Almost from the moment you know you're pregnant, it begins -- a cascade of anxieties touching on everything from health to finances. And as your child grows, so do your worries. Can she subsist on a diet of crackers and cereal? Why is he struggling to read? Our goal is to put these thoughts to rest. We asked readers on Parents.com to share their biggest kid fears and got experts to weigh in with smart coping advice.
Sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS), which is linked to about 2,250 deaths in the U.S. every year, is a legitimate worry for new parents. But you can easily cut your baby's risk in half by following these simple rules: Put him to sleep on his back; get rid of blankets, pillows, bumpers, and sleep positioners; and don't co-sleep with him. Bedsharing has been linked to a heightened risk of accidental suffocation and strangulation. "Although the risk of SIDS ends when your child turns 1, you can rest a little easier once he hits the 6-month mark," says Rachel Moon, M.D., a pediatrician and SIDS researcher at Children's National Medical Center, in Washington, D.C. Still hovering over your child's crib, searching for a steady breathing pattern long after his first birthday? Chalk it up to a basic protective parent reflex, and know that you're not alone.
You run a race one step at a time, and the same is true of building a college fund, says Mark Kantrowitz, publisher of finaid.org, which provides financial-aid information to families. His suggestions:
Don't let the numbers scare you. Parents whose kids will graduate in 2030 will be expected to fork over $240,000 for four years at a public university. But college costs aren't the only thing that will increase over time. Your salary will also be adjusted for inflation (and, hopefully, promotions).
Factor in financial aid. A typical middle-class family pays only about one third of a child's college cost from their savings. The rest comes from aid, scholarships, and student loans.
Start saving today. If you open a 529 College Savings Plan (which grows tax-free as long as you use the money to pay for qualified higher-education costs) the year your child is born, put in $2,000 annually, and average an 8 percent return, you'll have more than $72,000 socked away by the time she enrolls. But if you wait until she's 10, you'll save only $19,300. Choose your state's 529 plan if you get a state income-tax deduction. Otherwise, look for one with a low fee (less than 1 percent) and a high rating from morningstar.com.
More than 200,000 kids in the U. S. are abducted by a family member each year. You can reduce the risk by putting her safety above your hard feelings. "Most family abductions are done out of spite," says Nancy A. McBride, national safety director for the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. "It can be a huge challenge for a parent to stay calm in the middle of a bitter custody battle, but simply being fair about visitation rights and child support can head off a lot of problems."
A little preparation can also help you feel more in control of the situation. As soon as your child is old enough (usually around age 4), teach her your phone number and address. Notify her school or child-care center if you're dealing with a contentious divorce, and specify who is allowed to pick her up. Register any custody orders with the court of jurisdiction, and see if your local police station has child-identification kits. If one is not available, create your own: Place a recent photo, a fingerprint ink strip, and a physical description of your child in an envelope, and update it regularly.
It's true that the incidence of autism spectrum disorders has risen to about 1 in 70 boys (who are four times more likely to be diagnosed than girls are). But it's mainly the result of heightened awareness of the syndrome among doctors and broadened diagnostic criteria, according to Ari Brown, M.D., a Parents advisor and member of the American Academy of Pediatrics' Parents Advisory Board. Chances are your child will be fine. Still, experts agree the risk is somewhat greater if you or your spouse has a family history of autism or if your baby was a preemie. If your child doesn't babble, coo, point, or wave by 12 months, says no words by 16 months or no two-word phrases by 24 months, or seems to lose previously acquired language skills, see your pediatrician right away. "Early intervention, before age 3, can make a huge difference for a child with autism," says Dr. Brown. "Still, it's critical to seek help as soon as a child is diagnosed, regardless of his age." One thing you don't have to worry about is having your child get shots. Multiple studies have shown no link between vaccines and autism.
Playground injuries are fairly common, causing about 200,000 E.R. visits every year, with the majority from falls. But only about 1.5 percent result in a concussion. "In most cases these injuries are preventable," says Gary A. Smith, M.D., DR.P.H., Parents advisor and director of the Center for Injury Research and Policy at Nationwide Children's Hospital, in Columbus, Ohio. Follow the posted age recommendations. Avoid equipment higher than 6 feet off the ground. Check that the playground is well maintained, with adequate sand, wood chips, rubberized material, or other appropriate surfacing to cushion a child's impact if she falls. If your child does take a tumble, look for these warning signs of a head injury.
- She seems confused or disoriented.
- She is bleeding from either the nose or ear (or both).
- She vomits repeatedly.
-If your child seems to be breathing abnormally or loses consciousness, get her to the hospital immediately.
Don't rush to judgment. "I've toured a number of supposedly undesirable schools that have some marvelous programs," says Robin Aronow, Ph.D., founder of the education consulting firm School Search NYC, in New York City. If, after examining the curriculum and test scores, you're still convinced the school won't meet your child's needs, consider other options. Many school districts offer gifted and talented programs, which generally give an aptitude test for admission. Also look at parochial schools, where the tuition tends to be a fraction of that at other private schools. Charter schools nonsectarian public programs that tend to have smaller class sizes and innovative educational philosophies are increasingly popular, especially in urban areas. And at-home parents might also consider homeschooling. About 2 million kids nationwide are doing their learning in the living room (and on field trips) instead of in a classroom.
Otherwise, the number-one way to make a poor-performing school better is to become an involved parent. Join the PTA, and attend as many school-board meetings as you can to get a sense of what needs improvement. Then lobby for change. You can also supplement your child's education beyond the classroom. Instill a love of books by reading to him regularly, take advantage of museums and science centers in your area, and treat every day as an opportunity to teach him something new.
The statistics -- childhood obesity has tripled during the past three decades and two thirds of American adults are overweight or obese--say she probably will be unless you take action. Start by serving a healthy breakfast. Research shows that kids who begin the day with something nutritious in their belly have a lower body mass index than those who don't. Limit sugary beverages (including juice), replace sweets with healthy snacks, and encourage proper portion size by plating her meal rather than letting her serve herself, suggests Parents advisor Elisa Zied, R.D., author of Feed Your Family Right. Your child should be active for at least an hour every day, and so should you.
No matter what lengths you go to, you can't shelter your child completely from environmental toxins. But taking these steps will minimize his exposure.
Choose safer plastics. Reduce his exposure to hormone-disrupting bisphenol A (BPA) and phthalates by avoiding plastic containers with the numbers 3, 6, or 7 on the bottom. Pick glass or stainless-steel ones instead. Use only baby bottles labeled "BPA-free." And don't let your child play with toys that contain polyvinyl chloride (PVC).
Opt for organic produce. The Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit consumer watchdog organization in Washington, D.C., encourages splurging for the extra cost when buying the "dirty dozen" of produce apples, bell peppers, blueberries, celery, cherries, imported grapes, kale, nectarines, peaches, potatoes, spinach, and strawberries, which have the highest levels of pesticide residue.
Protect him from poisons. To prevent a bug or vermin infestation, focus on eliminating food sources (be sure to sweep up crumbs and store pantry items in sealed containers) and plugging holes with steel wool to prevent the little critters from getting in, says Jerome Paulson, M.D., codirector of the Mid-Atlantic Center for Children's Health and the Environment, in Washington, D.C. If pesticides are unavoidable, stick with natural ones, such as diatomaceous earth for bugs and plain old wooden traps for rodents. Stay away from sprays designed to kill insects or vermin, especially those containing allethrin and carbaryl. These can land on the floor or on toys and wind up in a child's mouth.
It's normal for the guilt you feel about leaving your child behind every morning to turn into jealousy toward your caregiver. But it's not rational. "Even if you only spend an hour with him every day, he'll love you like no one else," says Betsy Brown Braun, author of You're Not the Boss of Me. Make the most of your time together by putting away your cell phone, saving the e-mail for later, and giving your son your undivided attention.
The media tend to play up cases of childhood sexual abuse by an unknown assailant, but they're rare. About 90 percent of cases involve a family member or someone your child knows and trusts, says Whitney Gabriel, a spokesperson for the Child Molestation Research & Prevention Institute, in Atlanta. Teach your child never to go anywhere with someone she doesn't know (even if that person claims you said it was okay). Minimize situations in which she's alone with an adult in a nonpublic place, and when that's unavoidable make sure you drop in unexpectedly. Explain to your child that nobody except Mommy, Daddy, and her doctor at a checkup has the right to look at or touch her private parts and that she should let you know right away if anyone does.
It's too early to tell whether your child's bashfulness is a phase or a permanent personality quirk. Either way, you can help him cope. "Like the ABCs and addition, friendship is teachable," says Michele Borba, Ed.D., a Parents advisor and the author of The Big Book of Parenting Solutions. Point out the importance of making eye contact. Coach him to say something nice to a child he meets ("I like your shirt"). Arrange lots of playdates, and don't set the buddy bar too high, having one or two good friends is perfectly adequate.
Chances are that won't happen, but there is an increased risk that she'll turn into a yeller, since home is where kids learn how to deal (or not) with anger-management issues. When you feel your blood start to boil, moderate your tone in front of your child, says Beverly Engel, a psychotherapist and author of Healing Your Emotional Self. If necessary, go to another room and cool down. When you return, calmly explain why you're annoyed ("I asked you three times to put your toys away, and you didn't cooperate") and name the emotion ("That made me angry"). Even if you've blown up for as long as you can recall, your behavior and your relationship can be repaired.
Originally published in the February 2011 issue of Parents magazine.