Another day, another NHS scandal. Elizabeth Heathcote meets the parents who have turned their backs on conventional medicine

The findings of the inquiry into the infant deaths at Bristol Royal Infirmary published earlier this month make disturbing reading for any parent. The report concluded that dozens of children died unnecessarily because of a "club culture" among surgeons at the hospital, and up to a third of those who had open-heart surgery "received less than adequate care".

How would you feel if you were told your child needed heart surgery now? "I'd be very concerned," says Maggie Drennan from Wimborne, Dorset, mother of Rosie, 21, Joe, 19, and Frank, 14. And the first thing she would do? "I would talk to my herbalist and try to find some way to avert the operation."

Bristol is only the latest in a series of scandals and scares to undermine the God-like powers we used to attribute to the NHS and conventional drugs. If you want to create a cocktail of parental anxiety, just take the words "Alder Hey", "nut allergy", "Beverley Allitt" and "immunisation", and stir. The answer, for a growing number, is to move away from conventional medicine altogether.

"Before I had my children I was your average unquestioning person about health care," says Jennifer Jaeger, 38, mother to Isabella, three, and Malachi, four. "Mali's birth changed that. It was an extremely traumatic labour. We were at a state of the art hospital, but still the birth was mismanaged. Mali was distressed, and they responded to that by giving him intravenous antibiotics, despite instructions for no intervention without consent except in an emergency. He didn't need them. That highlighted to me their disrespect."

Her experiences over the next few months alienated her further. She wanted to breastfeed but was pushed towards using formula milk; she came under "constant pressure" from health visitors to immunise her baby and was discouraged from reading around the subject; almost every time she went to see her GP she was dismissed with antibiotics. The last straw came when Mali developed eczema and the doctor prescribed steroid cream. "He was six months old and the idea of putting that pure little body on steroids frightened me," she says. "So I went to a homeopath and she cured it."

Since then, if one of her children is ill, her first port of call will be her homeopath. "Once Mali had a fever. I was due on a homeopathic first-aid course and I rang to say I couldn't come, but the homeopath said 'just bring him'. She treated him and he got better while we were sitting there.

"The thing with children is that you cannot fake it. The baby is completely oblivious to what you give it – it's either going to be better or it's not. And they got better repeatedly when they were small."

Despite unease that increased use of antibiotics and immunisation is contributing to the rise of allergies and autoimmune diseases – the average child will have more than 25 doses of nine different vaccinations by the time he or she enters secondary school – a dominantly alternative approach is still seen as cranky. According to the Institute of Complementary Medicine, around 15 million of us now use alternative therapies, yet John Diamond's impassioned polemic against alternative medicine, Snake Oil and Other Preoccupations, published earlier this month was received with enthusiasm.

Where children are concerned, this preconception is particularly strong, linked in the public imagination with Christian Scientists denying their children life-saving treatments. When the author JD Salinger's daughter Margaret published her account of her childhood last year, the way JD practised his own form of homeopathy and acupuncture on her and her brother, refusing to call out a GP, came high on the list of his abuses.

Clearly there are extremes. Last year an inquest concluded that six-month-old Cameron Ayres, who suffered from a rare but treatable hereditary disease, died because her father, an osteopath, and mother believed so strongly in the "suppressive" dangers of conventional medicine that they refused to take the child to a doctor, despite the pleas of their homeopath.

Both Maggie Drennan and Jennifer Jaeger say they would use conventional medicine for diagnosis, if their children did not respond to alternative treatments or in an emergency, but that is not the case with all parents. Olga Lawrence-Jones, a homeopath practising in south-west London, lost a patient after she suggested that the woman's son should have a chest X-ray. "She was horrified," she says. "She thought I was crossing some terrible divide."

Olga, who uses only homeopathic medicine on her three children, Buster, 11, Charlie, nine and Edward, seven, is supportive of patients who choose an exclusively alternative approach. "I think it's great if someone wants to do that. But I do say to patients don't be too fixed in your ideas. Not everyone has the access to homeopathy that I have."

Homeopathy, a gentle therapy, can be particularly effective for children. In common with most alternative treatments it works on developing the immune system – the principle is of treating like with like by administering minute quantities of substances that produce similar symptoms to those displayed, and that this helps the body to heal itself. "It can be easier to see quick results with children because their immune system is less compromised," explains Lawrence-Jones. "If you have an adult who has had eczema and been using steroid cream for 40 years, their immune system has been so depressed that it can take a long time to do anything for them."

Other alternative treatments, too, are particularly suitable for children. Cranial osteopathy can be effective directly after birth and with very young infants to calm the child and help with sleep, feeding and behavioural problems. Maggie Drennan, who has used alternative treatments for her children all their lives, uses primarily homeopathy, but also, now they are older, many herbal remedies. Her children have also been treated with McTimoney chiropractic, a very gentle form. Karen Sullivan, author of Natural Healthcare for Children (Piatkus, £19.99) also recommends reflexology, flower essence therapy, aromatherapy and herbs.

Yet, of course, you don't have to give up on conventional medicine altogether – many of Olga's patients use the two side by side. "You'll learn to observe and to think," she says. "Instead of reaching for the Calpol you might reach for the homeopathic remedy, belladonna or sulphur, because you know that last time your child had a temperature it worked."