10 Mistakes You (Might) Make With Your Kids’ Health

Mama to MamaIt’s not always easy to know what to do. Often the answer isn’t clear. I choose these 10 mistakes (in no particular order) because I’ve made many of them myself, and my very-well-informed friends and family have made the rest. So here goes:

1) The fruit juice trap.
We start early, often putting apple juice in a bottle, maybe watered-down, maybe not, soon after getting the ‘all-clear’ to add to the breast or formula only diet. If fruit is good for them, then fruit juice must be too, right? And boy, do they love it.

Not so fast. Truth is, juice is what’s left after you remove most of the good stuff from the original. Basically it’s sugar, water, and some natural flavoring. Empty calories with a few vitamins thrown in if you’re lucky. And not so good for those developing teeth. Stick with plain ol’ water.

2) Refusing or delaying vaccines.
This is a huge and loaded topic that deserves more attention than I can give it here. But I need to go on the record. The research has shown over and over again that vaccines do NOT cause autism and serious adverse reactions are exceedingly rare. Children are at far greater risk of disability and death from the disease in question than from the vaccine meant to prevent it. You feel the truth of this in your gut if you’ve ever seen an infant with whooping cough (pertussis) or a preschooler with measles.

3) Over-medicating
I’m talking over-the-counter meds here. Every symptom does not need to be treated. Sometimes a little fever is Mother Nature’s way of ramping up the immune system to banish that bug. And that annoying cough may be moving the mucous from the cold up and out of the airways. So skip the Tylenol and Robitussin unless your child is REALLY uncomfortable or can’t get to sleep, and don’t give more than the recommended dose. Important news: Children under 5 should not take OTC cold medicines — they are dangerous for some kids and have limited benefit.

4) Under-medicating
By this I mean that if your doctor prescribes 7 days of antibiotics for that impetigo, don’t stop after 5 days because the rash is gone. It’s important to continue until the last dose to make sure you get that very last bug. Otherwise you could end up with a resistant variety and be worse off than when you started. Another common mistake? Giving half the recommended dose because ‘it’s not that bad’. It’s the same as flushing it down the toilet.

5) Loose-y goose-y bedtime.
There was a time when it was popular to let kids choose their own bedtime. The theory was that when they were tired, they’d go to bed. NOT! Kids need sleep to grow. Those zzzzs provide time and space to consolidate all they’ve learned during active daytime and for actual cells in brain and body to divide. Kids also need to trust that you’ll keep them healthy and strong, and sleep is part of that. Just like they need rules, they need bedtime. Even if they fight it.

6) Letting advertisers guide food choices.
Who hasn’t fallen for the catchy commercial and bright packaging of an alluring kiddie food product? I know I’ve been caught by the food shopping police caving to a demand for Lunchables. Mothers resist! They’re almost always overpriced and loaded with salt and fat. You’re paying for the box and that annoying jingle that gets stuck in your head.

7) Sending sick kids to school.
You know the drill. She had a fever last night, but seems better this morning. You have an important staff meeting you really shouldn’t miss. So you give a quick dose of Tylenol and make a mental note to check in with the school nurse in a few hours. Bad idea. It’s not fair to her classmates OR to her little body that’s trying to get better. What goes around comes around. Really.

8) Choosing THE sport too early.
We all know how important physical activity is for kids. Playing sports helps keep them fit and teaches all those lessons about teamwork. But the trend towards sports specialization at younger and younger ages has gone too far. My eight year old doesn’t need to be at the pool training at 5 AM any more than yours should be enrolled in that pricey year around travel soccer team. Before age 12 children should play a wide variety of sports, not begin training for the Olympics. Be honest, what are the chances anyway?

9) Doctor shopping.
Dr. X has been little Tyler’s pediatrician since birth, but lately he’s been prescribing those antibiotics like candy. You heard that Dr. Y offers alternative herbal remedies, but also encourages strict rules about TV and computer time that you’re not ready for. It’s tempting to choose one from column A and one from column B and take Tyler to the one who you think will tell you what you want to hear for the problem of the moment. If you do, Tyler’s the one who loses. Multiple doctors don’t know what the others are prescribing or recommending, and your child’s medical care becomes a mish-mosh of approaches. Do some research and choose the one who best fits your family. You and Tyler need a trusted advisor on the team. Monogamy is important here, even if it’s the serial type.

10) “Do as I say, not as I do”.
Last, but most crucial, and we’re all here at one time or another. Whether it’s junk food, smoking, extreme dieting, alcohol, or any of the other thousands of ways we abuse our health, parents model behavior for kids. All parents, all behavior. I may think she doesn’t notice the package of Oreos I scarfed down after dinner or the diet Coke for breakfast, but she does. Enough said.

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Rachel Zahn, MD is a pediatrician turned health writer who had three kids during medical school and pediatric training—crazy, huh?


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