A look at some common myths about babies and children.
by Craig Good
May 19, 2015
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If you're ever stranded on a desert island, just get pregnant: You'll immediately be surrounded by people giving you unsolicited advice. Becoming a parent is a stressful, life-changing event, and it's all too easy to get swept up by all sorts of well-meaning advice that may or may not have a solid scientific basis. Worse, some new parents are shamed into thinking they're doing it wrong by people with a misinformed agenda. Let's look at a few of the most prevalent myths and see which are myth, true, or somewhere in between.
Infant car seats should be rear-facing. — TRUE
Infant car seats not only need to be installed facing the rear, but properly, in the back seat of the car, away from the airbag. Some estimates are that as many as 4 out of 5 seats are improperly installed. Fortunately there are helpful videos online, and Americans can find nearby, free inspection stations via an NHTSA website
Breast milk is better than formula. — MIXED
Nutritionally it can't be beat. But this is perhaps the biggest single source of "mommy guilt." If you can breastfeed, you save money and your child gets the ideal food. If you can't, baby formula is a perfectly good nutritional choice.
Use breast milk to treat ear infections. — MYTH
Breast milk is great for your baby, but only if swallowed. It does have some antibodies in it. But it also has lots of sugars that bacteria love as much as baby does. It can't reach the area of infection anyway, so all it's likely to do is cause yet another infection.
Cloth diapers are better than disposables. — MIXED
It's all about trade-offs. Beware of anybody telling you that one is clearly better than the other. Cloth diapers are cheaper, but only if you do all your own laundry. They're not as absorbent, meaning more changes during the day. But that can mean less diaper rash. Disposables win on absorbency and convenience, especially for travel and day care. Environmentally it's a wash. Disposables go to land fill, which isn't as big a deal as some think, and cloth diapers use more water. When the UK Environment Agency looked at the environmental impact of disposable, home laundered, and commercially laundered diapers they found (PDF)
"For the three nappy systems studied, there was no significant difference between any of the environmental impacts — that is, overall no system clearly had a better or worse environmental performance, although the life cycle stages that are the main source for these impacts are different for each system."
Baby Signs, or teaching your baby a simple sign language, will help your child speak sooner. — MYTH
This is not to say it isn't worth doing. It didn't take a study for me to see that my daughter was able to communicate useful things, reaching a peak vocabulary of about 40 signs, before she was verbal. But there's no science showing that it accelerates verbal development or makes your baby smarter. Go ahead and try it. At worst it's fun, at best you'll learn sooner when your baby is full, hungry, or wants to read a book. Just don't get swept up by the hype.
Babies need water when it's hot. — MYTH
While a pediatrician may sometimes recommend an oral rehydration solution, an infant's liquids should come from breast milk or formula. Their kidneys aren't fully functional yet, and don't excrete water. Too much sipping can lead to an electrolyte or sodium imbalance. A little sipping is OK by 6 months, and regularly by 12 months.
A green or yellow runny nose means that your child has a sinus infection and needs antibiotics. — MYTH
Most parents understand the difference between viral and bacterial infections. Only the latter can be treated with antibiotics. But there's a false notion out there that green boogers mean bacteria. Not necessarily. It's not good for the child or our species to overuse antibiotics. Only your pediatrician can run the tests to find out if they're indicated.
Small doses of adult medicines are OK for baby. — MYTH
Medicines that can help adults can damage kids, even in small doses. So-called "children's cold medicines" should be avoided in children under 4 years old. They get all the risks of side effects and none of the benefits. Kids get a lot of colds, and the urge to make them feel better is strong. Rest and hydration are still the best, but be careful about symptom relief. The bottom line is, don't give any medicine to children without the specific advice of a pediatrician.
Fevers are bad for you. — MYTH
Fever by itself isn't harmful or dangerous. It's just the symptom of many childhood diseases. Contact your pediatrician if the fever is above 100.4 °F (38 °C) for infants under 3 months, 101 °F (38.3 °C) between 3 and 6 months, or over 103 °F (39.4 °C) if over 6 months old.
Fevers are good for you. — MYTH
Lowering a fever won't make it take longer for you to recover from an infection. But be very careful. Don't give your child fever medicine if the fever isn't causing discomfort. Your pediatrician can tell you what age-appropriate dose of ibuprofen or acetaminophen can help your child feel better, but it won't make him get better sooner. Be careful not to mix medicines, as some cold remedies contain fever reducers and you don't want to overdose. If you're alternating medications, write down a schedule to keep from making a mistake on dosing.
Teething causes fevers. — MYTH
Research has shown no strong relationship between teething and fevers. Teething also doesn't cause diarrhea, vomiting, or diaper rashes, so don't dismiss any symptoms without checking with your pediatrician.
Showing your baby the right videos can help her learn faster. — MYTH
The American Academy of Pediatrics strongly recommends avoiding video media for children under 2 years of age, and finds that while some kids over 2 may learn a little, overall it's a bad use of time. For children under 5 excessive media use can cut down on useful interaction time with adults. Some studies have linked media use in children 8 to 16 months in age with attention and development deficits, sleep problems, aggressive behaviors, and even obesity. The TV and the iPad make tempting babysitters, but they should wait.
Walkers are a good way to get your baby to walk sooner. — MYTH
Not only do some studies show that they actually slow down your baby's ability to walk, but many show an increased risk of injury. It only takes a moment's inattention for baby to scoot into a piece of furniture or down some stairs.
Crib bumpers protect baby's head. — MYTH
In fact, the AAP recommends removing not just bumpers, but pillows, blankets, and all other loose bedding from the crib to prevent injury and lower the risk of SIDS, or Sudden Infant Death Syndrome.
Don't heat infant formula in a microwave oven. — TRUE
As I explained in my Cooking Myths episode, the danger is from scalding, not because it does any damage to nutrients.
You should boil the water you use to make formula. — MIXED
This used to be recommended, but if you live in a city with sanitized water then using tap water and washing the bottle and nipples with hot soapy water or in the dishwasher is just fine. Should you not have access to good municipal water, boil the water for 5 minutes, let it cool, and then mix the formula.
Give your baby cereal to help her sleep through the night. — MYTH
No matter what, they aren't going to sleep through the night until 3 to 6 months old. All of baby's nutrients during this time should come from breast milk or formula. Starting solid foods too early can cause food allergies. You can accidentally overfeed, and solid food is also a choking hazard to kids under 4 to 6 months of age.
Colic is caused by abdominal pain, formula allergies, or iron in the formula. — MYTH
Colic, defined as inconsolable crying in a healthy and well-fed infant, affects 10-15% of all newborns. It can be very distressing for the parents. The good news is that there's no link between colic and later disposition or hypersensitivity. In between bouts of crying the baby is fine, and it's not going to cause any damage. You can try swaddling, cuddling, rhythmic rocking, going for a walk or ride, warm baths, singing, or just letting baby cry it out while you listen to some Mozart or maybe a Skeptoid episode.
Your child should have a daily multi-vitamin. — MYTH
"Take your vitamins" is one of the most successful marketing phrases in modern history. Moms were made to feel it was a duty. The truth is that nobody getting a decent diet needs any vitamin supplements. Indeed, too much of some vitamins is unhealthy. And that's true at any age. The rare exceptions would be fluoride where it isn't in the water supply or vitamin D for moms or kids who can't get enough sun. If your pediatrician doesn't specifically recommend a supplement, you're best to avoid them all.
Don't give milk or dairy to a sick child because it produces more mucous. — MIXED
Actually, it's only true if your kid has a milk allergy. For everybody else, let them have their normal diet if they'll take it. If not, use the BRAT diet: Bananas, Rice, Applesauce, and Toast, until he feels better and can go back to his normal food.
You can tell if your kid has strep throat just by looking. — MYTH
Even some doctors propagate this myth. The good ones are only right half the time when eyeballing it. If you see red, swollen tonsils with white pus, get your kid to the doctor for a throat culture. If it's strep then antibiotics will help. If it isn't, the virus infection should clear itself up in a few days.
It's normal for babies to stick everything in their mouths. — TRUE
Mouthing, as it's called, is a normal sign of growing curiosity about the world. Babies have better developed senses in their mouths than in their hands. Kids get sick from bacteria and viruses, not dust. Keep junior away from the toys of other sick kids, make sure that the things they pick up to explore are big enough that there's no choking hazard, and let the tasting and drooling commence.
Begin potty training at just the right age. — MYTH
Kids are ready for potty training at a wide range of ages, from around 18 months to 3 years. There is no one right age, so don't get in a potty training race with other moms. When junior is going a couple of hours with a dry diaper, indicates discomfort with dirty diapers, and is able to follow simple instructions then it's probably time.
Children don't get depression, so it doesn't need treatment. — MYTH
Depression in children can be a serious matter. It affects school performance, self-esteem, and life skills acquisition. Suicide is the third leading cause of death among children and adolescents. Unfortunately there's still a lot of stigma around mental illness, and some people don't get the help they need in time. You wouldn't feel ashamed of going to the doctor if your kid had a broken arm, and it should be no different for depression. There are treatments available that are life-changing and even life-saving.
You should make your picky eater clean her plate. — MYTH
Meal time should be enjoyable. Forcing a child to eat can lead to feeding problems in the future and even contribute to eating disorders. Some good advice for getting her a balanced diet is to not serve lots of liquids early in the meal, and to serve the vegetables first, before even bringing the rest of the food to the table. Just changing that order has been shown to lead to much healthier eating.
Baby boys should be circumcised. — MIXED
The topic of circumcision deserves its own episode, and will be addressed in a future Skeptoid.
You should let your perfect child stay naturally healthy without vaccines. — MYTH
Definitely a myth. Vaccines are safe and effective, and every child deserves all the vaccines available. [ "all vaccines on the recommended schedule" is better phrasing. - ed] There are even vaccines now that can greatly reduce your child's risk of certain cancers. Babies also count on us adults getting vaccinated, so make sure you're up on your Pertussis vaccine. If you haven't had one in ten years, it's time. Check with your doctor. Vaccination is a slam-dunk, so much so that if you find someone giving baby advice who says not to vaccinate, or not to vaccinate on the recommended schedule, you would do well to dismiss all of their advice as dangerous and misinformed. If you need more information, check the show notes for this episode on skeptoid.com for ample links to solid science.
My baby is awesome. — TRUE
There's no other baby in the world like your baby. Relax, do your best, and enjoy every minute with your little bundle of learning machine. It's one of the most rewarding things you'll ever do. And don't stress about every study you read in the press. As Linda Geddes, author of Bumpology, puts it,
"Often, inconclusive or early stage studies get picked up, and by the time a scientific consensus has emerged - sometimes years later - the story has become too old and boring to report. So you end with a lot of misleading information out there. The result is that when a woman googles a question, she's faced with a mass of scare stories."
The best advice is probably to breathe deeply, ignore the popular press, and get advice from a competent pediatrician if you have questions. Kids are remarkably resilient. Just ask a parent who's had two. When someone gives you baby advice, especially if it's making you feel guilty, it pays to be skeptical.
By Craig Good
Please contact us with any corrections or feedback.
Cite this article:
Good, C. "Baby Myths." Skeptoid Podcast. Skeptoid Media,
19 May 2015. Web.
23 Oct 2017. <http://skeptoid.com/episodes/4467>
References & Further Reading
Hinde K, German JB. "Food in an evolutionary context: insights from mother's milk." Society of Chemical Industry. 21 Jun. 2012, 92(11): 2219-23.
Kaleo, Go. "Confessions of a (Reformed) Natural Mom." Go Kaleo. Go Kaleo, 18 Apr. 2015. Web. 18 May. 2015. <https://gokaleo.com/2015/04/18/naturalmom/>
Novella, S., Gorski, D., et al. "Vaccine Topic at Science Based Medicine." Science Based Medicine. Science Based Medicine, 18 May 2015. Web. 18 May. 2015. <https://www.sciencebasedmedicine.org/category/vaccines/>
Staff. "Pediatricians Give Sound Advice on Vaccines." American Academy of Pediatrics. American Academy of Pediatrics, 27 Apr. 2009. Web. 18 May. 2015. <https://www.aap.org/en-us/about-the-aap/aap-press-room/Pages/Pediatricians-Give-Sound-Advice-on-Vaccines.aspx>
Staff. "Breastfeeding Initiatives." American Academy of Pediatrics. American Academy of Pediatrics, 18 May 2015. Web. 18 May. 2015. <http://www2.aap.org/breastfeeding/>
Staff. "Breast-feeding vs. formula-feeding: What's best?" Mayo Clinic. Mayo Clinic, 23 Apr. 2015. Web. 18 May. 2015. <http://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/infant-and-toddler-health/in-depth/breast-feeding/art-20047898>
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