Sugar doesn’t make kids hyper, and other parenting myths

Candy and sweets make your kid hyper, the common lore goes. But science says that's not true.


Baby shoes didn’t feature prominently into Baby V’s wardrobe for quite some time. Tiny Chuck Taylors are adorable, obviously, but I questioned their utility for a baby who didn’t use her feet except as wiggly pacifiers. So Baby V spent a lot of time barefoot — a fashion statement that I didn’t really consider until she started toddling around in public. 

Well-meaning observers were quick to tell me that I needed to get that baby some nice stiff shoes. Hard soles will help her get the hang of walking and protect her delicate baby feet, I was told. But when I started looking into this advice, I actually found the opposite is true: These days, people recommend that babies learning to walk wear soft, flexible shoes, or better yet, go barefoot. The minimalist footwear allows the nascent walkers the most sensory feedback from their sweet little feet as they move across the earth.

I offer the shoe advice as just one tiny glimpse into the life of a parent of a young kid. Over the last year, I’ve come to learn that much of the advice I’ve heard, while well-intentioned, might just be wrong. Or at the very least, questionable. So here are my top five parenting myths (shoes didn’t make the cut), with a little dash of science.

1. Sugar makes kids hyper.

Lots of parents swear that a single hit of birthday cake holds the power to morph their well-behaved, polite youngster into a sticky hot mess that careens around a room while emitting eardrum-piercing shrieks. Anyone who has had the pleasure to attend a 5-year-old’s birthday party knows that the hypothesis sounds reasonable, except that science has found that it’s not true.

Sugar doesn’t change kids’ behavior, a double-blind research study found way back in 1994. A sugary diet didn’t affect behavior or cognitive skills, the researchers report. Sugar does change one important thing, though: parents’ expectations. After hearing that their children had just consumed a big sugar fix, parents were more likely to say their child was hyperactive, even when the big sugar fix was a placebo, another study found.

Of course, there are plenty of good reasons not to feed your kids a bunch of sugar, but fear of a little crazed sugar monster isn’t one of them.

2. Listening to Mozart makes babies smarter.

My colleague Rachel Ehrenberg busted this “Mozart Effect” myth in her 2010 feature. The original observation, that 10 minutes of classical music made college students briefly perform better on a paper-folding task, was twisted so out of context that the governor of Georgia used tax money to buy a classical music CD for every baby born in the state.

Many babies adore music, and there’s evidence that suggests music might help soothe babies. There’s also evidence that playing an instrument might be beneficial to brain development, as Ehrenberg points out. But scientists haven’t found that classical music makes your baby smarter. So play music to your child because she loves it and you love it, not because you’re looking to grub a few extra IQ points.

3. Feeding a baby solid food will help her sleep through the night.

Your baby is waking up in the night? Just put some rice cereal in the last bottle before bed, well-intentioned observers urge. The solid food will fill baby’s tummy and keep her satisfied longer, which translates to fewer wakeups. Except that it doesn’t.

Babies fed rice cereal before bedtime slept no better than babies fed only breast milk or formula, a study found. In fact, early introduction to solid food (before 4 months) has been associated with worse infant sleep.  The magical cure of feeding a baby solids before bedtime belongs at the top of the heaping pile of sleep miracles that sound great but don’t really work. And speaking of rice cereal…

4. Rice cereal is the ideal first food for babies.

Lots of people assumed that Baby V would have bland rice cereal when she was ready to try solid food around four months. But our doctor assured us that there’s no reason to choose it over delectable fruits or veggies such as bananas or avocados. Other foods taste way better than starchy rice cereal, and have some good nutrients and fat, too. Baby V’s doctor urged us to be adventurous with those first tastes and venture beyond the cereal.

For most babies, there’s no reason to wait a long time to introduce foods considered to be at high risk of causing an allergic reaction, the American Academy of Pediatrics now believes. So gradually start rotating in fish, eggs, yogurt and peanut butter anytime after your little one starts eating solids.

5. Sippy cups cause speech problems.

Some innocent Googling about which cup I ought to buy landed me on some awfully frightening websites that urged me to forego the sippy cup. The reasoning goes that sippy cups encourage immature mouth and tongue movements, which stunts the development of muscles needed for clear speech.

The problem is that I haven’t found any studies that back that claim up. (As always, please let me know if I’ve missed something.) Sippy cups can contribute to cavities if babies are allowed to constantly drink milk or juice from them, and sippy cups can injure children if they fall while drinking, but I haven’t seen any data to make the case that moderate sippy cup usage get in the way of normal speech.

So there you have it: My completely non-comprehensive top five list of parenting myths. Please chime in below with your own favorite gems. I’m already working on my next list and would love to hear your ideas.

Laura Sanders is the neuroscience writer. She holds a Ph.D. in molecular biology from the University of Southern California.

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