Medical Myths—Busted!

Local pediatricians tell us about the biggst mistakes and misconceptions about kids’ health that they encounter.

Can cold weather make your kids sick? Will the flu shot cause the flu? We asked area pediatricians and pediatric specialists to dispel some of the whopper myths, misconceptions, and mistakes they observe among their patients’ parents. We hope these help put your mind at ease.

Medical Myths

The flu shot will cause the flu. This is a huge myth, according to many pediatric specialists who stand by the recommendation from the Centers for Disease Control to annually vaccinate anyone older than 6 months. “After a flu shot you may have the sniffles and chills, but you can’t actually get the flu from a flu shot,” says Preeti Parikh, M.D., an assistant clinical professor in the pediatrics department at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine, who also is affiliated with Pediatrics of New York. She explains it this way: The flu vaccine is usually made from the actual flu virus, but it’s a dead or inactive version that only tricks your body into thinking it’s been infected. “That ‘trick’ triggers the immune system to fight the virus and protect you from future infections,” she says. “It’s that immune system fight that may cause the unpleasant feelings people assume is the flu.” Best to get flu shots in October so the family is protected before flu season hits its peak in January.

Fever should always be treated with medicine. Worried parents are sometimes too quick to medicate a fever. “Parents persist in thinking that the slightest fever is dangerous,” says Maya Shetreat-Klein, M.D., a Bronx-based integrative pediatric neurologist. “While fever occasionally can be a sign of a dangerous infection, it’s more often the body’s healthy immune response that fights dangerous infection. Fever is, in a sense, the body’s own version of an antibiotic. Ideally, it is best to allow a child to mount a fever—even up to 104, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics—and meanwhile give fluids, allow the child to be cool and comfortable and to get rest.” Before resorting to fever-reducing medications, Dr. Shetreat-Klein suggests parents try cool compresses, lukewarm baths, or 1-2 drops of peppermint oil on a cold washcloth for the forehead.

REALTED: Find a Doctor Near You

Cold weather will get my kids sick. Parents keep kids indoors fearing that colder temperatures will make them more vulnerable to illness, but colds and viruses may spike in the winter for the opposite reason than most people think. “It might be because we spend so much time inside when it’s cold outside,” Parikh says. “That means we’re generally spending more time in close quarters with other people, and we know that the common cold is easily passed between people—especially when they touch shared objects like doorknobs, phones, and desks.” Wash your hands a lot during cold season, and definitely keep kids home when they are sick, but know that cold weather, or going out without a hat, is not the culprit, she says.

Colic means my baby will grow up cranky and sick. Like the gas that often comes with colic, this too will pass, but mothers often fret that it is a sign of temperament, nerves, food sensitivities, and future stomach issues, says Eileen DiFrisco, R.N., who is nurse manager for the Mother-Baby Unit at NYU Langone Medical Center. The exact cause of colic is unknown, she says, but 15-25 percent of all newborns may experience colic—usually between 2 weeks old and peaking at around 6 weeks, before it begins to resolve around 3-4 months. “Most babies move past this and this is not reflection on their personality later in life,” DiFrisco says. 

If my child misbehaves I must be a bad parent.Some kids are a handful despite the best efforts of their moms and dads. “While it is true that poor parenting can lead to a kid’s misbehavior, it is also true that temperament plays a part in a child’s developing personality,” says Gustavo Stringel, M.D., a surgeon at New York Medical College, Westchester Medical Center, and the Maria Fareri Children’s Hospital in Valhalla. Parents can do a lot to guide a child through, helping their child to grow, but sometimes they need support. “Don’t buy into the judgments of others; rather, consult a child psychologist, pediatrician, or another medical professional you trust,” he says.   

Medical Misconceptions

My baby needs constant swaddling. Tiny infants like to be cozy, but some parents take it to an extreme. “Everyone wants to perfect the swaddle, and parents pay lots of money to find the perfect swaddle wrap so their babies will sleep,” says Dyan Hes, M.D., medical director of Gramercy Pediatrics. “Yes, a newborn enjoys being swaddled to feel snug like they are in the womb, but after a few weeks a baby may want to stretch more and by four months they start rolling over. I have seen some very tight swaddles, where the infant looks like an eggroll.” She says over-swaddled infants can have delayed milestones because they cannot roll over and their hips can be damaged if the swaddle is too tight on their legs. 

RELATED: Tips for Raising Healthy Children

Your children will be spoiled by too much praise. There is a belief that overpraising will turn out kids who need applause every time they enter a room, but this is not necessarily the case, says Laura Paret, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist specializing in child and adolescent psychology at Union Square Practice. The trick is to balance true praise with refusing to feed the beast of bad behaviors. “In fact, receiving specific praise—such as, ‘I loved how you sat politely at dinner’ vs. ‘great job’—from parents for expected behavior while actively ignoring undesired behaviors such as, whining, baby voice, sassing will quickly work to increase the chances that children will behave appropriately,” Dr. Paret says. She points out that active ignoring must be unemotional; parents who look exasperated while ignoring are still responding to the behavior and thus attending to and reinforcing it. 

Medical Mistakes

Kids do not need to rest. Many parents push their kids too hard to excel in physical activities and sports. Orthopedic surgeon Barbara Bergin, M.D., a Bronx native who now practices in Austin, TX, says she treats kids all the time who are being pressed too hard. “Many children are playing more than one sport at a time, all year round,” Dr. Bergin says. Sometimes parents bring in injured kids to be patched up like pro athletes, insisting the child’s team cannot win without their child. “They need a break,” she says. “We’re over-working our children, and they’re going to pay for it someday, when we’re gone and aren’t around to kiss their boo-boos anymore.”

I am powerless to help my overweight child. Childhood obesity is a huge issue, yet some parents are overwhelmed when it comes to making healthy changes. “The child who is struggling with his or her weight will benefit from small changes in the family’s lifestyle,” says Connecticut pediatrician Douglas C. Curtiss, M.D. “Parents can make big differences by just introducing a little bit of family exercise into their lives, [such as] going for a walk together.” Parents do not always realize the effect that nutrition can have on a child’s focus and concentration.” Also, with nutrition, there is the feeling that it is too hard to prepare healthier meals, [and] that because of busy schedules, fast food is necessary,” he says “Parents don’t realize there are quick easy ways to make healthy meals for their children.”

Something bad will happen if I am not overprotective. Keeping kids safe is a real issue, yet parents may be overdoing it on vigilance. “Some parents believe their kids cannot advocate for themselves and are overprotective as a result,” Dr. Stringel says. “Children need to be nurtured toward independence and confidence. It is natural to fear that your child may experience discomfort, but again, being there to guide them while allowing them to see that they can master certain skills themselves builds confidence and self-esteem.” He says parents should become aware of their own anxieties and how their own childhood experiences may exacerbate worries about their kids. “Shielding their children from physical injury or emotional distress is the goal of most parents,” he says. Parents must find the balance of being supportive but also giving children a chance to solve their own conflicts.

RELATED: Find doctors and other healthcare providers near you.