Week 8: Defang stories that scare

Stop self-terrorizing yourself with worst-case scenarios and "hidden dangers.” |  The Metropolitan Museum of Art .

Stop self-terrorizing yourself with worst-case scenarios and "hidden dangers.” | The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Last week I shared tips for keeping parenting news out of your inbox and social media feeds. But despite your best efforts, some of those stories are going to sneak through. In fact, you’re likely to find many of them yourself when you’re up in the middle of the night googling your parenting questions.

That’s why it’s helpful to know what kinds of parenting stories you’re going to see most often, and how to interpret them.

If you’re reading this pregnancy calendar, you are also probably the kind of person who already owns a few parenting books. If so, you’re likely to have read about one hidden danger: the hair tourniquet. A stray hair on the floor or crib can wind its way around your baby’s tiny toe as many as 100 times, cutting off circulation and sometimes resulting in amputation.

The hair tourniquet is the perfect example of a “hidden danger” story. Stories like these terrify new parents into changing their behavior with clickbait titles like “Hidden Danger That Can Permanently Harm Your Baby.” That’s the actual title Parents gave to their coverage of hair tourniquets.

Reading that probably makes you even more terrified of postpartum hair shedding. You may have even opened a tab to research the most whisper-quiet yet somehow also most effective vacuum cleaners to keep all that hair away from tiny toes. 

The best advice about hidden dangers is probably to ignore them, but that’s nearly impossible to do because their clickbait titles lodge into your brain. The best strategy you can employ when you learn of a new nursery hidden danger is not to put it out of your mind, but to think about it more. Turn that scary story into a word problem and suddenly it won’t look so scary.

1. Over how many years did the cases take place?

Many reports of scary hidden dangers open with how many children were injured, but that information in itself is usually insufficient to know how dangerous something is, because although we know the number of cases, we don’t know when they took place.

For example, if I told you that 100 children died from eating succulents, you’d start worrying about the tiny plants on your own desk. 100 would sound much less scary if I told you that those 100 deaths took place over a period 200 years. They’d sound much much scarier if I told you that they’d all occurred in the last 10 days.

Back to the hair tourniquets. If you read the abstract of the first academic paper that reported on hair tourniquets, you’ll learn that the researchers identified 66 cases of hair tourniquets, including the six they reported from their own practices. They do not, however, explain when those cases came from, just that they found 60 cases discussed in medical literature. Looking at their list of references, however, shows that the first of those case reports appeared in The Lancet in 1832, meaning that the 60 case reports stretched over a period of 156 years.

2. How many children were permanently injured or killed?

The researchers’ study began in their own practices, where they identified six children with hair tourniquets. In all six of those cases, “in spite of the worrisome appearance” of the affected appendages, the children recovered with no lasting problems.

Of the other cases the researchers reviewed, toe tourniquets generally did not result in complications, while finger and penile tourniquets did sometimes result in complications. But the case reports included here were so old that the penile case numbers shouldn’t necessarily be trusted: some of the injuries resulted from mothers attempting to halt “eneuresis”; that is, they'd applied the tourniquets on purpose to prevent bedwetting. 

In other words, this study should be *good* news about hair tourniquets, that somehow turns into bad news in the form of news reports. The authors are saying that hair tourniquets look dangerous, but with prompt attention and proper management, children turn out fine.

3. Who is the paper for? Why was it written?

This last question may be the most important one, but the one most often overlooked in news reports about hidden dangers. The hair tourniquet paper linked above wasn’t written to warn parents about a hidden nursery danger. It was written to other pediatricians to recommend how to proceed when they encounter patients with hair tourniquets: prompt removal of the hair.

So, what should you do to prevent hair tourniquets? Nothing, really. You don't need to panic and remove all hair and mitten fibers from your nursery. You just need to generally keep an eye on your baby, and seek medical treatment if your baby starts noticeably swelling. 

And stop clicking on articles about hidden dangers.