Why can’t I buy cough medicine for my kids?

Will this potion do any good?

Hack, hack, hack – my daughter is suffering badly from a cough just now. During the daytime, and especially at the doctor’s surgery, her lungs are wheeze-free, but as soon as her head hits the pillow her throat begins to tickle and the coughing starts. Like many other parents we dread the arrival of these coughs, as they tend to go on for weeks and exhaust us all.

Our bathroom cabinet is full of sticky bottles of cough mixture, but these syrupy concoctions are a waste of hard-earned cash. Us mums and dads are suckers for buying medicines, and don’t the pharmaceutical companies know it. There is a bewildering array of useless sugar solutions to choose from.

Young children get masses of coughs as colds, and it is all too easy to crack and buy a potion. A study published in The Lancet suggested that on average children under 1 year in the UK get about 6 colds a year, children 1-2 years get 5.7, 3-4 year olds get 4.5 and 5-9 year olds get 3.5 colds per year.

So why can’t we buy something more potent; something that will ease that cough and help our little-ones get a good nights sleep?

The answer is a rather tangled tale. Prior to 2008 parent’s used to be able to buy quite powerful cough medicines over the counter for all but the youngest babies. These medicines contained rather random mixes of active ingredients, often including nasal decongestants, expectorants, antitussives, analgesics and antihistamines. And the resulting bottles were sold as ‘cure-alls’ for coughs and colds.

Some of the combinations of active ingredients were mad – like antihistamine (which dry up and thicken mucus, helping to suppress a cough) and expectorant (which is believed to make secretions easier to expel).

But all of us were merrily buying these concoctions and pouring large amounts down our children’s throats – a study published in the US in 2008 showed that in a given week over 10% of children were being given cough and cold medication.

Then someone studied the hospital admissions associated with these medicines, and alarm bells began to ring. Too many young children were arriving at A&E suffering from nasty side-effects.

Consequently these medicines have been withdrawn from use for children under the age of 6 in the UK, US and Canada. The logic being that overdosing children over the age of 6 is less likely because they are bigger, they have fewer colds and they can explain how they feel.

Meanwhile, what can we do for our under-6s when they get a hacking cough? It is fair to say that there is scant evidence that any of the active ingredients used in the more potent medicines have much of an effect, so perhaps it makes little difference.

Nonetheless it is frustrating that so few studies have been done to assess the effectiveness of these medicines, particularly in young children who suffer so frequently from coughs and colds.

Normally I’m content to let illnesses run their course, and tend not to resort to medicines at first opportunity. But, I have to admit, that when it comes to Beth’s hacking night-time cough I’m very tempted to try an ‘over 6 years’ cough medicine. The dearth of studies mean that there is a lack of evidence as to whether they work or not, but equally the data I’ve seen suggests that the risk of an adverse reaction has also been overblown.

Hands up who would be prepared to take part in a controlled study on the effectiveness of these medicines in the under-6s? We’ll be first in the queue.


Live fast: die young. Why modern life encourages us to take risks.

Is 'living fast' good for us?

What are you doing right now? Obviously you are reading this blog, but have you also got half an eye on your Facebook and Twitter accounts, and perhaps a book open on your lap and the TV on in the background too. Oh, and was that a text arriving on your phone?

Without a doubt most of us live life at a faster pace today than we did a decade ago. We are bombarded by information from all directions. For our children this hectic whirl and information overload is normal, but now new research suggests that it could be altering the way we think.

Princeton University scientists Jesse Chandler and Emily Pronin have been studying the links between speedy thinking and risk taking. Already we know that people with clinical mania are prone to fast-paced thoughts and risky behaviour. Similarly people who use amphetamines -“speed” – have more confidence and take larger risks while their brain is going at full throttle. So could the racy pace of modern life be changing our behaviour in a similar way?

To investigate the scientists carried out two clever experiments. In the first volunteers had their thinking speed manipulated by being asked to read out sentences from a computer screen. For some the sentences rolled by slowly and for others they flashed past. Afterwards they measured the volunteers mood and got them to inflate ‘virtual’ balloons, with the incentive of higher payments for larger balloons, but the risk of losing everything if a balloon burst.

The results showed that the speedier the thoughts of the volunteer, the more upbeat their mood and the greater the risks they were prepared to take.

Next the scientists turned to real life. They got volunteers to watch clips from the 1992 film Baraka – a kaleidoscopic collection of images with no plot, storyline, actors or dialogue. Some watched it at normal speed, others in rapid fire shots. Afterwards the volunteers filled out a risk-taking questionnaire, quizzing them about how likely they were to participate in risky behaviour (such as smoking pot, having unprotected sex, going on a drinking bender, gambling and so on) over the coming months.

And once again, the people living in the fast lane were more likely to take bigger risks and had expected fewer negative consequences from their actions.

So why should this relationship hold? Could it be a mechanism we have evolved to cope with dangerous and difficult situations? When faced with a spitting cobra we need to think and act fast – slow contemplation will remove your genes from the pool.

But what does it mean in today’s world? If modern life is becoming faster and faster (or even if we just perceive it to be faster), the barrage of information may encourage us to take more risks than we might otherwise.

The implications are not really clear just yet, but it does seem like modern life encourages shorter attention spans and an impatience to be moving swiftly on. And if the psychologists are right this also leads to bold and risky behaviour.

Should we be protecting our children and encouraging them to live life at a slower pace? Will they be at a disadvantage if they don’t have a mobile phone, iPad, or access to Facebook? I don’t know, but I suspect that everything in moderation is probably the answer.

Meanwhile, switching everything off and making time to do nothing sounds like an excellent idea to me. I shall go and act on that advice right now…

Is marriage necessary for happy, healthy children?

Will their kids be happy?

Listening to Any Questions on Friday evening, my hackles were raised by Christina Odone, Daily Telegraph columnist, trotting out the tired old statistic that married parents make for happier, healthier and ultimately wealthier kids. Somehow this link between marriage and children’s wellbeing seems to have become accepted as fact, and is wielded at regular intervals by politicians, wanting to achieve their own ends. So where does the fact end and fiction start? Can marriage really improve children’s wellbeing?

Studies such as this one, by Paul Amato, from Pennsylvania State University, show that children growing up in households with two continuously married parents are indeed better off than their peers with divorced, co-habiting or single parents. On average the children of married parents have higher academic success (school grades), better conduct (fewer behavior problems or aggression),  greater psychological well-being (less depression or distress symptoms), higher self-esteem (positive feelings about oneself and perceptions of self-efficacy), and better peer relations (number of close friends, social support from peers).

According to politicians and think-tanks, studies like this prove that those of us who aren’t married have doomed our children and can expect behavioural and emotional problems galore, along with terrible results from school and dreadful job prospects. But, if we just nipped along to our local registry office, and said our vows, harmony would be restored, and the prospects for our children much improved.

Unfortunately the politicians and think tanks have failed to read beyond the first line of the research findings. What the studies also show, is that this greater wellbeing of the children cannot simply be explained by their parents possessing a marriage certificate. It turns out that married parents, when compared to single, divorced and co-habiting parents, tend to have had more years of eduction, be higher earners and have greater psychological well-being.

The implication is that the people who chose to get married, and who manage to stay married, tend to be the happier, healthier, wealthier and more successful subsection of society. Meanwhile, the mentally ill, psychologically fragile, and non-conforming people are less likely to get married and stay married, and, perhaps not surprisingly, their children are less likely to thrive.

Encouraging this motley bunch of misfits to get married (by offering tax breaks for example) would not suddenly improve the prospects for their children. A parent who is depressed or alcoholic isn’t going to suddenly change into a stable parent because they are wearing a wedding ring.

Anyway, that’s enough from me – rant over – but don’t expect to see me walking down that aisle in a white dress any time soon…


Why puddle splashing is good for you

Perhaps I need an adult 'all in one' rain suit?!


This week Dame Fiona Reynolds, chief executive of the National Trust, has warned of how children’s health is deteriorating, as a result of a lack of outdoor play. The cynical side of me thinks this is a clever way of the National Trust getting some free advertising at the beginning of their busy season, but how much truth is there in what Dame Reynolds is saying? Do children really suffer if they don’t experience grass, trees, birds, butterflies and rain on a regular basis?

Without a doubt today’s children spend less time outdoors than previous generations did. A survey of 830 American mums in 2004 found that 71% of the mothers recalled playing outdoors every day in their childhood, but only 26% of them allowed their own kids to play outdoors every day now. And studies in the UK have revealed a similar trend. Possibly mothers overestimate their childhood outdoor play, with rose-tinted memories of endless summer days; but even taking this into account it seems that today’s youngsters have less freedom to kick-around outdoors.

So what is keeping our kids indoors? Many of the mothers interviewed for this study said they were concerned about crime, safety and injury. Furthermore, they reported that children chose to be indoors more, with TV and computers providing a big draw.

At this point I should probably confess that I have couch-potato tendencies. Going to the park on a sunny day is no problem, but I’m a bit of a wimp when it comes to togging up and cheerfully braving the rain and snow. Is this lack of bracing activity going to do my children harm in the long-term?

Solid evidence is hard to find, but the decline in active play does seem to be correlated to a rise in childhood obesity. Large national surveys in the US show that in the 1960s around 4% of North American children were classified as obese. Now the figure is closer to 20%.

And obesity isn’t the only risk. Numerous recent studies show that many of us are lacking in vitamin D – the sunshine tonic. In the UK vitamin D deficiency has become so severe that there has been a resurgence in childhood rickets – a long forgotten Dickensian disease. As a result health professionals are starting to recommend vitamin D supplements for babies and young children.

Meanwhile, an Australian study has shown a link between an indoor lifestyle and myopia (nearsightedness). The most sedentary 12 years olds were found to be 2 to 3 times more likely to develop this condition than their peers.

Not going outside also disconnects us from nature. A study in 2002 found that British children knew more about  Pokémon (a Japanese card trading game) than common British wildlife such as beetles and Oak trees.

And while being able to recognise a sparrow may not seem too important, experts (such as Dr Stephen Kellert from Yale University) believe that playing outdoors during childhood aids children’s creativity, problem-solving skills and intellectual and emotional development.

So outdoor play does indeed appear to offer many benefits, and those benefits extend to adults too. People who live closer to green spaces tend to spend more time outdoors, and have better mental health.

Dame Reynolds is perhaps being a little alarmist, but there is certainly some truth in her argument about the importance of outdoor play. And, much as I like National Trust gardens, National Trust membership is not obligatory to gain these benefits: your local park, back garden or common will do the job just as well.Time for me to overcome my reticence for rain and embrace puddle jumping I think…


Is losing your ‘rag’ bad for your kids?


How do you react when your child refuses to put their shoes on for the umpteenth time? Do you explode like a ‘firecracker’, or calmly carry on? All of us lose our rag sometimes, but displaying your temper regularly may lead to badly behaved kids later on, a new study suggests.

At first glance this result seems like no surprise – many studies have shown a link between angry parenting and behavioural problems in children and it is easy to assume that the children of explosive parents are simply following mum and dad’s lead. But is it that simple? What if instead it is troublesome kids who are driving their normally calm parents up the wall?

Shannon Lipscomb, from Oregon State University, and her colleagues have attempted to tease out the cause behind this correlation by analysing the interactions between parents and their young children. Each of the 361 families that they followed was assessed when the child was 9, 18 and 27 months old. The parents’ ability to ‘keep their cool’ was measured by asking them to rate their agreement with statements like:

“When my child misbehaves, my partner raises his voice or yells…”

Meanwhile, the children’s behaviour and self-control was evaluated at each session too. Not surprisingly Lipscomb and her colleagues found that the children of ‘firecracker’ parents were more likely to be serious rascals, with tantrums displayed at every turn.

So was it the parenting or genetics to blame? In this case all the children in the study were adopted. Lipscomb and her colleagues also compared the behaviour of the children with their birth mothers, and found that naughty children were more likely to have emotionally troubled birth-mums. So genetics certainly plays a role.

And unfortunately even the calmest style of adoptive parenting did little to quell the moody behaviour of children who had a genetic history of emotional instability.

However, the study also found that highly-strung parenting led to badly behaved kids, even when the child had an emotionally stable birth-mother. In this case the implication is that the over-reactive parenting may be causing the behavioural problems in the kids.

But are tantrum-prone two year olds really going to turn into problem-adults in later life? Lipscomb and her colleagues only followed the children up to the age of 27 months. Quite possibly the terrible-tykes may turn into the leaders, business gurus, sports stars and film idols of tomorrow. Or maybe they are on an inevitable path to rack and ruin. Without a longer running study we will never know.

As ever it seems that both nature and nurture are important in shaping who we are. None of us can do anything about the mixed bag of genes that our children end up with, but we can have some control over the environment our kids grow up in. Trying to rein in our temper could be a good thing.

But before you go away and blame yourself for your kid’s regular outbursts, take a step back and put things into perspective. The very fact that you are reading this article suggests you think hard about your parenting, so I’d hazard a guess that you are already doing a good job!

Are migraine sufferers more likely to have colicky babies?

Colic hurts, image from Wikimedia commons

In China it is called ‘the 100 days crying’, while in the west we name it ‘colic’. Whatever it moniker colic is something that every parent wants their baby to avoid. A colicky baby cries a lot – usually for more than 3 hours every day, often reaching a peak in the evening. Normally this excessive crying manifests itself in the first few weeks, and then lasts until the baby is around 3 months, or roughly 100 days old.

Colic is common: around 15% of babies suffer with it, and yet we still have very little idea what on earth it is. Health visitors and doctors are sympathetic, but they can’t offer any help – the standard advice is to wait and it will pass. But, as a mother who has had two colicky babies, I can confirm that 100 days is one hell of a long time to rock a crying baby and pace around the house.

Now scientists may be unravelling what colic is all about. A study out today has found that mothers who suffer from migraines are more than twice as likely to have babies with colic, than mothers who don’t have a history of migraines. Strangely the study didn’t assess whether dads who suffer from migraines were also more likely to have babies with colic – it would be interesting to see if that link existed too.

So far the researchers have only found a correlation, and it isn’t clear why having a predisposition to migraine should cause colic in your child. However, the researchers speculate that colicky babies may be more sensitive to their surroundings, just as migraine sufferers typically are. Possibly these babies have more trouble adapting to their bright, noisy new world.

Certainly migraines can’t explain it all – 11% of colicky babies in the study belonged to mum’s who never suffered from migraines. Previous studies have found a link between gut flora and colic in babies. Colicky babies were more likely to suffer from gut inflammation caused by one particular type of bacteria, and they also tended to have fewer types of bacteria in their intestines compared to non-colicky babies.

So what to do if you are trying to sooth a distraught and colicky baby? Unfortunately there still isn’t a conclusive answer, but there is no harm in diversifying baby’s gut flora (either by using formula milk with added probiotics, or by breastfeeding mum taking probiotic supplements). And keeping life simple and calm (as if you were trying to prevent a migraine coming on) for baby may be no bad thing too.

Are you an orchid or a dandelion?

Dandelions flourish just about anywhere

Some people seem to flourish, no matter what their circumstances, while others will only blossom if they are nourished in just the right way. What kind of people are you and your family: dandelions or orchids?

David Dobbs wrote an excellent feature storyin New Scientist a couple of weeks ago, about this intriguing new theory. Most people turn out to be ‘dandelions’ – their genetic make-up means that they tend to weather most of the storms that life throws at them. But some people are orchids – if they experience a difficult childhood their gene variants put them at high risk of behavioural problems and mental disorders, such as depression, autism and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). But on the flipside, if nurtured, orchid people turn out to be some of the strongest, happiest and most successful people in our society.

Last autumn I wrote about how orchid people may explain why the human race has been so successful, conquering every continent, out-competing all the other species of human (such as Neanderthal man) and adapting to fill every niche. Those people who carry the gene variants that make them vulnerable to mental illness, are the same people who turn out to be explorers, leaders, innovators, and creators. Without its ‘hot house flowers’ the human race may never have bothered to leave Africa, wouldn’t have invented the bow and arrow, might never have painted the ‘Mona Lisa’, would not have come up with the internet and, most certainly, wouldn’t have arrived in the world we find ourselves in today.

It seems like we’ve done a great job of nourishing our ‘orchids’ for the last few tens of thousands of years, but are we still looking after our fragile blooms now? I’m not convinced that we are, and ultimately this could be bad news for the human race.

As my New Scientist piece reveals, I have rather a personal perspective on this issue, with an ‘orchid’ father, who suffered a pretty traumatic childhood, and went on to develop schizophrenia. I’ve no idea if my father’s wayward genes were passed on to me, and if I in turn may have passed them on to my children. But nonetheless, it has made me think hard about the parenting and education my children receive, and whether it will help them to bloom – be they orchids or dandelions.

From my experiences so far I feel like the advice we are given as parents, and the education system on offer (in the UK at least) tends to be based on a ‘one size fits all’. Is this leading to a bit of a dandelion monoculture? In our society people with ‘different minds’ (the carriers of orchid gene variants perhaps) are at best viewed as having a disability, and at worst shunned and outcast from society. I think it is time to change; to accept that not everyone thinks in the same way, to embrace this diversity and to create the right kind of meadow for all people to bloom. I hope to elaborate further on this in a future blog, but in the meantime feel free to post your thoughts.

Spoon or fingers?

Is spoon feeding setting Kester on the path to obesity?

Apparently weaning your baby on pureed food is more likely to make them chubby, than if you let them feed themselves – http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/health-16905371

Can it really be that putting food on a spoon leads to fatter children? Having looked at the research paper (freely available here: http://bmjopen.bmj.com/content/2/1/e000298.full), I’m not completely convinced. For starters the number of children studied was small (155) and in the case of the ‘baby-led’ weaners, much of the data was missing (over one third of the children hadn’t been weighed recently.

I’m feeding my little (and not overweight!) chap mush on a spoon at the moment, but from recent chats with other parents, I’ve noticed that there is a trend towards ‘baby-led’ weaning at the moment. Kester also has sticks of cucumber and fingers of bread to squish, but he’s a hungry lad and I’m not convinced he’s got the coordination to sate his appetite with finger food alone.

So am I setting him off on the path to obesity? I doubt it. Instead my guess is that this study probably says more about the type of parent who chooses to do baby led weaning. Perhaps baby-led weaning is a method that is favoured by parents who tend to eat a healthier diet in the first place (where carrot sticks, grapes and celery are the types of things you ordinarily find in the fridge). Whereas spoon fed purees may be more likely to be chosen by parents who rely on ready made jar of baby food, and whose cupboards may contain more convenience food and ready meals.

The researchers may have found a correlation (spoon fed weaning correlates with obesity), but the causation is far from clear.

Right ho – had better go and whizz up my little lad’s tea!