When you have a baby, you will likely be gifted with a lot of hand-me-down wisdom. Mothers, grandmothers, aunts, neighbors, friends - even well-meaning strangers - will offer up advice based on children they have raised or stories they've been told.

There is a lot to be said for experience, and many old wives' tales about babies and their development have some truth to them. But it's important to remember that every baby is different. Hard and fast rules do not apply, and these "rules" can frighten new parents unnecessarily. When in doubt, check with your pediatrician.

Here are some of the myths I commonly debunk in my pediatric practice.

  • If your baby is a late talker, it means he or she has autism.

    With everyone so aware of autism, this is the most frequent misconception I encounter. Because every child with autism has a speech delay, parents are afraid a speech delay means their child has autism. This is just not true. I tell parents that it's very common for kids to have delays of any sort. Delayed speech is the most common one we see, but babies and toddlers can also have motor delays. Some children may require physical or speech therapy, but the vast majority will catch up and do just fine.

  • A flu shot can give your baby the flu.

    This is impossible. The flu vaccine is a killed or attenuated vaccine, meaning the virus is either dead or so weakened that it is not infectious. It cannot give you the flu. But it is sometimes difficult to convince a parent who was perhaps infected with a different virus just after getting a flu shot - or heard about someone else who was infected - and is convinced the shot itself made him or her sick.

  • Listening to classical music will make your baby smarter.

    There is no scientific evidence of this, but classical music is nice and soothing, so I'm not going to talk people out of it. What is true is that reading and talking to your baby during the first 18 months of life offers big advantages, verbally and socially, as your little one approaches the preschool years. Kids whose parents don't have the time or resources to expose them to a lot of books and conversation are at a definite disadvantage.

  • It's best not to vaccinate a sick baby.

    This is true only if your baby has had a fever of 101 degrees Fahrenheit or more in the previous 24 hours. Otherwise, even if a baby has a cold or congestion, it's safe and effective to administer a vaccine. There is a lot of confusion about vaccines in general - often based on misinformation found on the Internet. I am always crystal clear in telling parents: There is no scientific evidence that any vaccines cause any medical issues in any infant.

  • If your baby spits up a lot, something is wrong.

    All babies spit up. Some spit up every day, and that's okay as long as they're gaining weight and are not overly fussy. However, some babies develop gastroesophageal reflux and experience heartburn after every feeding, so I treat them with antacids to make them feel better.

  • Your baby should poop every day.

    Some babies poop three or four times a day, and that's perfectly normal. Some poop every three or four days, and that's normal, too. I always tell parents that frequency is not as important as the consistency of the stools. If your newborn's poops are soft and pasty - and not hard - and your child is eating and gaining weight, there is nothing to worry about.

  • Breastfed babies are smarter.

    I highly recommend breastfeeding because of its proven health benefits. You are giving your baby the nutrition he or she needs and passing on immune boosters. Recent studies show breastfed babies even have reduced hyperactivity. But breastfeeding is not for everyone. If it's too stressful or there's a medical reason you can't breastfeed, you should know that scientists have found no causal link between breastfeeding and higher IQs. Lots of babies are brought up on formula and still receive the nutrients they need to grow.

  • Boosting nighttime calories will help your baby sleep through the night at an earlier age.

    A lot of parents feel that if they give their babies more calories at bedtime, by adding rice cereal to their formula, for instance, it will make them sleep longer. I don't recommend it - unless a baby has very bad reflux, and there are specially prepared formulas for this. Babies younger than four or five months don't need the extra calories, and it's normal for them to feed every three to five hours for the first four to six months anyway.

  • New babies should be on a strict feeding schedule.

    Some babies thrive on routine, but again, every baby is different. For the first three or four months, it's fine to feed your baby on demand. As babies get older, most do benefit from a routine.

  • It's okay for babies to sleep on their stomachs.

    No! This is one myth I am quick to dispel for today's parents. The American Academy of Pediatrics has long recommended that infants be placed on their backs for sleeping until they're about a year old. Studies show that the incidence of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS) is 20 times lower for babies who sleep on their backs, and about 10 times lower for babies who sleep on their sides.

  • Picking up your baby whenever he or she cries - or holding your baby too much - will "spoil" them.

    During the first couple of months, it's really hard to spoil a baby, so it's fine to pick up your infant whenever he or she cries. However, as babies get older you want them to learn to soothe themselves and to become less reliant on you, so it becomes a bit of a balancing act.

The bottom line: If you receive well-meaning advice that causes you concern or worry, please do check in with your pediatrician. In my own practice, what I tell parents most often is: "Don't worry!" Babies sense your anxiety, and anxious parents run the risk of having an anxious baby. If I'm worried, as your pediatrician, I'll let you know. But please trust that most of what your baby does, even if it seems odd to you, is - for your very special and one-of-a-kind baby - perfectly okay.


Brent Thibodeaux, M.D., is a board-certified pediatrician with Mid-Atlantic Permanente Medical Group. He sees patients at the Kaiser Permanente Reston Medical Center.