How to get rid of lice and more.

Health and medicine explained.
Nov. 1 2005 12:48 PM

Your Health This Month

How to get rid of lice and stave off the avian flu. Plus, Spiesel's Third Law of Pediatrics.

This month, Sydney Spiesel discusses toilet training, getting rid of lice, preventing liver cancer in Africa, staving off the avian flu, and the drawbacks of antibacterial soap. (Click here and here for the October and September roundups.)

Toilet Training: Spiesel's Third Law of Pediatrics


State of the Science: This month's health news featured The Return of 19th-Century Toilet Training. The past era's steely core (rigid control of a child's bodily functions) now comes wrapped in velvet (it'll be done warmly and lovingly). Potty training isn't training at all—it's just freedom from diapers.

Theory:Slate's Emily Bazelon has already pointed out some of the downsides of the diaper-free movement. This seems a perfect opportunity to introduce my (as yet unproven but common-sensel) Third Law of Pediatrics: The average age of toilet training around the world is directly proportional to latitude. The farther kids live from the equator, the slower they are in general to toilet train. Cold weather to the north or far south means more layers of clothes, and more clothes makes it harder for children to deal with toileting independently. They need to get a parent's attention, and then that parent has to hike them into the john (please, no letters from all you thoughtlessly named Johns). Confronted with this sequence a few times, most kids quickly conclude that it's not worth the trouble and then must be talked down from that stance.

Tip: The corollary to my Third Law (frankly more useful than the law itself, though not in November) is this: Toilet train in the summer. If it's at all possible, let your kid run around naked in the backyard. After a week or two of running around without a wet diaper, most kids are powerfully motivated and no coaching is needed. In the United States, the right moment for most kids seems to be around the age of 2½. As Chinese parents have learned, clothing that facilitates independence can uncouple toilet training from latitude.

Bonus Tip: In the war between the generations, it's best if children never learn that they have the atom bomb. Be low-key, patient, and nonintrusive as you gently facilitate your child's acquisition of this skill.

Lice: How to get rid of them

Disclaimer: I once almost had a vested interest in the subject that follows. Alas, it was not to be … more on that below.

State of the Pest: The height of fall means football season for some but head lice season for many parents. Yuck! As the weather turns, children come indoors, crowd together, and share pillows and hats and hairbrushes. Which means that soon they're also sharing an extremely annoying though completely harmless external parasite. The head louse, unlike its cousin the body louse, never carries any human illness. It just makes you itch and itch.

If you've spotted a louse, that pretty much guarantees there are more in hiding. The bugs have largely become resistant to all the chemicals—"pediculocides"—incorporated in treatment shampoos and rinses. So are their eggs, called "nits." Because the nits firmly cement themselves to individual hairs, and because hairs are firmly attached to scalps, nits rarely pass from person to person. But they can keep an infection going once it starts.

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