Waging war on germs

Duane Hoffmann / MSNBC
/ Source: msnbc.com contributor

How much can parents really do to shield their kids from germs? And what's the best way to deal with emotional overeating? Growing Up Healthy answers your queries. Have a question about children's health and well-being? Send it to us at childrenshealth@feedback.msnbc.com. We’ll post select answers in future columns.

Q: In a recent column, you suggested that using a cover to protect an infant from biting down on a shopping-cart handle was “overparenting.” Considering the panic this country went through because some people couldn’t get flu shots, why is taking such steps to protect your child from germs considered overdoing it?

A: Any parent knows that the only thing worse than taking care of a sick child is taking care of a sick child while the rest of the family (including you) is also sick. For this reason, it’s hard to criticize anyone for doing whatever he or she can in a true attempt to prevent illnesses. The issue of the shopping-cart cover, however, is a sticky matter. There are two camps.

Camp One doesn’t believe precautions like a special cover for a shopping cart does anything but complicate parenting, which is already a complicated enough job.

In this camp is Dr. Dennis Woo, chairman of the department of pediatrics at UCLA-Santa Monica. “The fact that children do so well [without extreme protective measures] is a huge testament to the power of our immune systems,” says Woo.

He also points out that covers even present their own risks. Most notably, as a potential tripping hazard for kids who try to get out of the cart. Furthermore, a cover could be as germy as the handle if parents don’t keep it spotless. And if you have more than one child it would be highly impractical, he says.

“Good hand-washing and being a little selective about where you go makes sense to me. But nothing beyond that. Certainly, not a shopping-cart cover,” says Woo, the father of three.

He doesn’t mean you need to hibernate to be safe, either. Just don’t knowingly take your children around people who are sick.

Woo says you can’t really prevent children from being exposed to germs and, besides, if they don’t get the germs from the handle (hint: bring a toy for them to play with instead) they will get germs from day care, play groups, restaurants, community play centers, friends and their families. Most homes are veritable germ fests – even if you run a tidy ship.

The only time Woo recommends extra precautions is for newborns. “The first three months, but especially the first month, I tell parents to be a little bit cautious with the baby,” says Woo.

He explains that a cold and fever that are not a big deal for a six-month-old can be enough to land a six-week-old in the hospital. By cautious, again, he means exercise good hand-washing and avoid sick people. In fact, he says, you should try to avoid crowds in general (i.e. don’t pass a newborn around parties).

Of course, then, there is Camp Two. Dr. Philip Tierno, director of the department of clinical microbiology and diagnostic immunology at New York University Medical Center and the author of "The Secret Lives Of Germs," says anything you can do – including using shopping-cart covers – to reduce your child’s exposure to germs is worthwhile.

“It’s true that nothing you can do will eliminate germs, but you can cut down on them as much as possible,” says Tierno, who uses a cover when he takes his grandson grocery shopping.

The bottom line is that it’s up to you, as it should be. If using the cover makes sense to you and you’re using it not to show the world what a great parent you are but because you want to try to prevent illness, great.

My 12-year-old son eats when he's unhappy. What can I do or say to help him break this bad habit?

A: The first thing you need to do, says Marlene B. Schwartz, co-director of the Yale University Center for Eating and Weight Disorders in New Haven, Conn., is make sure your son is getting an adequate breakfast, lunch and dinner with regular healthy snacks between so you can rule out that he’s hungry.

Once that’s done, you’ll need to play detective. Take some time to observe your son’s habits and try to deduce when and why he’s eating due to his emotions.

“Look at this as a puzzle and see if you can find the pieces that are triggering it,” says Schwartz. Try to find out exactly what’s causing the sadness. Did he have a fight with a friend? Is he having trouble with homework? Is he bored? Once you’ve done your best observing, it’s time to sit down and talk with him about his feelings.

“You need to ask him, ‘How are you feeling?’ ‘What’s going on?’” says Schwartz. The idea is to try to get him to identify his feelings and articulate them instead of masking them with food.

Schwartz says all humans eat for emotional reasons at one time or another but those who develop a problem tend to be “people-pleasers.” They have trouble being direct and assertive and they usually need to learn how to be more honest in their relationships. “When you’re more honest you tend to feel closer to the people in your life,” explains Schwartz. Consequently, you tend not to seek solace in food.

You’ll really be doing your son a service by encouraging him at this young age to be true to himself even if his opinions aren’t always what others want them to be. But he may also need some ideas on what he can do instead of eat when he’s feeling upset. Activity is always good, so try to encourage sports, walking the dog, etc. And, of course, talking to friends and family should be encouraged.

If none of this seems to work, though, it’s time to get a professional opinion. If he's suffering from depression, for instance, he'll need more help than you alone can offer.

Lastly, all parents should know that there’s one thing you can do to help protect children from eating disorders: have a meal together. A study recently published in the Journal of Adolescent Health by University of Minnesota researchers found that children who ate meals with their families tended to have fewer eating disorders.

Researchers believe the meal itself provides an opportunity for parents to model healthy eating for their children. And the meal-time conversation (as long as it's positive) gives parents a chance to check in with their kids on how they're feeling.

Victoria Clayton is a freelance writer based in California and co-author of the new book "Fearless Pregnancy: Wisdom and Reassurance from a Doctor, a Midwife and a Mom," published by Fair Winds Press.