Old Wives' Tales

Some old wives' tales about health and sickness have some basis in fact, whereas other, newer ones seem to reflect a kind of technophobia, such as those related to watching television. Some are true, most are harmless - and at least one described here is dangerous.

...About Pregnancy...

Tale #1: If the fetal heart rate is under 140 beats per minute (BPM) it's a boy.

FALSE. A baby girl's heart rate is usually faster than a boy's, but only after the onset of labor. There's no difference between fetal heart rates for boys and girls, but the rate does vary with the age of the fetus. By approximately the fifth week of pregnancy, the fetal heart rate is near the mother's - around 80 to 85 BPM. It continues to accelerate until early in the ninth week, when it reaches 170 to 200 BPM and then decelerates to an average of 120 to 160 BPM by the middle of the pregnancy. Normal fetal heart rate during labor ranges from 120 to 160 BPM for boys and girls.

Tale #2: Extra weight out front means a girl; weight around the hips and bottom indicates a boy.

FALSE. If a woman has a short torso, there's no place for the baby to grow but out. A long torso may mean roomier accommodations for a baby, making it less likely for a woman's belly to bulge outward. As an aside, a wide belly may just mean that the baby is sideways.

Tale #3: If a woman's carrying low, it's a boy; if a woman's carrying high, it's a girl.

FALSE. If a woman is carrying high, this could mean that this is her first pregnancy or her body is just in good shape. Stomach muscles usually become more elastic with each pregnancy, so with subsequent pregnancies she may carry lower.

Tale #4: Dark nipples indicate a boy.

FALSE. This color change has nothing to do with the sex of the child - an increase in progesterone and the melanocyte-stimulating hormone are responsible for the dark areas of the body to become even more pronounced in most pregnant women. Moles, birthmarks, beauty marks, and nipples can sometimes appear darker during pregnancy. A dark line also may appear down the middle of the belly. The medical term for this is linea nigra, meaning "black line", and runs midline from just above the navel area down to the pubis. The darkened spots are usually temporary and will fade soon after the baby is born.

Tale #5: Don't breastfeed a toddler while pregnant because the fetus requires all the nourishment that the mother can possibly provide.

FALSE. As long as a woman is in good health, breastfeeding another young child while pregnant will not harm her, the unborn child, or her toddler. However, breastfeeding during pregnancy should be discussed with the obstetrician if she is at risk for premature labor, has any nutritional deficiencies, or is underweight.

...About Caring for Babies and Toddlers...

Tale #1: Wearing shoes will help a baby learn to walk sooner.

FALSE. Just the opposite is true in this case. Keeping a baby barefoot can help strengthen his or her foot muscles and help the child learn to walk earlier. Once a toddler is walking, though, he or she needs comfortable shoes that fit well - they shouldn't be rigid. Shoes should conform to the shape of a child's feet and provide a little extra room for growth.

Tale #2: An infant walker will help a baby learn to walk sooner.

FALSE. Babies who spend their active hours in walkers may learn to sit, crawl, and walk later than children who have to learn these skills on their own if they want to get around. Of significance, baby walkers are, in fact dangerous. Nearly 14,000 injuries are treated in emergency rooms every year as a result of walkers. There have also been at least 34 deaths reported since 1973 because of walkers. Falling down a flight of stairs in a walker are especially dangerous for causing severe injury or even death. In a policy statement, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) had even recommended a ban on the manufacture and sale of mobile infant walkers in the United States.

Tale #3: Cats can steal the air from a baby's mouth.

FALSE. This tale goes back hundreds of years to a time when cats were associated with witchcraft and evil spirits. Cat-lovers, rest easy - it's anatomically impossible for a cat or other animal to suffocate a baby by sealing the baby's mouth with its own. Even so, cats and other pets should be supervised around small children and introduced to a baby gradually. You should also keep cats (just as you should keep other items, like blankets and plush toys) out of your baby's crib or bassinet.

...About Foods and Drinks...

Tale #1: Feed a cold, starve a fever.

FALSE. Both high fevers and colds can cause fluid loss. Drinking plenty of liquids such as water, fruit juice, and vegetable juice can help prevent dehydration. Additionally, it's perfectly fine to eat regular meals whether suffering from a fever or a cold because actually missing important nutrients might only make you sicker.

Tale #2: Wait an hour after eating before swimming.

FALSE. According to the American Red Cross, it's usually not necessary for you or your child to wait an hour before going into the water. However, it is recommended that you wait until digestion has begun, especially if you've had a big fatty meal and you plan to swim strenuously. They do, however, advise you not to eat orchew gum while in the water; either one of these could cause you to get choked.

Tale #3: Coffee stunts your growth.

FALSE. Coffee won't affect a child's growth per se, but too much caffeine in a child's diet does prevent calcium and other important nutrients from being absorbed by the body.

Tale #4: Fish is brain food.

TRUE. Fish is a good source of omega-3 fatty acids that have been found to be very important for brain function. Certain fish, however, have significant levels of mercury. Therefore, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), recommends that all pregnant women and other women of childbearing age avoid eating tuna, shark, and swordfish or at least limit their consumption of these fish to once a month in order to decrease their exposure to mercury.

Tale #5: Chocolate causes acne.

TRUE ... and FALSE. Studies show that no specific food has been proven to cause acne. However, some people may notice their breakouts are worse after eating certain foods - and these foods are different depending on the person. For example, some people may notice breakouts after eating chocolate, while others are fine with chocolate but notice they get breakouts after drinking too much coffee. If that's the case for your child, it may help to have him or her cut back on that food and see if it makes a difference.

Tale #6: Spicy foods can cause ulcers.

FALSE. Spicy foods may aggravate ulcer symptoms in some people, but they don't bring about ulcers. A bacterial infection or overuse of pain medications such as aspirin or anti-inflammatory drugs is the usual cause.

Tale #7: Eating carrots will improve your eyesight.

FALSE. This tale may have started during World War II, when British intelligence spread a rumor that their pilots had remarkable night vision because they ate lots of carrots. They didn't want the Germans to know they were using radar. Carrots, like many other vegetables, are high in vitamin A, which does help maintain healthy eye sight, but it is not recommended that you eat more than the recommended daily allowance because it will not improve your vision.

...About Health and Medical Conditions

Tale #1: You may catch a cold if you go out into cold temperatures while your hair is wet.

FALSE. Going out in cold weather with damp or wet hair will not cause a cold...viruses are the culprit! Cold weather only seems to have a correlation because people usually catch colds during the winter months. This is because the cold virus is spread easily indoors due to our contact with dry air and other people suffering from colds. Dry air, whether indoors or outdoors, lowers a person's resistance to colds and infection.
Tale #2: Reading in dim light will damage your eyes.

FALSE. Reading in a dimly lit room doesn't do any harm, however, good lighting does help prevent your eyes from getting tired and makes reading much easier.

Tale #3: Too much TV is bad for your eyes.

FALSE. Watching television won't hurt your eyes (it doesn't matter how close you are sitting). However, too much TV is certainly a bad idea for kids. Research shows that children who consistently spend more than 10 hours a week in front of the television set are more likely to be overweight, aggressive, and slower to learn in school.

Tale #4: If you cross your eyes, they'll stay that way.

FALSE. Only about 4% of the children in the United States have strabismus, a disorder in which the eyes are misaligned, giving the appearance that they're looking in different directions. Eye crossing does not lead to strabismis.

Tale #5: Thumb sucking causes buck teeth.

TRUE ... and FALSE. Thumb sucking often begins before birth and generally continues until age 5. If a child stops around the ages of 4 to 5, no harm will be done to his or her jaws and teeth. However, after the age of 4, when the permanent teeth, gums, and jaw do begin their most significant growth, parents are strongly advised to discourage their child from sucking their thumb. Therefore, it is true that after the age of 4 there is the possibility that sucking on a thumb, finger or pacifier could contribute to buck teeth.

Tale #6: Cracking knuckles causes arthritis.

FALSE. However, habitually popping and cracking your knuckles will tend to cause swelling of the hands and fingers, a decrease in grip strength, and can also result in functional hand impairment.

Tale #7: Too much loud noise can cause hearing loss.

TRUE. Only 15 minutes of exposure to really loud, pulsating music; machinery; or, other loud noises can cause temporary hearing loss and ringing in the ears (tinnitus). When exposed to loud noise, the eardrum vibrates excessively and damages the tiny hairs in the cochlea--the cone-shaped tube in the inner ear that converts sound into electrical signals for the brain to process. Although temporary hearing loss usually disappears within one or two days, continuous exposure to extreme noise can result in permanent hearing loss. For example, if a child is wearing headphones - and those around him or her can hear the music - the volume is too high.

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