Should I panic about this? A 6-question guide.

Most days we can’t eat at our dining room table because it is covered by a marble racing course. Today we can’t eat at our dining room table because it is covered in food.

Most days we can’t eat at our dining room table because it is covered by a marble racing course. Today we can’t eat at our dining room table because it is covered in food.

Few things keep me up at night, but that’s only because lots of things wake me up at 4 am.

Right now it’s the structural racism, the global pandemic, and the fear for all the people out protesting the structural racism during the global pandemic. There’s that noise near the ceiling or that noise in the basement or that lack of noise from my son’s room. There’s the writing I didn’t do yesterday and what to make for dinner today. There used to be having said the wrong thing at a party, which has been replaced by having said the wrong thing in the 10-15 second exchanges I have with delivery drivers. One early morning a few weeks ago, after telling our neighbor of little driveway that he was welcome to park extra cars in our too-big one, I worried that our other neighbors might think that we were violating social distancing guidelines. Then I worried about whether we should violate those same guidelines to join our city’s protest on police brutality.

Given how much I’ve been worrying lately, I’m not surprised that I’ve seen a lot more worriers finding their way to snackdinner. The main question that brings them here? “My baby ate a Honey Nut Cheerio. What should I do?

Unless you fear running out of the breakfast that your child can make himself so that you can get some writing done, cereal should rank pretty low on the list of worries during a global pandemic. And yet, my take on Honey Nut Cheerios, already the most-read piece on snackdinner, has seen even more traffic than usual during the last three months. Maybe it’s that more parents are working from home and therefore have more time to panic-google. Or maybe they’re panic-googling just as much as usual, but choosing to channel their energy into small and solvable problems. We can’t protect our kids from all the huge and terrifying things going on, but maybe we can keep the Honey Nut Cheerios out of their hands.

I can’t solve the big problems, but I can help you shift a few lesser worries of your plate—or bowl, in the case of the Honey Nut. One way I’ve found to tamp down my panic is to ask questions that generate specific and reassuring answers.

My goal isn’t to get you to stop worrying, because, as the great Nora Ephron said of parenting, “the worrying is forever.” But the worrying is not synonymous with good parenting, especially if you’re waking to cereal panic. So here’s a Snackdinner Guide to Panicking: six questions you can ask to decide whether or not you need to worry about something.

Is there a bad thing?

Let’s assume that you have a baby and that baby has just eaten a Honey Nut Cheerio. A good general rule is to look at your kid before you look at the internet, because googling is a bit like saying “Beetlejuice” or ‘Voldemort”: when you search for a problem, you create it.

So let’s assume that you’ve looked at your baby and the baby looks fine, perhaps more than fine given that first taste of the world’s favorite cereal. There is no bad thing. Until, of course, you google “is it safe for babies to eat honey nut cheerios” and all the articles about infant botulism. Even though there is no actual bad thing in your case, it feels like you have courted death, which should lead you to ask:

How bad is the bad thing?

In many cases, if the bad thing is a truly bad thing, you’ll probably have had to start dealing with it before you started googling, or are googling from the passenger seat on the way to the hospital.

If you’re not doing either of those things, you have time to research, and can find that while infant botulism is only fatal in about 1-in-100 cases, it leads to lengthy hospital stays in many more. So even though there probably wasn’t any cause for initial concern, you’re tempted to read a lot of pages about cereal-acquired botulism. Here’s where it would help to move on to another question:

How likely is the bad thing?

To find out how likely a bad thing is, you need a denominator. If it’s been a while since math class, that’s the bottom part of the fraction. News stories tend to make a big deal out of the numerator (X kids choked on grapes! Y kids injured by ride-on toys! Z kids irreparably harmed by fidget spinners!). Filling in the denominator can often make a scary news story much less so.

For many infant-safety questions, a good denominator to start with is 4 million, which is a rough estimate of the number of babies born in the United States each year. (It’s more like 3.85 million, but a little rounding is okay when you’re dealing with huge numbers). Infant botulism is extremely rare, with just 150 cases recorded in 2016, and about 20% of those cases are tied to honey. A little quick math tells us that approximately 30 infants suffered from honey-related botulism in 2016. You can express this number in lots of ways: 30-in-4,000,000 (thirty in four million), 3-in-400,000 (three in four hundred thousand), or .00075%.

That’s an unfair bit of math because you’ve presumed that the 4 million babies are all exposed to honey. To find out how likely infant botulism is, we’d need to know more about the honey-eating population. How many babies eat honey? What percentage of those babies get sick?

If only 200 babies in the U.S. consumed honey and 30 of them suffered from infant botulism, that would be a great argument for avoiding honey. If 4 million babies consumed honey and 30 of them suffered infant botulism, it still might be reasonable to avoid honey—no baby needs it—but the risk of contracting infant botulism from honey would be extremely rare.

Until we have that denominator, we can’t know how likely honey-acquired infant botulism is. In the absence of good data on the likelihood of possible danger, we can ask a different question:

What causes the bad thing?

If you’ve identified a possibly bad thing that may or may not be happening to your child, one way to stop panicking is to research the causes, because in many cases, you’ll realize those causes were absent in your situation.

Botulism typically occurs in two ways: ingesting preformed botulinum toxin or ingesting Clostridium botulinum spores. Those spores are generally harmless to older children and adults but pose danger in those with immature or compromised intestines. That’s why honey, which can contain the botulinum spores, is not recommended for infants.

Being an infant does not cause botulism, but being an infant is a prerequisite for infant botulism. A baby happily snacking away on Honey Nut Cheerios is already is likely already out of the at-risk category for infant botulism, which is generally under age six months.

But let’s say your hypothetical baby is an early-to-solid-foods five-month-old, and you’re wondering if a Honey Nut Cheerio could cause infant botulism. The question you need to ask is whether or not Clostridium botulinum spores can withstand the heat and pressure of commercial food processing.

Searching for causes was a good idea because it took you away from all those panicky infant botulism articles and carried you to the history of puffing guns for manufacturing cereal, where you’ll learn that the very device that essentially created the cereal aisle uses temperatures and pressures high enough to kill Clostridium botulinum spores.

While infant botulism is real, processed breakfast cereals most likely aren’t going to cause it. The fact that so many people appear to be cautioning against honey-containing breakfast cereals should lead you to a new question:

Who says the bad thing is a bad thing?

A lot of writers want you to panic. Their motives needn’t be nefarious. They may be parents who have won the world’s worst lottery and experienced a rare trauma, and in their attempts to help others end up unnecessarily panicking them. They may be well-meaning writers who want to attract more eyeballs to their work and so punch up the drama. They may, however, have a strong perspective against processed food or a strong love for rival cereal companies. Or maybe they’re representative of some big agave nectar firm.

Any website—including this one—has a vested interest in getting you to read it, so I’m not going to tell you not to read the internet. But you should ask who wrote an article and why they wrote it. Ask who sponsors a website and how that sponsorship influences the writer’s claims. You might also pay attention to the number of advertisements you encounter while scrolling through a piece. Many websites rely on advertiser content to survive, but If the website is plastered with advertisements and requires you to click through to multiple pages to finish a short article, know that they have a financial incentive to keep you panicking.

Asking these first five questions helped you learn that your hypothetical baby does not have infant botulism because the temperature and required to make Honey Nut Cheerios kill the Clostridium botulinum spores that cause infant botulism and because most eaters of Honey Nut Cheerios are already past the at-risk age for infant botulism.

The first five questions often reveal that there’s little cause for panic, because either everything is already fine, will soon be fine, or is most definitely NOT fine and panic will not help you deal with a crisis. But if you’ve answered the first five questions and they still haven’t helped ease your panic, try one more question:

Why am I asking about this thing?

Maybe you’re asking about Honey Nut Cheerios because you want an excuse to be mad at someone for reasons entirely unrelated to cereal consumption, say, an in-law or other caregiver who defied your solid food instructions. Even despite evidence that everything is fine, you’re spinning out scenarios about how it might not have been fine to justify your anger. If this is the case, maybe go cool off by watching this old ad about the cereal “shot from guns!”