When it comes to our health, myths abound. Combine centuries of home remedies and dated therapies add on Google where you can search any symptom leading to pages of possible causes and contradicting cures, it's no wonder that we have so many medical misconceptions.
But it's even more confusing for parents.
Think about it: The patient in question is too young to adequately describe how they are feeling, if they can even speak at all; the parents are concerned, hyperalert, and impulsive when dealing with the wellbeing of their child. It's a perfect storm for medical misinformation.
"These days, it's easier to find the myths than it is to find the truth, especially on the Internet," says Charles Hannum, MD, Tufts Medical Center pediatrician and assistant professor at Tufts University School of Medicine. "Fortunately, it's also easier than ever to contact your family doctor or pediatrician to get reliable information."
Dr. Hannum deals with all sorts of questions, but there are a few misconceptions about child health that are more common than others. Here, he debunks four of the most popular myths:
Myth #1: It's never okay to let a baby cry.
This topic is often a struggle with new parents, particularly those who are losing sleep trying to calm their newborn down in the middle of the night. But Dr. Hannum wants families to know that sometimes, it's okay to let them cry.
"Crying baby doesn't equal bad parent," says Dr. Hannum. "Crying is one of babies' few ways of communicating, and if you can start to understand what those cries mean, you can help them. But sometimes you just don't know what's wrong, and that's okay."
For instance, if a baby is crying and you are not sure why, if their needs are met, they are swaddled and laying on their back on a flat, firm surface, Dr. Hannum says it's perfectly acceptable to leave them in their sleeping space, walk away and take a mental break.
"The experience of letting the baby cry is often harder for the parents than it is for the baby," he says.
Myth #2: A chubby baby is overweight
We are bombarded daily with news of the "obesity epidemic," and how being overweight can harm our health in countless ways — and that's absolutely valid for kids and adults. But when dealing with kids, especially babies, looks aren't the entire picture.
"The lens of popular culture is really driving what a healthy baby is supposed to look like," says Dr. Hannum. "But a chubby baby can be perfectly fine."
Here is where regular check-ups with your pediatrician are essential. While a chubby baby can be normal, a chubby toddler is likely not. The doctor will closely track the trajectory of the child's height, weight and age, against what's normal while monitoring the full picture of their overall health and what they eat and how much.
"Whether they're eating a lot or are picky, you just need to make sure young children are eating all types of food groups, including fruits, vegetables, grains and dairy," says Dr. Hannum. "It's all about balance as opposed to how much."
And if you're concerned about your chubby baby, Dr. Hannum reminds us that the baby fat tends to come off on its own as the child gets older and continues to grow in their height.
Myth #3: My child doesn't need every vaccine on the schedule.
This one is top-of-mind in the wake of the pandemic. But for decades, doctors have known that vaccines work and that the prescribed schedule of shots, though often traumatic for both child and parent, are there for a good reason.
"Infants need vaccines because their immune system isn't as developed," says Dr. Hannum. "And often, if they get these vaccines now, they won't need them later in life."
Dr. Hannum emphasizes that vaccines cannot give you the disease they're designed to protect against, and that any side effects caused by the shot are actually a positive sign that the body is responding, and the vaccine is doing its job. And while childhood vaccines may not prevent 100% of vaccine-preventable diseases, vaccines have been proven to lessen the severity of the illness if and when the child gets sick and can significantly reduce the number of people getting these infections. It can also lessen the chances of spreading the disease to others. In short, shots save lives — and not just that of your child.
"It's important for everyone to immunize," says Dr. Hannum. "The important thing to remember about vaccination is that we're not just protecting ourselves, we're protecting other people."
Myth #4: Speaking more than one language at home confuses the child and delays mental development.
Dr. Hannum says this is a question he's been getting from parents with increasing frequency. And says that this simply isn't true.
"Kids' brains are like sponges," says Dr. Hannum. "They can pick up words so fast that it's the perfect time for them to learn."
Of course, if the child is constantly hearing Spanish, English, and, say, Portuguese, they might mix up a word every now and again. "But that's three new words that they now know," says Dr. Hannum.
The doctor says that if you do think your child is having trouble speaking or not developing as quickly as they should, talk to your pediatrician. Together, you can find the cause of the problem — but it's definitely NOT growing up in a vibrant, multilingual household.
To sum it up: In this age of social media and comparative parenting, it's easy to find people who make it look, well, easy. But you're only seeing part of the picture on Instagram. Instead of keeping up with the influencers, you should talk to your pediatrician.
"If you have questions, write them down and bring them to your appointment," says Dr. Hannum. "There are no silly questions. Get reliable information from your doctors. Chances are, you are doing a really good job being a parent!"