The debate was about sunscreen and the stakes were high. As a parent, I asked, is it more responsible to slather chemicals onto your child’s skin or to leave them unguarded and at risk of sunburn? Skin cancer rates were only going up, after all, so who could say if sunscreen was really working. Plus, I’d read something casting doubts on sunscreen safety. When I expressed my worry, another forum member – one without children – cast me as an overly paranoid mother whose children would grow up in shadows while I dithered about safety. (She may remember it differently.)

Being responsible for the welfare of another person, especially a helpless one, is hard in about a million different ways. When I had my first child, doctors were still in the habit of doling out antibiotics at the drop of a hat. It was only my attention to “alternative” lifestyle magazines such as Vegetarian Times that gave me pause about such things. As a result, I learned the difference between viral and bacterial infections and, thus emboldened, questioned my doctor when she wanted to give my daughter amoxicillin for a cold. And guess what? Us paranoid parents turned out to be justified.

Playing on parents’ fears is big business whether it’s what to do or what not to do. I rocked a friend’s newborn to sleep recently and realized I had no idea how to put her in her crib? Are they sleeping on their backs now? Or sides? Bellies?

I thought about all this when I read Ryan Burns’ recent story on how Humboldt County is under-vaccinated. (Or, to be more precise, I thought about all this after I linked the post on my Facebook page with a semi-snarky comment about, “Oh, look, facts.” This is an attempt at a more thoughtful follow-up.)

In the course of my 24 years of parenting, I’ve experienced all kinds of advice evolve and sometimes circle back around. Food trends, for example, switched from multi-grain to gluten-free and now possibly back – and recent studies suggest gluten may be a scapegoat no longer. What to feed your family is one of the most significant decisions a parent makes and I made sure the foods in our home were of the most wholesome and nutritious variety – but if I’d had kids five years ago, I’d never have made all those pancakes. Now that the gluten-free mania has been largely discredited, maybe it’s okay to bust the griddle out once more. Who can tell? It’s a challenge to keep up, much less know which sources to place one’s faith in.

Health advice from 60 years ago is dramatically different from that of a decade ago, which is often different from what’s in the news today. The medical establishment has a spotty history. From the Victorian era, when doctors recommended morphine-containing “soothing syrups” for cranky babies to 1950s instances of doctors endorsing cigarettes as a useful way for expectant mothers to relax to continuing to overprescribe antibiotics, it’s obvious that a medical degree is no guarantee of infallibility. Add in the well-documented greed of large pharmaceutical companies and no wonder parents are skeptical about injecting their babies with compounds beyond their understanding.

But in some cases, the skepticism has swung beyond the science. Now, I admit, I wasn’t swayed by the chicken pox vaccine. I was initially suspicious of the HPV vaccine because it was new and because our health care system is so jacked up that it makes trusting companies involved in it impossible. To not question belies a naivety no parent wants to be guilty of. But when it comes to whooping cough, polio, measles? Those are awful diseases that we have no reason to allow back into circulation. Questioning vaccines, other health advice, everything, is justified – we owe it to our kids to make the most informed decisions possible. Ultimately, the hope is, those decisions will be the right ones, and by “right,” I mean the ones most rooted in truly accurate facts. Good luck, parents of the world.