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The real dangers of not getting vaccines

Posted by Dr. Claire McCarthy September 30, 2013 10:42 AM
Thumbnail image for sick baby.jpgNot getting vaccines can be very dangerous--not just for you or your child, but for everyone around you. 

It's ironic that part of the reason we have trouble convincing some people to immunize their children these days is exactly because they are so successful. Why immunize against polio, some people say, when there are no cases of it? Vaccines are so good at what they do that it's easy to get lulled into thinking that it's safe not to immunize--because we won't be exposed to the diseases anyway.

That's plain old wrong--travelers to and from other countries bring the diseases in all the time--and it's the kind of thinking that puts everyone at risk.

When enough people are immunized against a disease, it creates something called "herd immunity": even if someone shows up who has the disease, it's hard for it to spread because most of the people around that person are immune to it. Herd immunity doesn't just stop spread,  it protects people who can't be immunized or aren't fully immunized, like newborns or people who have trouble with their immune systems. It also protects when the vaccines don't work perfectly (which can happen) or when a few people choose not to immunize.

But when lots of people stop immunizing, the herd immunity breaks down. And that's when bad stuff starts happening.

A study just published in the journal Pediatrics shows how this happened in California with pertussis, also known as whooping cough. What most people don't realize is that before we started immunizing against pertussis, it was the leading cause of child mortality in the US. In 1934, there were more than 265,000 cases of pertussis; in 1974, immunization had brought that down to 1010. 

But in the early 2000's, the numbers started going up again--and in 2010, there were more than 9,000 cases in California alone, a third of all the cases in the country. There were various reasons for this, including waning immunity from the vaccine (we give booster doses now), but part of the problem was that more people weren't immunizing their children.

Between 2000 and 2010, the number of children whose parents chose not to immunize them--for reasons besides medical reasons--tripled from 0.77 percent to 2.33 percent. This seems low--and it would be, if the people were evenly spread out over the state. But they weren't; many of them lived in the same areas, meaning that in some communities the rate of not immunizing was as high as 84 percent.

The researchers who did the study found that cases of pertussis were 2.5 times more likely to happen in areas of the California where there were groups of people who didn't immunize. The herd immunity broke down--and children died.

When I talk to people who are hesitant about immunizations, what I mostly hear is worry about side effects. It's certainly true that vaccines, like any medical treatment, can have side effects. Luckily, they are rare--but they are certainly possible.

However--and this is what people don't think about--the risk of side effects from the vaccine are always lower than the risk of complications from the disease. And you can't necessarily count on not catching the disease. It's not just pertussis; we are seeing more measles, too, and other vaccine-preventable diseases. And influenza is a real risk every single year.

While you or your child might weather influenza, chicken pox, pertussis or whatever without too much trouble, the newborn next door, or your own newborn, or your frail grandmother or the child at school being treated for cancer might not. The immunization decision isn't just about you or your child. It's about every single person around you.

So if you are considering skipping any immunizations for your child or yourself, think hard before you make that potentially dangerous decision. Read not just about vaccines but about the diseases they prevent; there's lots of information about both on the website of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Talk to your doctor if you have any questions at all.

Remember: vaccines have saved thousands and thousands of lives. They might already have saved yours or your child's, whether you are immunized or not.

Is there something you'd like me to write about? Leave me a message on my Facebook page--and "like" the page for links to all my MD Mama blogs as well as my blogs on Thriving and Huffington Post. 

Eight Life Lessons I Learned From My Kids

Posted by Dr. Claire McCarthy September 27, 2013 06:31 AM
family standing 2.jpg

My youngest, Liam, turned 8 recently. As I gave him a birthday hug and remarked on how big he was (“That’s because I’m standing on the couch, Mom,”) I told him that I was glad he was born. “Why?” he asked earnestly. “I’m happier because of you,” I said. 

And wiser, I thought. 

As a pediatrician, I’ve had lots of years of school and other training. But as I look back on my life so far, I think that the most important lessons I’ve learned, the ones that really guide my daily life, were lessons I learned from my children. While there are countless things they’ve taught me (like that peanut butter and jelly sandwiches get irretrievably mushy quickly, or that keeping diapers off to help rashes is just silly), here are the top eight:

Life is messy. One only has to look at our house to see that this is true. But more than just in our house, orderliness and perfection are hard to come by—and overrated.  Some of the best moments in life come when you give in to messiness and enjoy it…and stop worrying about everything being perfect.  Besides the fun that can come from a bit of chaos, there is the simple fact that…

Sh*&t happens. This is true in small ways (diapers and pets will both teach you that quickly) and big ways. Despite our best efforts and hopes, things just don’t always work out well. Sometimes they even work out tragically. This is deeply sad and frustrating, but it cannot be changed; it is a simple truth that has to be accepted, and risen above. Which is often much easier said than done, but is never impossible. We’ve found it easier when we remember that…

Laughter is necessary. Really. It’s important to laugh every day, I think. There’s nothing like a fit of the giggles to make the world bearable. Whether it’s silly knock-knock jokes (“Boo Who?” “Why are you crying, Mommy?”), Monty Python Flying Circus marathons, or just cracking up over burps (or farts, if you have a first-grader), laughter lightens us, connects us, stops us in our tracks and gives us a different perspective. Kids expect and pursue laughter; we grownups too often don’t.  Another way that kids are different is that they… 

Celebrate whenever possible. Whether it’s a birthday, losing a tooth, making a goal at a soccer game or getting a good grade on a test, reasons to celebrate (and have special dinners or ice cream or buy a little prize) abound. Yes, it can be overdone (we’ve all seen the parents who overdo it), but the basic concept is a good one: we should be grateful and find (legitimate) reasons to appreciate each other and the good things that happen. It’s also important to reinforce that… 

Hard work pays off. As a parent, you see a lot of hard work. You watch your children learn to walk, ride bikes, read, learn to swim, study for tests and do so many other new and hard things…and while the hard work doesn’t always pay off in the way you expect (and is so much harder when your child has special needs), it always pays off. I am continually humbled and inspired watching children learn everything they need to learn, and it’s helped to teach me that…

Patience isn’t optional. It takes patience to learn something. It takes patience to be a parent, incredible amounts, more than anyone ever could have explained to me. I get to practice being patient every single day as I parent our five children. Other things that take incredible patience are getting everyone ready in the morning, laundry and T-ball games. Along with patience, I’ve learned that…

Loving means forgiving. Our children make us crazy. They make us angry. They break our hearts on a regular basis…and yet, I’ve learned, really loving them means letting all of that go and forgiving them. When we do, it also makes it more likely that they will forgive us when we inevitably make them crazy, angry or break their hearts too.

And last but not least… 

Snuggling makes everything better. We grownups forget, sometimes, about the power and comfort of physical closeness, of the way that so much can be said and healed by holding each other. My children remind me of this every day, and for this lesson, as for all the rest, I am grateful.

Is there something you'd like me to write about? Leave me a message on my Facebook page--and "like" the page for links to all my MD Mama blogs as well as my blogs on Thriving and Huffington Post. 

How to help your child if a classmate has cancer

Posted by Dr. Claire McCarthy September 25, 2013 10:32 AM
Thumbnail image for Thumbnail image for kids in line 2.jpg

It's hard to know what to say to children when someone they know has cancer--and it's even harder to know what to say when that someone is a friend or classmate.

September is Childhood Cancer Awareness Month.  In honor of that, I asked Kendal Temple, an oncology community outreach nurse from the Dana-Farber/Boston Children’s Cancer and Blood Disorders Center who regularly talks to children who have classmates with cancer, what advice she would give to parents.

“Learning that a friend or classmate has cancer can be a frightening and confusing experience for children,” she said. “Parents have an important role to play in providing information, allaying fears, and helping their children not just navigate the friendship but learn how to comfort, support and assist a friend in need.” 

It’s really important that parents help their child understand that despite the difficult physical changes they may see in their friend, such as hair loss and weight loss, the friends is still the same person—and should be treated that way.

Here are some specific suggestions:

  • Try to explain cancer in a way that children will understand. Tell young children that certain cells in their friend’s body are not working right and that doctors use special medicine called chemotherapy to make the cancer cells go away. Older children can understand that cancer occurs when certain cells multiply and divide very quickly—crowding out healthy cells, making it hard for the body to work the way it should.
  • Answer the difficult questions children ask (like: Will my friend die? Will the cancer come back?) honestly without being alarmist. Some children die of cancer, and sometimes it comes back. But we have lots of good treatments. Although 83 percent of children under age 20 with cancer now survive, it’s best to stay away from specific predictions because each individual cancer case is different.
  • Children might say, “But Uncle Joe died of cancer.” Let them know that childhood cancer is very different from adult cancer.
  • Young children may need reassurance that cancer isn’t contagious, and that their friend didn’t get cancer because she did anything bad.
  •  Children of all ages may need reassurance that childhood cancer is very rare.
  •  Help your child understand the side effects of cancer treatment. In addition to causing hair loss, chemotherapy often causes nausea and fatigue. It also lowers the body’s resistance to infection, so things like hand-washing, covering coughs and sneezes (with the inside of your elbow, not your hands) and not sharing drinks or snacks is more important than ever. Your child’s classmate may also spend time in the hospital or at home—this is normal.
  • Reach out to the teacher or family friend coordinating assistance for the family and see what you and your child might do to help. Sometimes it’s as simple as sending a card.

It’s important to keep the lines of communication open, says Temple. “Encourage your child to come to you or another appropriate adult with questions. Often the things children come up with in their heads are much scarier than what’s really going on.”

To learn more about childhood cancer, what we are doing about it and how to talk to children about it, visit the Childhood Cancer Awareness Month page of the Dana Farber/Boston Children's site.

Is there something you'd like me to write about? Leave me a message on my Facebook page--and "like" the page for links to all my MD Mama blogs as well as my blogs on Thriving and Huffington Post. 

We aren't doing enough for mothers who want to breastfeed

Posted by Dr. Claire McCarthy September 23, 2013 09:34 AM
breastfeeding 1.jpg

Of the many reasons why women who want to breastfeed end up stopping, lots of them are reasons we can’t fix. Some women simply can’t breastfeed, no matter how hard they try. Some have medical conditions, or have to take medications that make breastfeeding impossible. Some of them can’t do it because of work or other life circumstances.

But way too many women stop for reasons we can fix. And that’s not okay.

In a really interesting study just released in the journal Pediatrics, researchers interviewed more than 500 first-time moms before birth and then at regular intervals through 2 months. They found that women who had at least one concern about breastfeeding at day 3 (which is when most moms are going home from the hospital, away from the hands-on help) were 7 times more likely to give formula and 9 times more likely to stop altogether. 

This is hardly a shocker. Think about it: they are physically and emotionally exhausted and hurting in places and ways that they had never imagined before, and now they are expected to stick this brand-new human being for whom they are fully responsible onto a part of the body that has heretofore only been sexual, and cross their fingers that the baby is actually going to get milk out of it, let alone enough milk?

Yeah, right.

Add to that the fact that breastfeeding is hard work. Despite the media depictions of blissful, peaceful moms with babies at the breast, the inconvenient truth is that breastfeeding hurts at the beginning and takes both mom and baby some time to learn.

So it shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone that while 75 percent of new mothers start out breastfeeding, only 13 percent do it exclusively for 6 months, which is what the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends. This is a shame, because breastfeeding has all sorts of health benefits for baby and mom, and can help with bonding (it can be a lot easier, too—no need to worry about having enough milk, you just pull up your shirt). 

In the study, the women were most likely to stop when they had trouble breastfeeding or when they were worried about having enough milk. That’s what makes me the most sad, because with some trouble-shooting and support most problems can be worked through—and most of the time when mothers are worried about not having enough milk they actually have plenty. Breastfeeding is different from bottlefeeding; breastfed babies like to be at the breast a lot, both because the milk is so quickly digested and, well, because for them the breast is just about the best place in the world. Too many mothers think that their babies want to nurse all the time because they don’t have enough milk, when it’s actually normal.

That’s the problem: we don’t do a good enough job of teaching women about what’s normal for breastfeeding, let alone supporting them when they hit the inevitable bumps in the breastfeeding road.  We need to do a better job of both.

We could, and should, make teaching about breastfeeding part of prenatal care. We also need to make lactation support easily available for any mother who needs it (given the health benefits of breastfeeding, we should be able to make the case to insurers).

We need more Baby Friendly Hospitals, where mothers are actively supported in breastfeeding—and babies aren’t given formula unless it’s medically necessary. We need more workplaces to give mothers the time and space they need to pump, so that they can breastfeed after returning to work.

I think it would help, too, to have more breastfeeding in the media (like in movies and TV shows), and more public breastfeeding. If we made breastfeeding more ordinary, it might make it more likely that people would talk about it, ask questions about it and learn about it. 

Not everyone can breastfeed, and not everyone wants to. That’s fine; there’s way more to parenting than breastfeeding. But the mothers who can, and want to, should get the help they need. This is about feeding babies, and about the health of our future adults. We can do better.

Is there something you'd like me to write about? Leave me a message on my Facebook page--and "like" the page for links to all my MD Mama blogs as well as my blogs on Thriving and Huffington Post. 

Could that stomachache be a sign of bullying?

Posted by Dr. Claire McCarthy September 19, 2013 07:23 AM
bullying photo.jpgWhen we think of the effects of bullying, we tend to think of things like poor self-esteem, anxiety or depression--which are, of course, common effects of bullying. 

But what many people don't know is that sometimes those psychological effects show up as physical complaints, such as headaches, stomachaches, backaches, dizziness or trouble sleeping. In fact, a study just released in the journal Pediatrics showed that "psychosomatic" complaints (physical symptoms caused by psychological factors) are twice as common in children who are bullied compared to children who aren't bullied.

It's really important that parents (and other adults) pick up on signs of bullying. We don't often get to see the actual bullying; not only are bullies good at hiding it, but these days a lot of it happens in places that parents are even less likely to see, like in text messages or on social media. Kids very often don't volunteer that they are being bullied; not only are they often embarrassed or even ashamed, sometimes they don't even realize that what is going on is bullying. They might think that they deserve how they are being treated, or just think that it's something normal that can't be changed.

Nobody deserves to be bullied, and we need to do everything we can to stop it from being normal--and change it. 

Before we can help a child who is being bullied, we need to recognize it. There are the signs you should always watch for, such as:
  • Sadness, irritability or other change in mood
  • Having fewer friends
  • Spending more time alone, avoiding social situations
  • Unexplained changes in routines or activities
  • Dropping grades
  • Changes in sleeping or eating habits
But what this study tells us is that we also need to be watchful for physical signs. If your child has persistent trouble with headaches, stomachaches, other aches and pains, dizziness or trouble sleeping, you should...take them to the doctor, of course. But if the doctor doesn't find anything wrong, don't just think that everything's okay. Ask some different questions. You might want to talk to your child's teacher, coaches or other adults in their lives too.

If you find out your child is being bullied, do something. Don't tell them to ignore it. Don't tell them to fight back, either. Instead, help them find a way through--and help them find people who can help. For more suggestions on what you can do, for different ages and different kinds of bullying, check out

Is there something you'd like me to write about? Leave me a message on my Facebook page--and "like" the page for links to all my MD Mama blogs as well as my blogs on Thriving and Huffington Post. 

How many mass shootings will it take?

Posted by Dr. Claire McCarthy September 17, 2013 08:57 AM
How many mass shootings will it take before we take action?

Today the news is full of stories about how a man took guns to the Washington Navy Yard and started shooting, killing 12 people before he was killed by police. We still don't know why. But what sticks out in the coverage is the fact that the shooter had used a gun in anger at least once before: he shot the back tires of a construction worker's car parked near his home. He also shot through the floor of the apartment above him; he told the police it went off while he was cleaning it, but the woman who lived in that apartment said that he had confronted her about noise in her apartment and that she had been frightened of him before the incident.

He also apparently was discharged from the military due to concerns about his conduct.

This kind of stuff should be a red flag. It should stop someone from buying weapons (which the shooter apparently did somewhat recently), or at least slow them down. It should trigger (excuse the pun) some sort of evaluation. Something should happen when someone uses a gun in anger or has a history of conduct problems.

It wasn't children who were killed this time, but next time it could be. As we get closer to the anniversary of the Newtown shooting, as a pediatrician and mother I am really freaked out by news like this. I have children and patients who are out in the world. They go to schools and to navy yards and to movie theaters and shopping malls. That someone could shoot them randomly is terrifying to me.

Especially when there are things we could do to prevent it.

I get that those children and patients who are out in the world could also get hit by cars or get sick from bad food or otherwise be hurt. I know that guns aren't the only danger out there. And I am not--repeat NOT--saying that people shouldn't have the right to bear arms. 

But we have traffic safety laws and seat belts and food inspections and all sorts of other laws and safeguards...and when things happen that show us that we need new traffic lights or better seat belts or whatever we do something to strengthen those safeguards. These mass shootings are a sign that we need to strengthen the safeguards. 

We need better background checks--and better ongoing surveillance of people who own or have access to guns, for a start. The Newtown shooter had mental health problems; while it was his mother who bought the guns, a better surveillance system might have picked up on the fact that he had access to them. 

I don't pretend to know everything we should do to help keep people safe from terrible events like what happened yesterday in Washington. I am not an expert on guns or gun safety. I am just a mother and a doctor, and I am scared for my children, for everyone's children.

We can do better. I know we can.

Why the 9/11 National Day of Service is a wonderful idea for our children

Posted by Dr. Claire McCarthy September 11, 2013 03:53 PM
9-11.jpgAs I sat in traffic today (which was outrageous this morning), I found myself full of remembering September 11th all those years ago. Like so many other people, I remember exactly where I was when I heard about it (standing in the reception area of the clinic where I worked) and exactly how I felt (terrified, and full of wanting to be with my family immediately).

I felt overwhelmed with sadness and helplessness, the feelings I felt for so long after that terrible day. And then I heard a story on the radio about the effort to make 9/11 a National Day of Service, and I felt hopeful and happy.

I don't know how I hadn't heard about this before, because it's been in the works for a while. The idea is absolutely perfect: let's honor the fallen, and the helpers, by helping others. 

I love it because it takes something so unfathomably sad and turns it around. Instead of just being sad as we think of all those lives so terribly lost, we can do something to make a difference. We take the energy of our anger and turn it into energy for good. 

I also love it because it says: we cannot be defeated. You can crash our planes and knock down our buildings, you can set off bombs at our marathons, but we will not fail or fall. We will rise, Boston Strong, America Strong...and not only will we rise, we will love and give.

That's why this is so wonderful for our children, especially those who were born after 9/11 or who have no memory of it. We can tell them about that day as we clean and paint and serve at food pantries, as we collect clothes or read to the elderly or bring food to a food pantry. 

One day a long time ago, some people did something very horrible, we can say. That's why it's so important that we serve and give. We can't ever let evil win.

Join me at 1p Sept 10th for a twitter chat on teen health

Posted by Dr. Claire McCarthy September 10, 2013 09:58 AM
Most parents feel more or less comfortable when it comes to figuring out what to say and do about the health of their children when they are young. But once they get to be teens, it can be a whole other story. It gets harder then.

It gets harder because the health of adolescents involves things like puberty, sexuality, peer pressure, alcohol, tobacco, other drugs...these are not easy conversations to have with kids. It's not easy always to know what to say, and our kids aren't always comfortable talking with us either.

That's another reason it gets harder: as they get older, our kids don't always tell us everything. When they are little, we hear about every ache or worry (well, not all, but most). When they are older, they talk to their friends more than us--or they don't talk at all.

And when kids are teens, they tend not to go to the doctor as much--and when they do, it can be a bit awkward to get advice. Teens often don't like their parents to talk about them, and frequently doctors meet alone with teens (which is good and important). 

So come ask your questions! I'm here to help, and will have lots of useful links to share! Follow the chat at #bewellchat at 1pm on Tuesday, September 10th, 2013.

Use of e-cigarettes has doubled in middle and high school!

Posted by Dr. Claire McCarthy September 9, 2013 12:07 PM
ecig 2.jpgAbout a month ago, I wrote a post about how there is no such thing as safe tobacco, based on a study showing that while cigarette smoking was down, the use of other kinds of tobacco among youth was not going down. In the post, I said that I was worried about the new battery-operated cigarettes, or e-cigarettes--because they glamorize smoking and make it seem safe and could end up increasing smoking among youth.

I was right to be worried.

Just last week the Centers for Disease Control released a really alarming report. They said that use of electronic cigarettes among youth has doubled in just one year. Doubled. Parents, take notice.

In case you haven't heard about them, e-cigarettes are battery-operated devices that look like cigarettes and give off a vapor when you "smoke" them. Some have nicotine in the vapor, others just use flavored vapor.

In 2011, 4.7 percent of high school students had ever used an e-cigarette. In 2012, that had jumped to 10 percent. The majority (76 percent) of those who use e-cigarettes also use regular cigarettes; while theoretically e-cigarettes could be used as a quitting strategy, I doubt that's how youth are using them. I think that they move back and forth between them, which means that e-cigarettes could be reinforcing the regular cigarette habit.

Experts worry, too, that those who only use e-cigarettes may start using the ones with tobacco. If they use the kind with nicotine they may become addicted--and if the battery runs out, or they leave the e-cigarette at home, they may reach for the tobacco kind. Even if they use the kind without nicotine, e-cigarettes glamorize and normalize cigarette use in a way that can be dangerous for impressionable teens, especially the young ones.

Currently, the sale of e-cigarettes is pretty much unregulated. The Food and Drug Administration says that they are going to change this, but that might not happen quickly. It doesn't help that the vapors come in flavors like bubble gum and chocolate. Talk about marketing to youth.

Until there are some regulations, it's up to parents and others who work or live with youth. Talk to them about e-cigarettes, Help them understand the risks. If you are a parent, be as strict about e-cigarettes as you would be about any other kind of tobacco (hopefully you are being strict and have rules against tobacco). Talk about the marketing, help them see how they are being manipulated.

Please: help get the message out that there is no such thing as a safe cigarette.

Stuttering in preschool: a good thing?

Posted by Dr. Claire McCarthy September 6, 2013 01:44 PM
Thumbnail image for preschooler.jpgIf there's anything that freaks the parents of preschoolers out, it's stuttering. When kids start stuttering, parents start worrying that kids will make fun of them and they will be behind in school and have emotional problems.

A new study published recently in the journal Pediatrics suggests that just the opposite might be true. 

Researchers in Australia studied more than 1600 preschoolers. They found that quite a lot of them did (11.2%), and that over the 12 months they studied them, very few of them stopped. Boys were more likely to stutter than girls, as were twins and the children of college-educated mothers. 

But stuttering didn't cause the children any social or emotional problems--and here's what was really interesting: the kids who stuttered were a bit healthier and had stronger language skills and nonverbal skills!

That doesn't mean that stuttering is never a problem. Parents should always let their doctors know about it, and should definitely seek help if their child:
  • Is still stuttering at age 5
  • Is getting worse (at any age)
  • Is upset by the stuttering
  • Is avoiding talking
  • Has other trouble talking besides stuttering
  • Has other behavioral or developmental problems
But the study should reassure the parents of preschoolers, especially since the majority of children who stutter at that age will stop. In the meantime, along with not worrying about it parents should do their best not to make their child self-conscious. Be patient and attentive, let the child get the words out. Don't correct them or make them repeat words, as that likely won't help. Model speaking slowly to your child, and try to avoid making them talk in situations when they are likely to stutter; try to encourage speech when things are calm and quiet if possible.

Is there something you'd like me to write about? Leave me a message on my Facebook page--and "like" the page for links to all my MD Mama blogs as well as my blogs on Thriving and Huffington Post. 

What’s up with the US and maternity leave?

Posted by Dr. Claire McCarthy September 3, 2013 06:37 AM
pregnant mother.jpg

I was 9 months pregnant on Labor Day of 2005, and we joked about how funny it would be if I went into labor on Labor Day (I didn’t).  Maybe because of that, on Labor Day I always think about working mothers—especially those who have just given birth. 

My med school classmate Jody Heymann, who is dean of the Fielding School of Public Health at UCLA, put together a jaw-dropping map of maternity leave policies around the world. I say jaw-dropping because of the 188 countries that have known maternity policies, the United States is one of only 8 that don’t have paid leave. We stand with Suriname, Liberia, Palau, Papua New Guinea, Nauru, Western Samoa and Tonga in our assertion that we don’t need to support new mothers in those weeks after they bring a child into the world.  

My friend Katherine Clark and I talk about this a lot. She and I have been friends for years, since her days on the School Committee in my town. She’s one of those people who doesn’t just get mad about the way things are—she does something to change them. That’s why she became a state rep, and then a state senator, and now she’s running for Congress.  If you’re not part of the solution, she says, you are part of the problem.

I couldn’t agree more.

When it comes to working mothers, we really do have a problem. Yes, there’s the Family Medical Leave Act, or FMLA (which turns 20 this year), that allows workers up to 12 weeks of leave to when they are sick, have a new baby, or to take care of a family member. But….you have to be a full-time employee, and work for a business with at least 50 employees, for FMLA to apply to you. That leaves a lot of women out.  Oh—and it’s unpaid. Even with scrimping and saving, going without a salary is really hard for families with children, especially when they have to pay for childcare.

I fill out FMLA forms all the time, usually for families whose children have health problems like asthma.  And although they don’t get paid when they take time off, they are the lucky ones, because their job is protected. I’ve seen so many other parents, usually mothers, lose their jobs because of one too many absences to care a sick child—or because they need more time to care for a fragile newborn.  And I’ve seen families make choices that aren’t good for their children—like sending them to school sick, or going back to work far too quickly after giving birth—so that they can keep their jobs. 

We want to be the richest and most powerful country in the world. But do we really want to do it at the expense of our families? Right now, according to UNICEF the US ranks 26th out of the 29 "rich" countries when it comes to child well-being. Come on, folks. That's just not okay.

“This shouldn’t be a political issue,” Katherine said to me recently. “This is about valuing families. The least we can do is make it a little easier for workers to take care of their families without losing their jobs.”

But sadly, it is political. There is some legislation she supports, the Healthy Families Act, that would allow workers to accrue up to 7 days of paid sick leave a year. While it’s a step in the right direction, since many people don’t have even that, 7 days is obviously not a maternity leave—and with kids you can go through 7 days pretty darn fast. Katherine also told me about legislation that's been drafted by the National Partnership for Women and Families that would give workers up to 12 weeks of paid leave at very little cost to workers or employers.

See, that’s the thing: this doesn’t have to cost us a lot of money. We can figure this out. If all those other countries figured it out, I'm sure we can. It’s worth doing—not just because it’s the right thing to do, but because paid leave makes economic sense. It lowers health care costs as well as recruitment and retention costs—and gives families more money to put back into the economy.

So this year, instead of thinking of Labor Day just as the end of summer, let’s think of it as a turning point: the point at which we begin to fight for real change for families. Let’s join with Katherine Clark and the others who want to make life better for working parents and their children.

Let’s be part of the solution. 

Is there something you'd like me to write about? Leave me a message on my Facebook page--and "like" the page for links to all my MD Mama blogs as well as my blogs on Thriving and Huffington Post. 

About MD Mama

Claire McCarthy, M.D., is a pediatrician and Medical Communications Editor at Boston Children's Hospital . An assistant professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School and a senior editor for Harvard More »

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On Deck

TEDx Beacon Street


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