lville’s Moby-Dick begins with the famous words, “Call me Ishmael.” Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina opens with the line: “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Dickens started A Tale of Two Cities begins with “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…” They are all great novels, even though many people are familiar only with their opening lines.

There is a book that has outsold them all and – unlike some of those other hefty tomes – has been read cover to cover by its readers, often multiple times. Dr. Benjamin Spock’s Baby and Child Care was first published in 1946 and begins with the reassuring words: “Trust yourself. You know more than you think you do.”

Parents of babies and young children are assaulted by advice, as Dr. Spock knew all the way back in 1946. When trusted with the care of a helpless and much-loved new baby, parents can become almost hyper vigilant when they hear stories on the news or anecdotes from their neighbors on the right way to care for a child. And, the experts seem to contradict each other and change their positions too often.

For instance, Spock himself maintained for decades that children should never be placed on their backs in their cribs. He said that if babies vomited while lying on their backs, they could choke. Now, however, all parents are advised always to lay their babies on their backs to reduce the chance of SIDS (Sudden Infant Death Syndrome) or “crib death.”

The National Institute of Child Health and Development (NICHD) reports that since its “Back to Sleep” campaign was begun more than 13 years ago, the rate of SIDS has declined 50%. (To learn more about the “Back to Sleep” program, visit the NICHD’s website at

This past fall, parents were warned against using over the counter (OTC) medicines to treat cough and cold symptoms in children under six years old, especially children younger than two years old. Instead of making a late-night run to the drugstore when a baby has a stuffy nose, parents are advised to make other choices. They should call their doctor if the child has a fever or seems very ill; allow the cold to run its course; and employ other means to make the child more comfortable.

Instead of filling a dropper with thick, purple liquid to ease symptoms, parents can safely:

  • use a cool mist vaporizer in baby’s room,
  • gently flush the baby’s nostrils with an OTC nasal saline solution and then suction out the mucous with a rubber baby bulb syringe, and
  • keep the baby hydrated by giving extra liquids.

How to lay a baby down to sleep and how to treat minor cold symptoms are only two of the myriad issues parents face when caring for a new baby. So what can a parent do – short of scouring the Internet for daily updates – to keep their children healthy and safe?

First, choose a doctor whom you trust. Follow your instincts: if you feel rushed or uncomfortable with your child’s doctor, find a different one. A good doctor will listen to your concerns, will make a connection with your child, and will explain his or her opinions. Many good pediatric offices now have websites that provide practical information on caring for minor illnesses and injuries, parenting tips, and even links to recommended books and websites for their patients.

Second, keep a notebook on your child’s health. You don’t need a fancy, leather-bound journal; a simple pocketed folder or three ring binder will do. When your baby is ill or is taking prescribed or over-the-counter (OTC) medications, jot down the date, times, and doses given. Note any reactions – mood changes, rashes, or changes in eating or sleeping patterns that the child shows while on the medication.

When a child develops a fever, your doctor may ask, “When did you first see these symptoms? “ Having a record of details related to your child’s illness will help your doctor best identify the problem. Even noting something like, “Fever doesn’t seem to come down with Tylenol. Came down quickly with Motrin” may help you later.

Keep the notebook in a central location – perhaps next to cookbooks or phone directories in the kitchen.

  • Note any allergies your child has.
  • Keep your child’s current weight jotted into the notebook so that if your doctor has prescribed a medication, you will give correct amounts of medicine at those groggy, middle-of-the-night dosings.
  • Slip the handouts your doctor gives you (after immunizations or at well check-ups) into the folder.
  • Pull health or safety-related articles from magazines and keep them in the folder.
  • Make a separate folder for each of your children if you have more than one child at home.
  • Tell babysitters, grandparents, and other childcare providers about the folders so, if needed, they can easily find up-to-date information on your child.

Third, and last, remember Spock’s words – Trust yourself. Spend time with your baby. If you know her well and interact with her when she is healthy, you will be more able to identify when she is out of sorts or ill.

Don’t let conflicting medical advice in popular press confuse you. Trust yourself. You know your baby better than you think you do.