The week's best parenting advice: February 9, 2021

Jessica Hullinger
Baby food.
Illustrated | iStock
Our parenting newsletter is a weekly roundup of the best parenting insights from scientists and family experts. To receive the newsletter every week, please enter your email below:


Am I poisoning my child?

The results of a congressional investigation into commercial baby food sent parents into a worried frenzy last week by suggesting many baby foods contain dangerous levels of heavy metals like arsenic, lead, cadmium, and mercury. Such metals can have "neurotoxic effects" on young children, the report said. "Even low levels of exposure can cause serious and often irreversible damage to brain development." That's very scary, but parents shouldn't panic, writes economist Emily Oster at ParentData. Baby food is not "unique" here — heavy metals are everywhere, and "you really cannot avoid some exposure to these substances," she says. "Ultimately, the numbers here suggest that the exposure a child has through these foods is unlikely to be very large relative to the exposures which have been demonstrated to have effects." She suggests cutting down on rice-based puffs and cakes, which she concludes is the most worrisome of the foods mentioned in the report. But "honestly, please do not think about this too much." [Subcommittee on Economic and Consumer Policy Committee, ParentData]


Tips for tackling bedtime

Why do so many kids struggle so much at bedtime? "In non-pandemic times, the answer is often that kids are overtired," writes Melinda Wenner Moyer, author of How to Raise Kids Who Aren't A--holes. But right now, many kids are actually going to bed with too much energy. "They haven't been exposed to all of the stimuli they are used to from daycare and school and just normal kid life," she says. The solution — physical exercise — might be easier said than done. "If you have a yard, kick your kids outside for an hour," Wenner Moyer says. "Or let them try some physical activity apps, like GoNoodle and Cosmic Kids Yoga." If your kid just won't let you leave their bedside, try what sleep consultant Arielle Greenleaf calls the "Excuse Me" drill: Say goodnight, but explain you'll be back to check on them in a few minutes. "Nine times out of 10 when you do that, by the time you come back, they're asleep," Greenleaf says. [Melinda Wenner Moyer]


A worrying trend

Hospitals across the country are seeing an uptick in children admitted with suicidal tendencies, NPR reports. "The kids that we are seeing now … are really at the stage of maybe even having tried or attempted or have a detailed plan," says Dr. Vera Feuer, director of pediatric emergency psychiatry at Cohen Children's Medical Center of Northwell Health in New York. Psychiatrists worry this trend is linked to the pandemic, which has exacerbated the mental health crisis in America. But suicide is preventable, they say, and parents can help by responding calmly when a child expresses suicidal thoughts. Ask questions, validate their feelings, invite them to share, or find someone with whom they're comfortable speaking. On a practical level, removing dangerous objects — weapons, especially — from your home is "one of the easiest and most well-proven ways to prevent suicide," NPR reports. Speak with your child's pediatrician, and if you need immediate support, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. [NPR]


Mom, put down your phone

As the pandemic drags on, it might be time to re-enforce some screentime limits for your kids in this new reality. But first, examine your own habits, write Brian Platzer and Abby Freireich at The Atlantic. "All of us parents have to be better at putting down our phones from time to time. If our kids see us refreshing Instagram every two minutes instead of opening a book, or taking a walk, or having an actual conversation, they will accept as a necessity the ever-present liquid-crystal display." Designate some screen-free family time, during which everyone puts down their devices and does something together. And if you do want to set time limits for your kids, think beyond a specific number of minutes. "Try to think of other, more natural ways of breaking up their activities. Maybe your kids play one game before tackling homework," Platzer and Freireich say. [The Atlantic]


A spoonful of sugar?

When little kids are sick, getting them to take their medicine can be nearly impossible. "Toddlers, in particular, are not ready for logical reasoning, such as, "You feel crappy! This will make you feel un-crappy!" They don't care; they don't want it," says Meghan Moravcik Walbert at Lifehacker. In a recent Instagram post, Nikki, mother of two, shared her secret for overcoming this challenge: sprinkles. Carefully measure out the amount of medicine you need, squirt it into a spoon, add sprinkles, and "call it something appealing like unicorn potion," she says. Voila, problem solved. "When it comes to small children and medicine, it's all about the presentation," Moravcik Walbert says. "And while medicine with sprinkles might sound semi-disgusting to you, it looks magical to them." [Tiny Hearts Education, Lifehacker]