I can still hear my mother's voice booming from the kitchen. "Don't sit so close to the TV. You'll ruin your eyes!" I didn't believe her, but by the time I was in Grade 8, I was wearing glasses and so were all my brothers and sisters. Did TV wreck our eyesight? Is that why so many kids wear glasses today? No. The premise is false. But there's a reason for the persistent myth, says Dr. Michelle Ponti, a pediatrician in London, Ont., and chair of the Canadian Paediatric Society's community pediatrics committee. Many kids who sit right near the TV screen already have impaired vision, she explains, and that's the reason they're up close.When parents get their children's eyes checked and find out their kids need glasses, they blame the TV. "It's sort of backward," says Ponti.
Many commonly held beliefs about children's health are homespun blends of misinformation and folklore. Others are correct and have been backed up by scientific research. To find out which are which, read on.
Listening to loud music can contribute to hearing loss.
True. "Loud music and loud sound can damage your hearing," says Margaret Cheesman, a professor of communication sciences and disorders at the National Centre for Audiology at the University of Western Ontario in London, Ont. Short exposure to extremely loud noise, such as a jet taking off, can damage a child's hearing, says Cheesman. And exposure over many years to moderately loud noise, such as music turned up high, can also weaken your hearing by permanently damaging the ear's delicate hair cells. What's too loud? Anything over 80 decibels. Normal speech is about 60 decibels, yelling in someone's ear is about 85 and the average rock concert is more than 100. So, can kids safely enjoy their iPods? Yes, says Cheesman, as long as they turn them down a bit.
If you swallow chewing gum, it will stay in your stomach for seven years.
False. Everything you eat enters your digestive system and is either digested or passes through and is, well, eliminated. The myth comes from the fact that gum is not food. It's an inert, insoluble substance usually made from chicle -- a natural latex extracted from the sapodilla tree. You can chew it, but you can't digest it, so it will just go through your digestive system. It's like swallowing a coin. "It will pass in 24 to 48 hours usually," says Ponti.
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It's better to get chicken pox when you're a kid than when you're an adult.
True. "Absolutely," says Ponti. "It is well documented that when people get chicken pox during adulthood, it is a much more severe illness generally." Chicken pox, caused by the varicella-zoster virus, is characterized by a red base, followed by fluid-filled blisters that eventually scab. Children get a mild rash, itchiness, fever and flulike symptoms that last a week or two. But adults usually have many more blisters and a higher risk of contracting serious complications such as pneumonia and encephalitis. The good news is that the chicken pox vaccine is highly effective and is recommended by the Canadian Paediatric Society as part of every child's regular immunization program.
Don't swim after you eat because it will give you a cramp.
True. Well, sort of true. There's nothing particular about swimming that causes cramps after eating, but it's a good idea not to let your kids go into the water immediately after a big meal. When you eat, your body temporarily sends more blood to your gut to help digestion, which means there is slightly less blood available for muscular activity. If a child exercises vigorously after a heavy meal, she is more likely to get a cramp. Penelope Leach, author of Your Growing Child (Knopf, 1984), says there's no reason to keep your children out of the water for a full hour after a light lunch. Most doctors recommend kids wait a half-hour after eating before going into a lake or pool and that they always have adult supervision.
Babies should sleep on their backs.
True. Each week in Canada an average of three babies die of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS), or crib death. No one is sure what causes SIDS, but research over the last few years has shown that babies who sleep on their backs have the lowest risk for SIDS. A 1999 joint statement by The SIDS Foundation, the Canadian Institute of Child Health, the Canadian Paediatric Society and Health Canada recommended that babies be put to bed on their backs on a firm, flat surface. Make sure your child is not too hot, and avoid fluffy pillows, comforters or stuffed toys, which might block the airflow around your baby's face.
If you go outside in winter with wet hair, you'll catch a cold.
False. "Colds are viruses," says Roy. Viral infections are usually spread by direct contact or respiratory secretions transmitted person to person, rather than running around with wet hair. But the idea has a grain of truth to it: if children are improperly dressed for cold weather, they are using a lot of energy to keep warm. They may get worn down and become more susceptible to viruses, he explains. Add in the fact that, during winter, kids spend more time indoors in close contact with other kids and it's easy to see why we associate cold weather with colds.
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If you cross your eyes, they could stay that way.
False. A lot of babies do occasionally cross their eyes, but that is a natural part of development. They need to strengthen their eye muscles before they can master a "conjugant gaze," that is, getting both eyes in alignment, explains Ponti. But there's nothing to suggest that a kid who crosses her eyes will suffer any damage. "I would say if your child does have a wandering eye, a lazy eye or a crossed eye, she absolutely needs to see a physician," she adds.
Only "dirty" children get head lice, and lice can jump from kid to kid.
Both false. Head lice are extremely common among children in day cares and school. Head lice do not spread disease and they do not mean your child is unclean, according to a Canadian Paediatric Society article in Pediatrics & Child Health in 2004. Lice cannot jump or fly from head to head, though they can crawl quickly and are easily passed from one child to another when kids share hats, combs, brushes and headphones. Head lice are unpleasant, but they are benign and can be treated with shampoos available at the drugstore. For advice on how to treat head lice, see www.caringforkids.cps.ca/whensick/headlice.htm.
If a child drinks coffee, it could stunt her growth.
False. There are a lot of good reasons you wouldn't want young children drinking coffee, but stunting their growth isn't one of them. Coffee, or more specifically caffeine, can cause a host of undesirable symptoms if consumed in excess -- jitteriness, insomnia, upset stomach and headaches. But studies have never shown that caffeine affects growth in children. The idea may have come from early studies that suggested caffeine intake might be associated with weak bones and osteoporosis, but research has failed to support the connection. Health Canada recommends limiting the intake of a preschool child (age four to six) to 45 milligrams of caffeine a day, or about the amount found in one can of cola.
Eating sugar makes children hyperactive.
False. You take your six-year-old to a birthday party. Within minutes of eating sugary treats, every child in the room is bouncing off the walls. Common sense tells you that eating sugar makes kids hyper. Or does it? "It is a common misconception," says Dr. Madan Roy, chief of general pediatrics at Hamilton Health Sciences in Hamilton. "There has been a lot of good research done looking at the number of kids with attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) [though no research has been done on children without ADHD] and none has ever shown a connection." Sugar is a natural source of energy, he explains, and often children are eating treats in a special situation -- a birthday party, Halloween, Easter -- so it's no wonder they're excited.
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