Old Wive’s Tales: Are They Really True?

Today’s guest columnist is Dr. Asma Khan, a Family Practice resident at the University Hospital and Clinics here in Lafayette.

Whenever any couple has a newborn, their world changes completely!  Suddenly every decision is colored with thoughts of the child’s well-being.  It’s unavoidable and it’s beautiful.  But as the couple embarks on raising this new child, something less magical happens.  Meemaw, Nana, and Auntie Gertrude all have something to say about how he should be raised.  Much of the advice is good, but some is Old Wive’s Tales.

I heard some Old Wive’s Tales this past month in the Pediatric Emergency Department. One baby had fever for a few days, and mom was feeding only pedialyte.  When I asked why, mom said that her doctor told her you shouldn’t give feverish babies formula because it curdles in their stomach and they vomit.  Now, this doctor is one of my colleagues in the Family Practice residency, so I emailed her.  The doctor in question swore up and down that she never says this, so mom probably got the advice from some other revered source (grandmother, perhaps???) and grafted it onto her doctor!

This idea of milk curdling in children’s stomachs is a myth.  The thought is that when the child has fever, milk curdles because of the heat, just like milk curdles when heated on the stove.  The child then has indigestion and vomits.  In fact, there’s no reason to deny a fevered child milk.  If the child tolerates milk, by all means feed it!  Milk is a better fluid to give a sick child than water if she is refusing to eat, so she gets some nutrition.

Now, your child may vomit when ill.  This is because of the illness itself, not because of milk.  Some infections cause vomiting, just like they cause fever or cough or diarrhea.  If your child vomits, then we stop milk.  Milk can be more difficult to hold down on an upset stomach.  With vomiting we advise to switch to clear liquids like pedialyte or sports drinks for 6 to 8 hours.  When the vomiting has stopped you can go right back to the milk.

Do you know why kids hate to wear coats?  It’s because parents and grandparents insist that they wear one out in the cold.  ”You’ll catch a cold if you don’t bundle up, sweetie!” is a line we have all heard when we were kids. But to kids, coats are a pain to put on and encumbering when they play.  Also, some kids love to defy authority, so being told to put on a coat becomes the exact opposite of what they want to do!

However, kids don’t “catch colds” because they didn’t wear a coat.  Winter viruses are not from the weather.  Coughs and runny noses are caused by viruses that you catch from another person, and a coat doesn’t prevent that. Periodic hand-washing is much better prevention for the common cold.  Having a coat on in the winter keeps you comfy, but your child running around the backyard is already pretty warmed up.  Let him run free for a bit and then make sure he cleans up before sitting down to that stew.

“Feed a cold, starve a fever” is another Old Wive’s Tale, that dates back to the 1500s. The belief was that eating warmed up the body, while not eating cooled it down.  Thus “starving” was felt to be a way to control fever.  Likewise if baby had a “cold,” you wanted to feed baby to warm it up.  This is all a myth and the saying should be “feed your child,” period.  Fever is not the main ailment, it’s one of the body’s natural responses to fight infection.  When your child has fever, it’s a message to you to feed him as much (or as little!) as he wants, so he has the strength to get healthy.

These are a few tips as you go along the beautiful and scary journey of parenthood.  If other family member’s advice sounds dubious, check with a professional source when it comes to your child’s health.  If it’s the best chocolate cake recipe you’re after, always listen to Meemaw or Nana or Auntie Gertrude!



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