Old Wives’ Tales


My first appointment of the day is a visit I enjoy immensely: the first well baby visit for a new mother and her newborn infant. At this visit, new mothers and very often new fathers, will have their first interaction with the pediatrician. They are usually loaded with questions. After all, babies don't come with instruction manuals. Despite the many books on the market that try to serve as such, there is nothing like a dose of reality to make the entire process seem barely short of overwhelming.

A generation or so ago, most new parents could count on the advice and counsel of their extended family, including grandparents to help them out with their questions. They could count on a wealth of expertise and experience in the joys and trials of child-rearing.

It is unfortunate that in today's world, the extended family often lives far away, or is so busy with their own lives that they are unable to help out. That is a great loss, since much of the advice your mother gave you is both helpful and accurate...but not all of it.

Everyone is an Expert

If you've ever been pregnant or had children, you've undoubtedly noticed an odd phenomenon. People who normally wouldn't even consider giving unsolicited advice about your personal life seem suddenly unable to suppress their desire to tell you all the secrets of delivering and raising a healthy and happy child.

While I would never question their motives or their good intentions, one should certainly have a healthy dose of skepticism about the quality of their advice. Simply raising a child, while it does confer experience, does not necessarily make anyone an authority.

Now don't get me wrong, I am not opposed to parents, grandparents, and friends sharing their experiences, successes, and failures. I am just suggesting that you, the “buyer” of this advice, should beware. Some of it is very good. Some of it will work very well. A lot of it, however, falls into the category of old wives' tales.

To Whom Do You Turn?

One does not have to be an old wife to pass along an old wives' tale. In fact, a lot of what people call common sense is not really very sensible at all. As a parent, you must make decisions that affect your children's lives, and yours as well. One of your many jobs as a parent is to filter through the enormous amount of well-meaning advice you receive and decide which of it is useful and effective.

Your pediatrician ought to be of some help here. A large part of pediatric practice is giving advice that helps parents cope with the thousands of small day-to-day challenges that this new young person will bring into their lives. Your doctor should be ready, willing, and able not only to dispense such advice, but to comment on advice given by others and found in the media (including the Internet). My job as the pediatrician is to give you a convincing reason why my advice might be better than your mother's.

Old Wives' Tales About Food

The care and feeding of children is a fertile area for unsolicited advice. Feeding a child has an emotional impact that is often way out of proportion to the problems involved. This is easily understood, since if we can't even feed our children, what kind of parents are we? The wonderful truth is that our kids seem to survive and thrive no matter how we feed them. Now, I am not talking about families in which poverty prevents children from getting enough to eat. I am talking about middle-class families in which hunger is not an issue. Here are a few pieces of advice you ought to ignore:

Forcing your child to eat
If you don't force a child to eat, he'll starve. Not true. Young children generally eat when they are hungry, rarely overeat, and refuse food only when they honestly don't want it, or if it upsets their parents enough to be fun. Never fight with a child over food. You will lose. Another old wives' tale is that the early introduction of solids will make a young infant sleep through the night. Infants generally do not want or need solids prior to around four months of age. They will sleep through the night when they are good and ready. Giving them a few spoonfuls of cereal at bedtime, which contains perhaps 20 calories, will not put them out for the night.

Giving milk to a child with a cold
Another tale is that you shouldn't give milk to a child who has a cold because it causes excessive phlegm. Unless your child is one of the few who are actually allergic to milk, there is no truth to this one. If your child with a cold wants milk, give it to him. No harm done.

Old Wives' Tales About Fever

Fever and illness is another fertile area for bad advice. Feed a cold, starve a fever—or is it starve a cold and feed a fever? It really doesn't matter, since both are wrong. Good nutrition is important to all children, especially sick ones. Parents should maintain the best nutrition possible, regardless of colds or fever. If a child has a stomach bug, some degree of dietary restriction is often suggested, but a quick return to good nutrition is always the goal.

Here's another falsehood: a high fever is dangerous. While the disease that causes the fever may indeed be dangerous, the fever itself is not. A fever in a child that is acting well is rarely a cause for alarm. The only exception to this is in the case of heat stroke, where the body's sweating mechanism is not working. Then body temperature can rise to 107 degrees or higher, which is a danger all by itself. In the absence of heat stroke, the temperature will not rise to more than 106 degrees. While a fever that high is very scary, it will not in itself cause harm. A high fever can be an indication of a serious underlying illness, so high fevers should always be discussed with your pediatrician.

Parents are constantly asking me if it is OK to give their feverish child a bath. It is OK. A lukewarm bath may help lower the temperature and may make the child look and feel better. So bathe away; its not a problem. Just don't let the child get so cold as to shiver. That will raise her internal temperature and make her feel worse.

Harmful Advice

While most old wives' tales cause only anxiety, a few can actually cause harm, either physical or in terms of unwarranted anxiety and guilt.

Grease on a burn
The most common bit of advice is to put something greasy, such as butter, on a burn. This is dangerous. Grease will hold the heat inside the skin, deepening the burn and making it more severe. If your child is burned, the first thing to do is to place something cool, but not frozen, on it. Something cool placed on a burn will reduce the heat and minimize the damage.

Poison ivy
Old wives' tales also wrongly tell us that some very mildly incorrect practices are dangerous. One of these tales is that poison ivy is dangerous if it involves the eyes. Poison ivy on the face may cause swelling of the eyelids, but while this is very uncomfortable, it will cause no lasting harm. Oh, and by the way, poison ivy is caused by an oil found on the plant. Once it is washed off, you cannot spread poison ivy by touching the affected areas.

Another worry is that parents should not let a child cry because excessive crying will cause him harm or he'll choke. This is not true. The only one harmed by prolonged crying, is the parent listening to it.

There are few things in life as miserable to live through as the first three months of life with an infant who has colic. The old wives will tell you that there is something that you are doing to cause the colic or that there is a real medical problem. Once a good physical examination has ruled out organic illness, you should realize that not only is colic not your fault, but that no one has any idea what causes it. Colic is extremely common and there is very little anyone can do to make it better. It will, however, magically go away after the baby is three months old, if you live that long.

Other Questionable Advice

There are many pieces of advice that seem to be generally believed as the truth. Some include:

Head injuries
How about this one: You must not let a child with a head injury fall asleep. If your child has a head injury that is severe enough to cause loss of consciousness, it is severe enough to seek immediate medical attention. If your child has a minor head injury, it is often normal for the child to be sleepy, but not unconscious, and trying to keep such a sleepy child awake, will only make him feel worse. One should check a child with a minor head injury frequently to make sure he is arousable, and always call your doctor for further instructions after any significant head injury.

Over the years, I have heard of more complaints and illnesses attributed to teething than almost any other cause. First of all, teething pain rarely is severe enough to wake a child out of a sound sleep. If your child is up at night and has a cold, think ear infection, not teeth. Teething does not cause fever. It does not cause congestion or mucus, and it does not cause diarrhea. It can make an awake child irritable and is best dealt with by either occasional use of an anesthetics rub directly on the gums or by giving a dose of acetaminophen by mouth.

Holding your baby
Another thing new parents are often told is: "Don't pick the baby up all the time, you'll spoil her!" This is absolutely wrong. Young infants need to be picked up a lot in order to have normal psychological development. As they get older, children can become spoiled, but rarely because parents paid attention to their legitimate needs.

I am also amazed at how important it is for people to have their children be "regular." Perhaps its the influence of all those laxative commercials. Being regular is of no importance to young children. Most children will find their own pattern and timing of bowel movements, from once a day to once a week, for some infants. Having a bowel movement once a day is not a requirement to be considered regular.

Feet and legs
I've never understood why so many grandparents feel that if you let a young infant stand up, she'll get bow legs. She won't. And believe it or not, buying an infant an expensive pair of shoes will not prevent flat feet. Aside from the fact that all infants have flat feet, it is rarely, if ever, a problem at any age, as long as the foot is flexible. In any case, shoes make absolutely no difference.


Bringing a new baby into your lives is an exhilarating and exhausting experience. It can provoke a great deal of anxiety. I encourage new parents to seek out advice from any source of support that you can find. Just be sure that the advice is sound, so you don't fall victim to old wives' tales.

Copyright HLTHO - Healthology
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