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An Update on Water Immersion During Labor and Delivery

Science Based Medicine last covered the increasingly common practice of laboring while immersed in water, in many cases followed by delivering the baby while still submerged, a little over four years ago. In that post, Dr. Amy Tuteur focused primarily on the contamination of the water with a variety of potentially pathogenic bacteria and the associated risk of infection. She also touched on the some of the other risks of giving birth underwater and made some excellent arguments against many of the claims made by proponents. I recommend reading that post and the ensuing comments.

This week, a new joint clinical report from the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) and the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) on immersion in water during labor and delivery was published in both the April Pediatrics and on the ACOG website. The media has responded with the typical flurry of falsely dichotomous coverage, pitting maternal-fetal medicine experts against midwives and other waterbirth proponents and leaving it up to the reader to decide which side is right. This March 23rd, an NPR article by Nancy Shute is a particularly frustrating example of weak medical reporting. In the article she essentially portrays giving birth underwater as an established and safe practice and medical experts as overly focused on a few flimsy anecdotes and case reports:

“Case reports are the lowest form of evidence,” Shaw-Battista counters. She is completing a study of 1,200 women who labored or birthed in water, and says they did as well or better than women who did not. “Given the bulk of the data, I don’t think we should use case reports to reject options that women are currently enjoying.”

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Posted in: Obstetrics & gynecology

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Nightmares, Night Terrors and Potential Implications for Pediatric Mental Health…..

Earlier this month, the typical media outlets were abuzz (“Childhood nightmares may point to looming health issues“) with the results of a newly published study linking early childhood nightmares and night terrors with future psychotic experiences. Expressing little in the way of skepticism, most reports simply regurgitated the University of Warwick press release. The research, published in the quite legitimate journal Sleep, is interesting but I’m not sure it tell us anything that we don’t already know. And it certainly doesn’t support any causal relationship between sleep disorders of any variety and “delusions, hallucinations, and thought interference”. But before we delve into the specifics of the paper, I believe a quick review of sleep, and sleep problems, in children is in order.

What is sleep?

To the outside observer, sleep appears as an altered level of consciousness where response to our environment and voluntary movements are noticeably decreased. But, with a certain degree of variability, the line between sleep and wakefulness is pretty thin. This distinguishes it from the increasing stimulation required to reverse other states of altered consciousness such as lethargy, obtundation, stupor and ultimately coma, which is not acutely reversible. I don’t plan on getting too technical, but there is obviously much more to sleep than that. Physiologically our metabolic demands drop a bit, and we enter a generalized anabolic or “growth” state during which a number of beneficial processes take place, predominantly, we think, involving the brain.

Sleep is a vital aspect of human life that has appears to have both physiological and psychological purpose, and is essentially universal in the animal kingdom. All you need to do is observe a cat for more than five minutes to see that we aren’t the only animal species that both needs and seemingly enjoys sleep. In fact, if you could talk to a nematode, it would likely go on for hours about how much it enjoys sleeping in on Sundays. Humans spend roughly a third of their lives asleep, but the percentage of each day devoted to sleep is significantly higher during infancy and early childhood.

We don’t know why the need to sleep became part of the blueprint for life so early on in our evolutionary history, and researchers certainly haven’t worked out all of the nuances of why humans and other animal species continue to be so dependent on it throughout the lifespan. It is likely that its purpose has broadened over time as species branched out into new environments. There are a number of leading hypotheses, however. And barring some amazing technological or medical advance, we appear to be stuck with sleep.
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Posted in: Neuroscience/Mental Health

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The Pollyanna Phenomenon and Non-Inferiority: How Our Experience (and Research) Can Lead to Poor Treatment Choices

Pollyanna, a popular children’s book written in 1913 by Eleanor H. Porter, introduced the world to one of the most optimistic fictional characters ever created. She always saw the good in people and her approach to life frequently involved playing “The Glad Game”, where she attempted to find something to appreciate in every situation no matter how unfortunate. She was glad about receiving crutches rather than a doll one Christmas because it was great that she didn’t actually need them. She teaches this philosophy to those around her, even her cantankerous Aunt Polly, and the entire town is transformed into a veritable Mayberry, USA. Later, when she actually does require the use of crutches, her resolve is tested but she triumphantly finds a silver lining.

The Pollyanna principle, first described by Matlin and Stang in 1978 and also known as positivity bias, is a psychological tendency for people to place greater importance on, and assume better accuracy of, descriptive statements about them that are positive. This goes on behind the scenes while our conscious brain tends to dwell on what is perceived as negative stimuli. Though many folks do come across as pessimistic, we are subconsciously biased to accept praise and reject criticism. Anyone who isn’t clinically depressed is on some level more like Pollyanna than Eeyore.

This positivity bias also plays a large role in how we remember past events. As has been covered extensively in prior posts here on SBM, and on Dr. Novella’s excellent Neurologica blog, memory isn’t a replayed video or audio recording of prior events and our interpretations of them, but rather is a reconstruction that is prone to errors during processing and editing that accumulate over time. This leads to false memories that feel no less real than our recollection of what happened five minutes ago.

In this case, the Pollyanna principle results in positive information being more accurately processed and recalled than negative experiences. It also causes our memory of negative events to gradually become less negative as the years go by. I couldn’t have done that terribly during my first high school trumpet solo because I remember people telling me it was pretty good afterwards, right?

So what does this have to do with the practice of medicine? Biases that affect memory also impact how physicians and patients interact. I once assumed the overnight care of a child who had undergone a lumbar puncture performed by one of my female colleagues earlier that day. I ordered no tests and performed no procedures during my brief exposure to the family—yet over a year later when I admitted the same child for a completely different reason I was accused of being the terrible doctor who had unnecessarily subjected their baby to a spinal tap during the last hospitalization. Even after I showed them the documentation which proved that I had nothing to do with that (very appropriate) decision, and that I did not put a needle in their child’s spine, they refused to accept the evidence and had great difficulty trusting my diagnosis and recommendations.
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Posted in: Clinical Trials, Pharmaceuticals

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Preventing Tooth Decay in Kids: Fluoride and the Role of Non-Dentist Health Care Providers

The following post is a collaborative effort between myself and science-based dentist Grant Ritchey DDS. Dr. Ritchey is a co-host of the always excellent The Prism Podcast, most recently interviewing Dr. Robert Weyant and discussing how to teach critical thinking to dental and medical students. He can also be found on Twitter at @SkepticalDDS. Dr. Ritchey has written for SBM before on the topic of cranial osteopathy in dentistry.

As a pediatric hospitalist, I don’t deal with issues of dental health very frequently. Sure I see plenty of oral mucosal lesions, as occur during a primary herpes outbreak or a case of Kawasaki disease, but not many problems with the teeth themselves. I do admit a few dental abscesses here and there that need to be cooled down with IV antibiotics prior to definitive surgical drainage. And as a hospitalist that sees a fair amount of newborns, I also discover the occasional natal tooth. That’s when a baby is born with a tooth, usually a central mandibular incisor, having already erupted.

But as a pediatrician, I care deeply about the overall health of children and the network of caregivers that surround them. I guess you could say that I take a holistic approach, but I would prefer that you didn’t. Although we aren’t dentists, pediatricians recognize that oral health is integral to the well-being of a child and that many long-term dental maladies develop during the first two decades of life, often before the first tooth even appears. The most common, and one which non-dentist health care providers can have a major impact on, is the development of dental caries, or “cavities”. (more…)

Posted in: Dentistry

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Corporal Punishment in the Home: Parenting Tool or Parenting Fail…

One of the most commonly practiced strategies used by parents to alter long term behavior of their children is corporal punishment, commonly referred to as spanking. But use of the term spanking is problematic in that how caregivers interpret it varies widely, and there is frequent overlap with what pediatricians consider to be abuse. Despite a great deal of evidence showing that spanking is ineffective, is a risk factor for greater forms of physical abuse and can negatively impact the behavioral and cognitive development of children in a variety of ways, it remains a controversial issue in the United States. The American Academy of Pediatrics and numerous other professional organizations have come down firmly against the use of physical punishment by parents, but unlike 34 other developed nations there are no federal laws banning spanking.

Laws regarding corporal punishment vary from state to state. 19 states currently allow the striking of a child in any school setting. Of the 31 states and the District of Columbia that ban the practice in public schools, only New Jersey and Iowa also include private schools. Many schools give the misbehaving child a choice between suspension and being beaten with a paddle. It is also common for schools to require a parent to opt out of their child receiving corporal punishment rather than having to sign a consent form before such physical correction is applied. Corporal punishment in schools is more prevalent in the South and in lower socioeconomic school districts, leading to poor black children being by far the most likely to face it.

Currently no state has a law that explicitly bans corporal punishment in the home. In fact, most state laws have specific language in their statutes on abuse, assault, battery, or domestic violence that make exceptions for spanking by a caregiver. In 2012, new child abuse legislation in Delaware made the news because it might possibly be interpreted as making spanking illegal. The law was put into place to serve as a means of improving the ability to protect children from physical abuse, but the language was vague. The lawmakers claim that it is not meant to interfere with parents who choose to use “reasonable force”, whatever that means, and do not cause injury. (more…)

Posted in: Science and Medicine

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Separating Fact From Fiction in the Not-So-Normal Newborn Nursery: Vitamin K Shots…..

In August, news emerged from Vanderbilt University that four cases of a rare bleeding condition seen in young infants had been diagnosed since February. Three of these infants suffered intracranial hemorrhages, requiring surgical intervention to evacuate the blood and save their lives, although there will almost certainly be neurological and developmental repercussions down the road. The fourth child presented with gastrointestinal bleeding and also survived. The parents of all four babies had refused an extremely safe and effective intervention on the day that they were born, one recommended by pediatricians since the early 1960′s, that would have prevented these outcomes.

When a baby is born, there are a number of rituals that parents and medical professionals take part in. Some are largely ceremonial, more rites of passage than anything medically necessary, such as the first bath or the assignment of APGAR scores. As a physician, I play my part in some of these rituals, the baby’s first exam being the most important. Unlike many medical examinations that pediatricians perform, the newborn exam involves a good deal of showmanship. It’s the only exam where I make a point of talking through each aspect with the parents, showing them all the normal but sometimes surprising (at least to new parents) things that babies do and common physical exam findings that many folks don’t know about and might lead to unnecessary concern. Really hammering home how healthy a new baby is can go a long way towards relieving parental anxiety. And anticipating and addressing common newborn issues during the exam helps save me a lot of time on the back end as well.
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Posted in: Science and Medicine

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A Rational Approach to Managing Acute Pain in Children

Pain is one of the most common reasons for a parent or caregiver to seek medical attention for their child. Children experience pain for a wide variety of reasons, many that are similar to if not exactly the same as causes of adult pain, but historically pediatric patients have been grossly undertreated. I am 37-years-old and, sadly, if I had undergone a surgical procedure as an infant there would have been a significant chance that I would have received no analgesia at all. Things are better now, but there remains a large gap between what is recommended and how pediatric pain management is practiced in the real world.

The appropriate management of a child’s pain is a vital aspect of compassionate and high quality care, and it is simply the right thing to do. Failing to treat pain effectively is ethically no different than purposefully causing pain in a child, and it can have serious repercussions. Poorly controlled pain can interfere with a child’s recovery because of the negative impact of catecholamine surges and other stress-related chemicals, and impair the ability to take part in physical or occupational therapy. It can also make future encounters with health care professionals more challenging because of anxiety and mistrust.

Untreated pain can interfere with deep breathing, potentially leading to prolonged need for supplemental oxygen and increased risk of pneumonia. It can prevent restful sleep, which has myriad health consequences beyond just cognitive impairment. Pain can interfere with the family unit by significantly increasing parental or caregiver anxiety, which can lead to neglect, abuse, and increased utilization of healthcare resources. Poorly-managed acute pain can increase the likelihood of a patient, even a child, developing chronic pain. There is even good evidence in neonates (my next post I think), that poorly managed acute pain can lead to increased sensitivity and an increased pain response to future occurrences of procedural pain, such as routine immunizations.

Multiple reports throughout the 1970′s and 1980′s revealed that pediatric patients received substantially less pain treatment compared to adults for equivalent conditions, such as broken bones and hernia repair. Despite steady improvement in pain management in kids over the past few decades, we still have a long way to go. Though appropriate anesthesia is now standard of care in children of all ages, many physicians are uncomfortable with evaluating and treating acute pain (chronic pain is another topic) in children. And many parents are resistant to the use of safe and effective pain medications.

Even with physicians that might profess their comfort with recognizing and treating pediatric pain, my admittedly personal experience is that many still allow kids to be in pain at times for a variety of reasons. However, it isn’t that these physicians and caregivers are heartless or enjoy watching their patients, or their children if it is a parent putting up a roadblock, suffer. Even knowing a child is in pain can sometimes be challenging. And there are many misconceptions regarding pain in children that interfere with appropriate treatment. The bulk of these misconceptions involve the use of opioids. All of these misconceptions and false beliefs should be amenable to education and increased awareness of science-based guidelines.

Pediatric pain is a challenging entity. So much so that many institutions have pediatric pain teams. My wife is an expert on pediatric pain and spends her days, and often nights, as a palliative care pediatrician helping to manage pain and other symptoms in children who are approaching the end of life. Her insights and expertise on this topic have been invaluable in my own encounters with pain as a pediatric hospitalist. Her experience, like mine, is that even at major academic institutions pain management is regularly not approached systematically, nor based on the best available evidence.

So what is pain exactly, and how is it assessed in kids?
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Posted in: Science and Medicine

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Separating Fact from Fiction in Pediatric Medicine: Infant Teething

Teething is one of the most common sources of parental concern in the world of pediatric medicine. All children go through it, typically starting at about 6 months of age, and the current list of signs and symptoms attributed to the eruption of teeth in infants is long and varied, with most if not all of them inaccurate if not highly suspect. And although teething as a concept may seem rather commonplace, it is an entity with an interesting history and a frequent impetus for exposing young children to ineffective and even risky treatments.

What is teething?

Simply put, teething occurs when a tooth nears completion of its journey into the oral cavity, a journey which begins early in fetal development. The tooth erupts though the gum, often preceded by a small lump. Occasionally there can be a larger eruption cyst, and the area may appear somewhat bluish and swollen from bleeding into the tissue, but this is uncommon. The most widely accepted duration of a bout of teething is a roughly 8 day period, with tooth emergence generally felt to occur on day 5. The whole process usually takes about two years, with an average of one tooth emerging each month until the full complement of 20 baby teeth are present. (more…)

Posted in: Science and Medicine

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Separating Fact From Fiction in the Not-So-Normal Newborn Nursery: Umbilical Cord Blood Banking

For those who can’t get enough of Clay Jones, he is now available in multimedia through the magic of podcasts! Dr. Jones was interviewed for The Prism blog last Monday, discussing the general topic of alternative medicine and pediatrics, followed by a dive into fluoride and cavities in kids. It is available for your listening pleasure at their website or on iTunes. Next step, a semi-hostile takeover of Mark Crislip’s multimedia empire – Ed

A family has many choices to make as the arrival of a new baby approaches. What will they name their child? Will they breast or bottle feed? Should they use cloth of disposable diapers? What about circumcision? Will they vaccinate or not? Some of these choices are relatively minor while some may significantly impact the health of their child for years to come. A fairly recent addition to the long list of choices that parents are burdened with, thanks to a push from reputable organizations like the American Academy of Pediatrics, as well as private companies looking to turn a profit, is what to do with the blood in their newborn infant’s umbilical cord.

Currently the most commonly-chosen option remains to simply leave it in there. In that case, it will be discarded along with the mother’s placenta or even occasionally eaten although that is a topic for another post perhaps. Another option is to have blood from the umbilical cord donated to a public cord blood bank. These have been popping up all over the place and public banking is currently recommended by the AAP whenever possible. The final option, which is by far the most controversial (and expensive), is paying to have the umbilical cord blood banked privately for personal use by the donating child or a family member. As I will explain, while not entirely without potential benefit, the private banking of cord blood is probably not a good idea and the thousands of dollars that it costs might be better spent elsewhere. Unfortunately, because of the fear of making a wrong choice, many parents are vulnerable to being persuaded by the calculated misinformation produced by these companies. (more…)

Posted in: Science and Medicine

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Separating Fact From Fiction in the Not-So-Normal Newborn Nursery: Pacifiers and Nipple Confusion

My first “real world” employment after completing residency was as a full-time newborn hospitalist in Houston. After spending 3 years in Space City, often rounding on as many as 30 newborn infants in the Level 1 and Level 2 units each day at the county hospital, I feel as if I’ve probably about seen it all when it comes to the nursery. I then left the babies behind while working as a pediatric hospitalist in Baton Rouge for four years, but now I’m back in the newborn business up here in Boston. While there have certainly been a few changes since 2009, many things remain exactly the same.

I help take care of a very vulnerable population in my current position: parents. Parents, in particular the young and first time variety, often approach parenting with a blank slate. Sure there is frequently a grandparent or four there for assistance, but the healthcare professionals working in the nursery are looked to for vital knowledge about how to care for the new arrival. Even some of the more experienced parents will still have questions, and most respect and follow the advice given during those first few days while at the hospital. These questions most commonly focus on topics such as feeding, vaccinations and vitamin supplementation, but I am regularly asked about a variety of routine parenting skills such as swaddling, and even baby “gear” like Angel monitors.

Parents love their children and want what is best for them, and they frequently express fear and anxiety over some of these topics. Love and fear are two powerful factors in the acceptance of pseudoscience and bad advice, which is why parents are set up to be fooled. Over the next few posts, I plan to cover some examples of newborn issues known to cause excessive parental anxiety and that sometimes lead to poor decisions, in large part because of bad information received from people who should know better.

First up is a concept that is well-known in the nursery, and strikes fear in the hearts of lactation consultants all over the world. I’m talking about nipple confusion. This is a concept that may seem silly to those unfamiliar with the world of parenting, but it is something that newborn doctors deal with daily and there is a great deal of controversy. Not “vaccines and autism” controversy unfortunately, but if after reading this post you find yourself feeling let down because I didn’t start with something sexier, take solace in the fact that winter is coming. (more…)

Posted in: Science and Medicine

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