Luke Voytas is a pediatrician and author in Portland, Oregon. His posts combine research and common sense to help parents be calm and confident in raising their kids.

Be Aware of Your Placebo Effect

Be Aware of Your Placebo Effect

The placebo effect occurs when you use a treatment that (unknown to you) has no proven benefit but you still experience an improvement in symptoms. I think it’s important to understand this phenomenon and how it relates to your child’s health. Your brain is really powerful, and when it expects something to work, it’s often going to trick you into believing that it is working. The placebo effect is everywhere. When you give your one-month-old some gripe water for colic, you’ll probably feel like it’s reducing her fussiness (it’s not). When you rub some menthol ointment on your child’s chest when she has a cold, you’ll probably feel like she sleeps a bit better (she won’t). These are not necessarily bad things--if the placebo isn't harmful, feeling better about helping your child is great.

I make use of the placebo effect as a doctor too. When I tell you to use a humidifier for your toddler’s cold, maybe it will prevent snot from hardening in his nose, but helping you to feel that you’re helping him is probably a bigger benefit. I have to keep in mind that if I start a medicine for your baby’s bad reflux, you’ll probably feel like it is helping even though studies show it doesn’t. When I'm treating someone with a medicine for depression, I’m counting on the placebo effect to help them start feeling better weeks before the medicine is at an adequate dose.

Good studies are “placebo-controlled,” which means that they compare the treatment they’re studying with a placebo that looks the same. Then researchers can say with more confidence that a benefit is due to the treatment itself and not just the placebo effect.

But realize that people can take advantage of this placebo effect and your desire to find a solution. This is a good place to apply healthy cynicism. If you use expensive essential oils on your kid’s tummy when he has a stomach virus, you’re likely to believe that they helped him get better within a few days (when in reality, the virus has just run its course). A chiropractor might recommend weekly (and expensive) craniosacral therapy to treat your newborn’s colic, and your investment will probably make you perceive that it’s helping despite absolutely no good evidence that it does. A medical provider at an urgent care might suggest treating your child’s four-day cold virus with an antibiotic, and you might notice that he starts to get better a few days after that. But now if he truly needs antibiotics in the future they might not work as well.

In short, try to weigh the benefits against any potential “harm” before starting a course of action. You can also control your own “placebo effect” in two ways: by distinguishing good evidence from bad evidence, and by being consciously aware of how your brain wants to believe the results you’re expecting.

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