I consider myself a pretty well informed mom, yet I'll admit I've done some really stupid things with my 14-month-old.
I fed her jarred sweet potatoes when she was just 3 months old, and that's at least a month earlier than the earliest time experts recommend for the first solid food. (But she was begging!)
I've given her children's ibuprofen instead of the infant kind. (I couldn't read the label. It was 4 a.m. And it's really dark at that time of night!)
Sure, there's some solace in knowing that even the most conscientious moms make health blunders from time to time. After all, the learning curve is pretty steep: One moment you're pregnant, and then suddenly you're supposed to be an expert on eczema and peanut allergies.
The best defense against baby-health mistakes? Understanding moms' most common slipups -- and what to do instead when it's your turn.
Mistake: Wearing shoes inside the house
Babies live on the floors and rugs -- and right now you're tracking dirt, chemicals, and street germs on the bottom of your shoes. Babies also put every little thing they find in their mouths.
Smart solution: Invite guests to relax and remove their shoes before entering your home. For those who won't, keep a high-quality mat outside to wipe off shoes and boots, and a softer mat inside the door to catch extra dirt particles.
Mistake: Thinking you have to bathe your baby every day
It's fine for most babies, but it isn't necessary. And if your child has sensitive skin, it might be best to give him a bath every other day. For some babies, daily baths can disrupt the skin's protective flora and cause pH imbalances, leading to an over-growth of bacteria or yeast or making the skin red, irritated, and dry, says dermatologist Sarah Boyce, M.D., assistant professor at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. If your baby has eczema, bathing can cause flare-ups.
Smart solution: Many infants are fine with a nightly bath, but don't feel bad if you miss it. If your baby has sensitive skin, dry patches, or eczema, experiment with less tubtime. Trisha Creekmore of Washington, DC, bathes her daughter, Lily, now 3, just twice weekly: "I felt guilty at first, but then I noticed that bathing her too much caused dry skin, so my neglect -- or non-obsessive parenting, as I like to call it -- turned out to be right for her."
Mistake: Assuming that caregivers understand the health instructions you give them
Be explicit. One mom I know learned this the hard way. Her daughter, age 6 months, needed Zantac, the reflux medication, during the day, so she gave it to the director of the daycare center to administer. But a few months later when she asked the providers if they needed a refill, she got blank stares. They had just stopped giving it long before, without telling her.
Smart solution: Whether it's the daycare staff, a babysitter, or your own mother, take a moment to write down the instructions in simple, direct language, and be precise. "Don't say 'one or two pills' or 'only if he looks ill,' because a caregiver shouldn't be asked to make these decisions," says registered nurse Gloria Mayer, president of the Institute for Healthcare Advancement, in La Habra, California, which studies medical communication. Ask her to read your directions back to you to make sure you've been clear.
My friend now puts in writing any health care instructions for her daughter and then gives a copy to everyone on the daycare staff. Plus one for the director.
Mistake: Treating your baby's cold symptoms with over-the-counter medications without calling the doctor
Especially dangerous: preparations that contain pseudoephedrine. "It might make babies feel a little better, but not dramatically better, and the risk of side effects is very real," says Steven Kairys, M.D., chairman of the department of pediatrics at Jersey Shore University Medical Center, in Neptune, New Jersey. Complications range from simple hyperactivity to high blood pressure and irregular heartbeat.
Whatever the medication, read the fine print. Elizabeth Smith of Alpharetta, Georgia, swore off Benadryl after it kept her son Ryan awake for 36 hours: "The label isn't kidding when it says, 'Excitability may occur, especially in children'!"
Smart solution: Some over-the-counter medications may be fine for babies, but get the green light from the doc first. Always do so before giving infant acetaminophen to a baby 3 months or younger (it can mask a fever, which requires immediate medical attention). For babies older than 3 months, it's fine to give infant acetaminophen without calling first to relieve teething discomfort, the pain of shots, and cold miseries. And you can make a sick baby more comfortable by giving her fluids, using saltwater drops to aspirate her nose, using a cold-water humidifier, and keeping her head slightly elevated when she's sleeping.
Mistake: Sharing spoons and toothbrushes, or popping her paci in your mouth to "clean it off"
One bite for me, one for you and you get my mouth germs, too! Moms are a prime source of the germs that give babies tooth decay. But if you can keep those germs from establishing themselves in your baby's mouth (even before she has any teeth) you may protect her from the most common dental problems. "Anything with saliva on it has the potential to transmit bacteria," says Washington, DC, periodontist Sally Cram, a spokesperson for the American Dental Association.
Smart solution: Have your teeth cleaned by your dentist regularly, brush twice a day, floss once a day, and consider a fluoride mouthwash. If you chew gum, make it xylitol-sweetened. All reduce cavity-causing germs. And instead of sharing spoons with your child, just pretend to taste the food. When her daughter Laura was starting solids, Judith Basya of Santa Monica, California, put the spoon almost up to her mouth and said "Yummy!" Laura's now 1, and her mom's still pretending: "At first I did it for sanitary reasons, but now I just don't want to eat her overcooked carrots!"
Mistake: Changing your baby's formula to stop a spitup problem
Frequent formula changes can make it harder for your pediatrician to identify the true culprit, whether it's a milk allergy, acid reflux, or something else. When Mary Rose Almasi of Somers, New Jersey, would feed her newborn daughter, Grace would spit up and cry. The pediatrician advised switching to a non-milk-based formula to rule out an allergy. It didn't help, but eliminating allergy as a trigger let her doctor arrive at a diagnosis: reflux.
Smart solution: Work with your pediatrician to find the cause of the problem, especially if your child's not gaining weight (or is losing it) or if you see blood in her stool (which might mean an allergy to milk-based formula). Changing the formula may well be one recommendation. For reflux, however, other approaches work better. When she's feeding, her lips should form a tight seal around the bottle's nipple so no air gets in; you may want to experiment with different kinds of nipples. Try keeping your baby upright for a half hour after feeding (Almasi found that the car seat worked like a charm), offer frequent small meals instead of fewer larger ones, make sure she's burping adequately (even if you have to interrupt feedings to burp her), and tuck some rolled towels underneath one end of her crib mattress to keep her on an incline. If your baby's a spitup artist, Almasi recommends ditching the swing and the vibrating bouncy seat, which she found "jiggled my baby's little belly and brought up the spitup."
Mistake: Overbundling your baby to keep out the chill
After the first few days, infants are quite good at regulating their own body temperature. Dressing them in too many layers can lead to dehydration and exhaustion, says Trina Austin, M.D., chief of pediatrics at Orange Coast Memorial Medical Center, in Fountain Valley, California. During sleep, becoming overheated can disrupt the ability to regulate breathing, increasing the risk of SIDS.
Smart solution: Indoors or out, dress your baby in the same number of layers you're wearing. In the car or at home, set the air conditioner so it's not so frigid that you feel you need to bundle him up; when the weather cools, set the thermostat around 68 or 70 degrees F, no higher. Summer or winter, when your room temperature is comfortable for you, lightly dressed, it's fine for your baby. Telltale signs he's too warm? He may turn red in the face, sweat, or cry because he's uncomfortable.
Mistake: Not bringing fresh air into the nursery
A baby's tiny lungs are very vulnerable to allergens, secondhand smoke, and gases emitted from new paint or furniture. Air fresheners don't help; they release pollutants that, in one study, were linked with diarrhea, earache, and other symptoms in some babies. And many electronic air "cleaners" don't clean well and emit ozone, an air pollutant.
Smart solution: Open the windows in the baby's room for at least ten minutes a day. Houseplants (especially Boston fern, peace lily, and bamboo palms) clear carbon dioxide and chemical vapors. A bowl of baking soda absorbs odors, and fresh-cut flowers add good ones. Also, put high-efficient filters in your air conditioners (like 3M Filtrete, $15). As a last resort, buy an air-purifying HEPA machine, which doesn't emit ozone.
Mistake: Not taking your infant's temperature when he seems sick
Parents often skip the thermometer, claiming "he didn't feel warm to me." But the clinical sign of fever is an important hallmark for concern in really young babies, says Peter Tesler, M.D., director of pediatric ambulatory care at St. Luke's-Roosevelt Hospital in New York City. A fever of 100.4° or more in a baby under 3 months means an infection and automatically triggers an office -- and usually an emergency room -- visit. Always call the doctor.
Smart solution: If your baby seems under the weather, take his temperature with a rectal thermometer, which gives the most accurate reading until a child can hold a thermometer under his tongue (usually, around age 2). Karen Dunn of Ardmore, Pennsylvania, does so whenever her 5-month-old son, Nolan, seems ill or out of sorts. "Most of the time there's no fever, and my husband teases me, but on several occasions my instincts were right," she says.
Aviva Patz, a mom of two girls in Montclair, New Jersey, continues to make mistakes every day, learning as she goes.