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"You'll Ruin Your Eyes!""

As parents, we make a multitude of small, yet important, decisions concerning our children's well-being every day, from how long to let a baby cry before she's picked up to what a toddler should and shouldn't eat. A lot of the advice we get about our kids' health comes in the form of dos and don'ts from our own mothers, friends, neighbors, or even the stranger behind you in the supermarket checkout line. But a surprising amount of such well-meant guidance is based more on speculation than science. Read on for a reality check on some long-held beliefs about children's health and habits.

MYTH: "Reading in the dark will ruin his eyes!"

"There's no proof that reading in dim light permanently damages a child's eyes," says Catherine Dundon, M.D., an associate clinical professor at Vanderbilt Children's Hospital, in Nashville. "It's just harder to see in the dark." The same is true of working at a computer screen with the lights off or low. In either case, the most likely adverse effect is eye fatigue or a headache from squinting.

MYTH: "Add some rice cereal to the baby's bottle before bedtime to fill her up and she'll sleep through the night."

A newborn's stomach can't hold more than a few ounces of food at a time, so regardless of what she eats, she'll need to do it every two to three hours. "Babies don't sleep through the night until their brains are mature enough to handle the normal sequence of sleep cycles, usually when they're 3 to 6 months old," says Suzanne Corrigan, M.D., associate clinical professor of pediatrics at the University of Texas, Dallas. "Mixing cereal into a bottle isn't going to speed that up."

If your baby is over 6 months and still routinely wakes up at night, chances are she isn't hungry but instead is looking to be consoled. "Parents can set themselves up for repeated night wakings by getting their baby in the habit of being rocked to sleep or letting her fall asleep on the breast or bottle," says Dr. Corrigan. To help your baby learn how to fall asleep: Put her into her crib when she's drowsy, not sound asleep.

And what if a well-meaning but misguided relative sneaks some cereal into the bottle? It won't harm the baby or increase her chances of developing food allergies. Ironically, the only real health risk is poor nutrition. Breast milk and formula contain all the nutrients a baby needs until she's 4 to 6 months old; feeding her cereal means she gets less of these.

MYTH: "Babies are supposed to sleep on their stomach. Otherwise, they might spit up and choke in their sleep."

"Actually most infants won't choke when sleeping on their back since healthy full-term babies have very good gag reflexes," says J. Brent Prather, M.D., a pediatrician in Opelousas, LA. In fact, infants who sleep on their stomach are at a higher risk of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS) (although babies with gastroesophageal reflux or Robin syndrome should be put down to sleep on their stomach). "One theory for the increased danger suggests that babies block off their nose and mouth when sleeping on their tummy," says Dr. Prather. "So putting them to sleep on their back or side reduces the risk of SIDS."

MYTH: "If you don't get his fever down, he'll suffer brain damage!"

"We call this 'fever phobia,'" says Donald Shifrin, M.D., associate clinical professor of pediatrics at the University of Washington. "Fever is not a sickness but rather the body's normal response to infection, signaling the immune system to mobilize the troops and begin fighting illness."

The degree of fever doesn't always correlate with the severity of an ailment. Children can run temperatures of 103°F or higher with many run-of-the-mill viruses, while some serious illnesses won't create a temperature above 101°F. Other symptoms, such as unusual lethargy, may be more important than how high a fever is.

There are a few exceptions: Call your pediatrician immediately for any fever in a newborn under 3 months; a fever that's accompanied by excessive lethargy, pain, or a stiff neck; a fever that rises to 105°F or higher; or if a febrile convulsion (fever seizure)  -- marked by severe irritability, twitching, and, in some cases, unconsciousness  -- occurs.

"Three percent of children have fever seizures," says Dr. Shifrin. "They're scary, but they don't have any lasting effects. When a child has one, however, your pediatrician needs to make sure that it's not a symptom of some severe infection, such as meningitis."

MYTH: "She should really be out of diapers by 18 months."

By now, there's a good chance you've heard from your own mother that you were potty trained before age 2. "What your mother probably did was condition you, not train you," says Dr. Corrigan. "She sat you on the potty every thirty or sixty minutes, so you learned to go when she said you should, just like Pavlov's dog."

In order to be toilet trained, a child has to have a willingness and desire to please you, be able to understand her body's signals, control its functions, and tell you when she needs to go. That takes muscle maturation and verbal ability, both of which develop at different rates in each child.

The usual age range for toilet training is 24 to 36 months, although girls tend to master it earlier than boys. "You can encourage toilet training by praising a child who makes an effort to use the potty, and by ignoring accidents," says Dr. Corrigan. "When a child sits on the potty, tell her how proud you are. When she wets her diaper, change it matter-of-factly. But if you force the behavior or punish the child for not using the potty, she's likely to regress rather than progress."

MYTH: "He'll catch his death if he goes out into the cold with a wet head or without a hat!"

"Kids get sick from being exposed to viruses or bacteria  -- not from cold weather," says Dr. Dundon.

For years it was believed that ear infections were brought on by a child's ears being exposed to the cold. However, they occur most often in the middle ear, which is protected by the eardrum from cold wind or water. "In children, the eustachian tube, which drains fluid from the middle ear, is very tiny and easily blocked by congestion from colds or allergies," says Dr. Dundon. "When this happens, the stagnant fluid in the middle ear often breeds bacteria, which can lead to infection."

It's still smart to put a hat on a child in cold weather. "A majority of body heat is lost from the head," says Dr. Corrigan. "This is particularly true with infants, whose heads are disproportionately large for their bodies."

MYTH: "You don't have to worry about what your little one eats as long as she drinks her milk."

The only food that gives a baby everything she needs nutritionally is mother's milk or iron-fortified formula, and even these have to be supplemented with solid food after 4 to 6 months. "Cow's milk shouldn't be given to kids under 1 year," says Dr. Dundon. "Even after that, it's not essential  -- it's a good source of protein, calcium, and fat, but you can get those from other foods." It also doesn't contain every nutrient a growing child needs. For instance, cow's milk has virtually no iron, which aids in getting oxygen to the blood; drinking it almost exclusively can lead to iron-deficiency anemia in toddlers. About 3 percent of American children from ages 1 to 2 have this condition due to an iron-poor diet that consists largely of cow's milk.

To avoid these problems, starting at about 4 to 6 months, slowly introduce new foods so that your child is eating a variety from different sources by the time she is weaned or switched from formula to cow's milk.

MYTH: "He should wait an hour after he eats to go swimming. Otherwise, he'll get a cramp and drown."

This cautionary advice is derived from the notion that if you swim right after you eat, so much blood will be shunted to the digestive system that there won't be enough left to circulate to your muscles, which can cause them to cramp.

"It's true that a large blood supply is needed for digestion," says Dr. Dundon. "But there's plenty left to circulate to your muscles. And while a meal just before swimming could cause sluggishness, which wouldn't be wise if your child was about to compete in a race, there's no need to worry if he wants to goof around in the pool or take a leisurely swim after eating."

MYTH: "Your baby will expect you to carry her 24 hours a day if you pick her up every time she cries."

"During the first year, you're not spoiling a baby by holding and comforting her when she cries," says Dr. Prather. "You're building up her sense of security, which will make her more capable of comforting and amusing herself as she gets older. In my experience, infants under a year old who are consistently picked up when they cry are less fussy when they get older than those who are left to cry it out."

Paula M. Siegel is a New York City-based writer and coauthor of The Scared Child: Helping Kids Overcome Traumatic Events.