Babies and X-Rays -- Should You Be Worried?

X-rays are increasingly common for children -- but most of the time, they don’t need their entire bodies blasted with radiation from the machines. The more baby gets exposed to radiation, the higher baby's risk of cancer.

The New York Times just did a big story on newborns in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) at Downstate Medical Center in Brooklyn, N.Y., many of whom were blasted with too-high amounts of radiation by technicians. The article reported that some babies were given as many as 10 unnecessary, full-body X-rays.

The infants were supposed to have one X-ray of one body part, such as the chest, and have the rest of the body covered with a protective lead apron. Now the hospital -- and the training and certification of radiology technicians -- is being scrutinized. What the Downstate Medical Center techs did made headlines partially because children in general are more vulnerable to the negative effects of radiation. It’s not only because their bodies are smaller, it’s also because their cells divide faster than in adults.

We asked Dr. Jennifer Shu, a pediatrician and co-author of Heading Home with Your Newborn, for advice on how to prevent your baby from being exposed to too much radiation. Her tips:

Be vigilant. Double check that your child will not receive unnecessary radiation on parts of the body that do not need to be imaged.

Ask about alternatives.
Ask if an ultrasound or MRI -- instead of an X-ray or CT scan -- would provide the information needed.

“Sometimes simply bringing more attention to the matter will remind techs to cone [or limit] the image or cover sensitive parts of the body,” she says. But also know that, “in many cases in the NICU, having an X-ray of both the chest and abdomen can provide valuable information about a baby's medical condition” so it's all about balancing benefit and risk.

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