? “Not necessarily,” says Bernie Noe, ND, a naturopathic physician in Montpelier, Vermont, who specializes in chronic disease. “The occasional ear infection is sometimes inevitable. What's not inevitable are recurring ear infections — three, four, five times a year — that end in surgery. Those are preventable.” Try these drug-free tricks to keep your kids' ears healthy.

Try xylitol, a natural sugar that has been proven to inhibit bacteria growth and ear infections. In a 2000 study published in Vaccine, a dose of 8.4-10 grams per day, given in five divided doses, reduced the risk of acute ear infection by up to 40 percent. Xylitol is available at most natural products stores in the form of gum, syrup, or powder. Also try increasing your child's consumption of plums, strawberries, and raspberries, which are natural sources of xylitol as well as antioxidants and other immune-boosting nutrients, such as vitamin C.

Antibiotics: Use or avoid?

Were you given antibiotics for ear infections as a kid? Turns out they may not have been as effective as your doctor thought. New guidelines issued by the American Academy of Family Physicians and the American Academy of Pediatrics encourage doctors not to prescribe antibiotics for routine ear infections. “Doctors and researchers now think that the misuse of antibiotics increases colonization and susceptibility to repeated attacks of bacterial illnesses,” says Joel Fuhrman, MD, family physician and author of Disease-Proof Your Child (St. Martin's Griffin, 2005). What's more, because most early ear infections are viral, antibiotics won't work in the first place. Most doctors now reserve antibiotic use for kids who aren't improving on their own in two or three days.

Go for garlic. You may have heard of using garlic oil topically to treat ear infections, but ingesting this pungent bulb can also help prevent them. “Because it's antibacterial and antiviral, garlic can help nip infections in the bud,” says Roy Steinbock, MD, founder of Mindful Pediatrics in Boulder, Colorado. If your child does develop an ear infection, Steinbock recommends using the topical garlic drops available at natural products stores, which studies have shown are as effective at alleviating ear pain as anesthetic eardrops.

Not milk. Sure milk and other dairy products are great for building bones, but they're also prime suspects for kids with recurring infections, as are other common food allergens — wheat, soy, eggs, nuts, and corn. In fact, “most kids with ear infections have underlying food sensitivities,” says Noe. “If you can identify the culprits and stop eating them, ear infections usually go away.” Because blood and skin tests only pinpoint true allergies — not food sensitivities — your best bet is an elimination diet, says Noe. Remove dairy and other common food allergens for two weeks, then add them back one at a time, at least 24 to 48 hours apart, and see if symptoms return.

Get good bugs. Studies show that probiotics — beneficial bacteria — prevent recurring ear infections (see our feature story "Get Cultured"). Give your child a probiotic supplement containing a variety of Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium strains; start with 1 billion colony-forming units (CFU) per day.