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!



Ghost Stories vs. Rational Worries

Occasionally I am surprised by some parent’s beliefs.  There are a lot of “old wive’s tales” out there which I am used to: fever curdles milk in baby’s stomachs, fever will cook baby’s brain, blowing cigarette smoke in ears is good for ear pain, etc.  One day, however, a mom asked me “do cats really steal babies’ breath?”  I had a millisecond hesitation that a mom could really believe that, but recovered and answered the question like this:

Cats like to sleep in warm places, and I am sure some time in the past a cat jumped into a newborn’s crib, snuggled up to the warm infant, and accidentally smothered it.  This is how crib death happens- baby smothers by rolling face down in thick bedclothes or a pillow and is not mature enough to be able to roll back.  Once the cat did this, the act became myth- that cats, already associated with the supernatural, have the ability to ”suck” the life out of babies like in horror movies. 

It is natural for people to try to explain how things happen, and make the explanation more supernatural and exciting.  When it comes to child care the explanations sometimes become too exciting and lead to needless anxiety.  One of the main reasons I write this blog is to help parents separate the wild fears that bring them to the Emergency Department from the real worries.  

Here is a quick list of things NOT to worry about, in addition to those already mentioned: children hitting their heads and dying after a long interval of looking well, children choking to death on blood from bloody noses, babies choking to death on mucus, babies and children choking to death on vomit, swallowing tongues during seizures, spotty rashes being measles.  For further explanations of these, look to the appropriate Category on the right of this blog page.

Real trouble looks like this: children getting increasingly lethargic and unresponsive, breathing hard and fast, head injury with loss of consciousness and vomiting, fever in a baby under two months old.  These are the right reasons to go to an Emergency Department, rather than because baby has rattling breathing from a runny nose. 

 Of course, when in doubt call your doctor.  They can help you separate the real worry from the wild fear over the phone.  And besides not sleeping with baby in your bed, keep the cat out of the room too.