Experts explore the facts behind common infant misconceptions.
Most new moms are given advice on the do’s and dont’s of caring for an infant. Some of it’s relevant and helpful, while some is a bunch of hogwash! Since most of the advice comes from well-meaning family and friends, it can sometimes be hard to tell the serious from the silly.
Carden Johnston, M.D., former president of the American Academy of Pediatrics and professor emeritus of pediatrics at the University of Alabama at Birmingham School of Medicine, and Mark Krakauer, M.D., board certified in pediatrics and internal medicine who practices at St. Thomas Medical Group, help separate fact from fiction.
MYTH: What a breast-feeding mom eats can upset baby’s tummy.
TRUTH: “As far as certain foods upsetting a child’s stomach, there’s just no good data,” says Johnston. “It’s all just what grandparents have told children and grandchildren.”
“In general, no,” adds Krakauer. “The milk production is a separate process from what the mother is digesting. However, certain chemicals and medications can pass into the milk. For example, some mothers may detect a change in the baby’s behavior if she drinks caffeine. Alcohol, medications or other drugs likewise can affect the baby. Rarely, the infant will have an allergy to a food that the mother consumes, like milk, which can upset the baby’s stomach or cause other allergic symptoms.”
MYTH: Reading to your fetus will make your baby smarter.
TRUTH: “There is no evidence to support this,” says Krakauer. “Reading to the child once the child is born is very important for the child’s language development and also a good way of bonding with the parent.”
Johnston adds that reading to your baby or playing soft music after he is born seems to keep Baby calmer. “The calmer you keep the baby, the better the brain’s neurons grow,” Johnston says. But those benefits do not extend to time in the womb.
“It makes a little sense that parents who are concerned about their baby in the uterus and are singing to the baby are paying more attention and learning more about the baby,” says Johnston. And once the child is born, this may help the parents feel a stronger connection to their infant.
MYTH: Picking up a baby too much will spoil him.
TRUTH: “No,” says Krakauer. “Most pediatricians agree that you ‘can’t spoil a newborn.’ Particularly in the first few months of life, a crying infant often needs something, whether it’s a diaper change, a meal or another layer of clothing. Resisting the urge to attend to the baby can be harmful. As the child approaches the toddler years, that’s when parents should work on setting limits.”
Johnston says this myth likely started during the Great Depression. “Parents who were stoic and came through the Depression had a different view of raising children and pain and suffering. The thought was, ‘You’re supposed to hurt a little bit.’ Therefore, it didn’t harm a child to let him “cry it out.”
“Children cry, and they’re supposed to cry; that’s the way they communicate,” says Johnston. “Picking them up is a tremendous positive reinforcement, and it slows the crying. When children cry, you think that something is going on with them. They’re feeling anxiety or need something. If a child is feeling anxiety, there is some scientific evidence that it slows down some brain development. So it’s probably beneficial to hold babies a lot, whether they’re crying or not.
“Bottom line is: Picking babies up every time they cry won’t spoil them. But don’t feel guilty if you’re not picking baby up every time there’s a whimper.
MYTH: Teething can cause diarrhea and/or fever.
TRUTH: “Parents often tell me their baby is upset and experiencing diarrhea and running fever when they teethe,” Johnston says. “It’s persisted so much in the common myth area that studies have been done, and all the studies show no relationship between teething, diarrhea and fever (less than 100.6 degrees).”
Krakauer suggests that it’s not. “These symptoms should be attributed to other things, such as a gastrointestinal virus as a cause of diarrhea,” adds Krakauer. “Ear infections, viruses or urinary tract infections can cause fevers when the cause is not apparent.”
MYTH: An infant’s thumb-sucking or pacifier use will cause “buck teeth.”
TRUTH: “There’s an association between malocclusion of teeth (including “buck teeth”) and non-nutritive sucking behavior – sucking on a pacifier, thumb or fingers,” Krakauer says. “However, most healthy infants and children engage in these behaviors at some time or another, so the behavior by itself is not a cause for concern. The important variable is the amount of time the child spends doing it. Sometimes parental comments about thumb sucking increase the child’s anxiety level which in turn increases the behavior. Ignoring the behavior may make it go away. Stress management for the child, or a reward system (such as a sticker or small prize for not thumb sucking) may also make the behavior decrease or stop. Most kids outgrow thumb sucking eventually, and without developing buckteeth. By kindergarten, peer pressure is usually enough to make most kids stop.”
MYTH: Feeding cereal at a very early age will help babies sleep.
TRUTH: “That’s common vernacular, and studies have been done and it doesn’t seem to work,” says Johnston. “What we’ve found is what children need in their first six months of life is breast milk. If you start adding other proteins, that could set up allergies and problems later on.”
“There is not good evidence to support this,” says Krakauer. “More importantly, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends starting solids between ages 4 and 6 months, no earlier. Breast milk and/or infant formula are necessary and sufficient for all nutritional needs of the baby before this time. Starting solids before 4 months of age may be harmful. It may result in the child getting an inadequate nutrient intake. The infant’s kidneys are immature at this point, and solids (or drinks other than breast milk or formula) can also expose the child to a dangerous amount of salt that can actually lead to seizures and death. Another reason to delay solids until at least 4 months is that before then most infants lack the oral motor skills needed to safely do this.”
MYTH: Cats will suck the breath out of an infant.
TRUTH: “This is actually an old wive’s tale, based on a grain of truth,” says Krakauer. “Infants should NEVER be left unattended with animals, no matter how well behaved they are. Even a well-meaning cat might inadvertently smother an infant. A less well-behaved cat could do worse. Though the cat does not literally suck the breath out of the baby, no infant should ever be left alone with any animal.”
In Johnston’s more than 40 years as a pediatrician, he says he’s never seen nor heard a report of this feline phenomenon. Yet, it’s a tale that has persisted for more than 400 years.
According to the urban-legend-busting Web site snopes.com, this far-out feline myth was seen as early as the 1600s. The site says printed sightings of the superstition date to 1607, and in 1791 a jury at a coroner’s inquest in England ruled that a cat had indeed sucked the breath out of a child, killing him. The second part of this tall kitty tale is that the cat will try to suffocate the new baby out of jealousy.
“Some cats or other animals like babies and usually treat babies with a lot of deference,” says Johnston. “Cats are agile and can jump into the bed because they enjoy being close to baby; it’s like a new kind of toy. But there’s just no way to suck the breath out.”
“We see lots of dog bites. If a child crawls over to a mama dog who’s feeding or ready to eat, that dog can easily take a snap at the child,” Johnston says. “We see at lot more trouble with cats when the 2-year-olds come along and don’t know how to be gentle with animals and they get scratched.”
If someone offers advice that you’re not quite sure about, ask your pediatrician. Your doctor can help you figure out whether it’s fact or fiction.
Tiffani Hill-Patterson writes about parenting, health and fitness.