How to (actually) keep your child’s brain safe

markuspiske, pixabay.com, CC0 1.0
markuspiske, pixabay.com, CC0 1.0

As a society, we could do a lot more for the safety of our children if we focused on accident prevention instead of being consumed by irrational fears.

I am a child neurologist and neuroscientist, as well as the parent of a 4-year-old and a 19-month-old. My research and patient care revolve around childhood brain injury and how to prevent it.

Since having kids, I have noticed that my parenting concerns are strikingly different from those of many other parents. My kids get to eat loads of candy. They get to stay up late if they want to. They’re allowed to watch cartoons till they’ve had their fill. I don’t care if they use swear words. When they fall down, I don’t pick them up. If they’re eating dirt, I don’t stop them. I don’t really care if they get bitten by other kids at daycare – but if they do, I’d like them to bite back.

So you might think I’m just super laid back and laissez faire, but you couldn’t be more wrong. There is a long list of pretty standard childhood activities that my children will never experience if I can help it. Riding the public school bus? No, too often there are no seat belts. Staying at a hotel with an unfenced pool? Not until they’re expert swimmers. Bike riding on busy streets? No way. Staying at a friend’s house? Not until I’ve verified that there are no guns there. Playing American football? Don’t even think about it.

The real dangers are not where we think they are

Why would I, as a child neurologist and parent, have such a divergent notion of what’s dangerous for my kids? It’s simple. Precisely because I am a neurologist, I know that what hurts the brains of otherwise healthy children in developed countries is not too much television, or junk food. It’s trauma and asphyxiation.

The most common preventable cause of severe brain damage in babies is so-called non-accidental trauma (NAT), which means that the baby was shaken or beaten by an adult caregiver. These types of cases are astonishingly common, peak around three months of age and often leave surviving children neurologically devastated. As a neurologist, I have seen this horrific scenario play out too many times.

Cars and swimming pools represent the greatest threats to toddlers. The top causes of death in that age range are motor vehicle-on-motor vehicle collisions, motor vehicle-on-toddler collisions, and drownings. Many of the most severely brain-injured children I’ve taken care of were ejected from the car during a crash. While most serious car-on-car crashes happen at highway speeds, most car-on-toddler accidents happen at slow speeds in the most seemingly innocuous settings.

“Even though it will feel unnatural, let your worrying be guided by statistics and not your instinctive fears, or the news.”

As for swimming pools, I would never live in a house with a pool. Although pools have surprisingly good PR, they should really be renamed “toddler-drowning devices.” They’re the number-one cause of death for male toddlers and the source of my worst nightmares.

The following is not an exhaustive list, but to keep your kids safe from the gravest dangers, here are some simple guidelines you should follow:

  • Never speed, and never drive when sleep-deprived or intoxicated.
  • If you can afford it and square it with your conscience, you should also buy a big, heavy car.
  • Never let small children ride in a car without the appropriate child or booster seat and never let older children ride without a seat belt, even for just a few yards.
  • Never let your children play near roads, and hold their hand or carry them when walking through parking lots and garages.
  • Never let your children ride an all-terrain vehicle or motorcycle, even as a passenger.
  • Never let your children ride a bike, skateboard or rollerblade without a helmet.
  • Never stay at a home or hotel with a pool unless it is protected by a security fence.
  • Teach your children to swim at the youngest possible age.
  • Carefully vet all babysitters.

The human brain is terrible at intuitively judging the dangers of the modern world. I’m afraid of sharks and bears even though the chances of me being hurt or killed by a wild animal are essentially zero. On the flip side, I have no natural fear response to cars, although they’re incredibly dangerous and I’m surrounded by them every day.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if televisions, iPads and computer games are saving children’s lives every day, by keeping them away from cars and swimming pools.”

For many children, the commute to school or daycare is the most dangerous thing they do every day, yet their parents might be more worried about kidnappings, which are infinitely less likely than car accidents.

Even though it will feel unnatural, let your worrying be guided by statistics and not your instinctive fears, or the news. As a society, we could do a lot more for the safety of our children if we focused on accident prevention instead of being consumed by irrational fears.

On a final note: I wouldn’t be surprised if televisions, iPads and computer games are saving children’s lives every day, especially in the summer, by keeping them indoors, away from cars and swimming pools.
 
 
To our blog readers – parents and child development professionals: Are swimming pools really “toddler-drowning” devices, as our author puts it? Would you let your kids eat dirt? What are the greatest dangers for children, from your viewpoint? Tell us what you think!